Before Claudine Gay was tapped as Harvard’s first president of color, she had already left her mark on the University’s nearly 400-year history.
Penny S. Pritzker ’81, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, announced Thursday that Gay — who has served as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 2018 — would succeed President Lawrence S. Bacow in July.
Gay will be Harvard’s second female president after former President Drew G. Faust, who led the University from 2007 to 2018.
But Gay is no stranger to breaking barriers. Her appointment as FAS dean by Bacow, less than a month into his tenure as president, made her the first woman and person of color to lead Harvard’s flagship faculty.
Gay, who received a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard in 1998, first joined the faculty as a Government professor in 2006 and rose to the role of dean of the Social Sciences division in 2015.
During remarks at a Thursday reception in the Smith Campus Center, Gay — the daughter of two Haitian immigrants — credited her parents with instilling in her an appreciation for education.
“They came to the U.S. with very little and put themselves through college while raising our family,” Gay said. “College was always the expectation for me. My parents believed that education opens every door.”
Gay’s mother was a nurse, and her father was an engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His work brought Gay to Saudi Arabia, where she spent a portion of her childhood. She now lives in Cambridge with her husband and son.
After graduating in 1988 from Phillips Exeter Academy, a private New Hampshire boarding school where she still serves as a trustee, Gay matriculated at Stanford and received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1992, winning a prize for her senior thesis.
Gay then returned to the East Coast as a graduate student in Harvard’s Government department, “full of excitement.”
“I can’t help but think of a much younger version of myself, a first-year graduate student moving into Haskins Hall, lugging the things that seemed most essential to my success at the time: a futon, a Mac Classic II, and a cast iron skillet for frying plantains,” Gay said Thursday.
“That Claudine could not possibly have imagined that her path would lead here, but I carry forward both her excitement and her belief in the infinite possibility of Harvard,” Gay added.
Once Gay completed her Ph.D. at Harvard — earning the Toppan Prize for best dissertation in political science — she returned to Stanford as a political science professor from 2000 to 2006 before rejoining Harvard’s Government department, now as a professor.
On Thursday, she said Harvard was “where I found my intellectual home.”
“With each leadership role I’ve taken on at Harvard — from dean of Social Science to dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — I’ve been connected to a wider world, to new questions and new possibilities for how through research, through teaching, the world can be better than it is today,” Gay said.
Gay, whose own academic work centers on political participation and the politics of race, established the Inequality in America Initiative in 2017 — a flagship program from her time as dean of Social Sciences.
The initiative, with over 70 affiliated professors, funds and conducts multidisciplinary research into social and economic inequality and includes a postdoctoral program.
As FAS dean, Gay has made strides in the search for ethnic studies scholars at Harvard. In 2022, she hired three ethnic studies professors following decades of calls for the development of an ethnic studies department. Earlier this year, she also announced an expansion of the Inequality in America postdoctoral fellowship from two to four scholars.
Increased scrutiny of the University’s tenure system has also been a feature of her time as FAS dean. After the denial of tenure for former Romance Languages and Literature professor Lorgia García Peña fueled backlash among students, faculty, and scholars, Gay launched a review of the tenure promotion process, which concluded last year. Controversy surrounding the tenure process resurfaced in early 2021 when former professor Cornel R. West ’74 departed Harvard after claiming the University rejected his request to be considered for a tenured position.
During Gay’s tenure, Harvard was roiled by public accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct against high-profile professors. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in early 2018 that former Government professor Jorge I. Dominguez faced sexual harassment allegations from at least 18 women over nearly four decades while rising through the University’s ranks. Gay stripped Dominguez of his emeritus status during her first year as dean.
Months later, she placed Economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr. on administrative leave after Harvard found he violated its sexual harassment policies, and in 2020, accusations arose against Anthropology professors Gary Urton and John L. Comaroff.
Gay stripped Urton of his emeritus status and banned him from the FAS campus and she placed Comaroff on unpaid administrative leave after separate internal investigations found the two men breached Harvard sexual harassment policies. This year, three graduate students sued Harvard for allegedly ignoring and mishandling reports of Comaroff’s behavior.
Comaroff and Fryer have since returned to the classroom.
On Thursday, Gay said she was “grateful beyond words” to have been selected as president.
“As I start my tenure, there’s so much more for me to discover about the institution that I love, and I look forward to doing all of that with our whole community,” she said.
—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.