BOSTON — Harvard University announced Thursday that Claudine Gay will become its 30th president, making her the first Black person and the second woman to lead the Ivy League school.
Gay, who is currently a dean at the university and a democracy scholar, will become president July 1. She replaces Lawrence Bacow, who is stepping down and has said he wanted to spend more time with family.
“This is crazy, right?” a beaming Gay said as she was introduced to applause at the Smith campus center. She currently serves as the Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“I am absolutely humbled by the confidence that the governing board has placed in me,” she said. “I am also incredibly humbled by the prospect of succeeding President Bacow and leading this incredible institution.”
A child of Haitian immigrants, Gay is regarded as a leading voice on the issue of American political participation. Among the issues she has explored is how a range of social and economic factors shape political views and voting. She also is the founding chair Harvard’s Inequality in America Initiative, which studies issues like the effects of child poverty and deprivation on educational opportunity and American inequality from a global perspective.
“Claudine is a remarkable leader who is profoundly devoted to sustaining and enhancing Harvard’s academic excellence, to championing both the value and the values of higher education and research, to expanding opportunity, and to strengthening Harvard as a fount of ideas and a force for good in the world,” Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chair of Harvard’s presidential search committee, said in a statement.
In her speech, Gay called for greater collaboration among schools at Harvard and said there was an urgency for the university be more engaged with the world and to “bring bold, brave and pioneering thinking to our greatest challenges.”
“The idea of the ‘ivory tower’ — that is the past not the future of academia. We don’t exist outside of society, but as part of it,” she said. “That means that Harvard has a duty to lean in, engage and to be of service to the world.”
With Gay’s appointment, women will outnumber men as chiefs of the eight Ivy League schools. Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania appointed women earlier this year, joining Brown and Cornell. Columbia, Princeton and Yale are led by men. Drew Faust was the first woman to be president at Harvard. A noted historian of the American South and the Civil War, she stepped down in 2018 after 11 years.
Gay will be the only Black president currently in the Ivy League and the second Black woman ever, following Ruth Simmons, who led Brown University from 2001 to 2012.
Gay’s appointment is remarkable in part because relatively few U.S. universities are led by Black presidents, said Eddie R. Cole, a historian of college presidents and race at the University of California, Los Angeles. Harvard wields outsized influence in higher education, he said, and other universities are bound to take notice.
“At a time when everyone continues to look at Harvard, this presidential hire will arguably be one of the most significant in American higher education for years to come,” Cole said.
As president of Harvard, Gay will shape decisions that can have impact at the local, state and federal level, Cole said. That includes racial issues that the campus has confronted in recent years, including affirmative action and the school’s own history with slavery.
Bacow, who took over as president in 2018, expanded and updated the university’s teaching and research missions and fostered cooperation across disciplines to address issues including climate change and inequality.
Under his leadership, Harvard joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a legal challenge to the Trump administration’s decision to make international students leave the country if they planned on taking classes entirely online in fall 2020 at the height of the pandemic. He criticized the policy for its “cruelty” and “recklessness.”
Harvard also faced challenges during his tenure. The university survived a legal challenge to its admissions policies in U.S. District Court, a case now being weighed by the Supreme Court.
It was also disclosed that disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein visited Harvard’s campus more than 40 times after his 2008 sex crimes conviction — long before Bacow’s tenure — and was even given his own office.
Gay’s early challenges could include fallout from the Supreme Court’s review of the use of race in admissions. The court is weighing challenges to processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, which consider race among many factors when choosing students.
Lower courts have upheld practices at both universities, rejecting claims that they discriminated against Asian American applicants. But in oral arguments this year, the high court’s six conservative justices expressed doubts about the practice, which has been upheld under Supreme Court decisions reaching back to 1978.
Story by Michael Casey.