From the moment she finished her Ph.D. in Government at Harvard nearly 25 years ago, Claudine Gay was one of the most sought-after young scholars in the country.
Jennifer L. Hochschild, a Princeton politics professor at the time, recalled trying to recruit Gay to the university — only to have Gay choose Stanford instead, where she attained tenure in just five years.
After coming to Harvard, Hochschild got a second chance to persuade Gay to work with her in 2006, when she served on another search committee seeking to hire Gay.
This time, Hochschild succeeded.
Since then, Gay has had a meteoric rise through Harvard’s administration. Within a decade, she was tapped as dean of Social Sciences. Three years later, she was appointed dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Less than five years after that, on Dec. 15, 2022, Gay was selected as the 30th University president.
Gay, 52, will make history on July 1, when she will become the first person of color and only the second woman to lead America’s oldest institution of higher education. But despite Gay’s historic appointment, many of her colleagues and friends say they were unsurprised by her selection to Harvard’s top post.
‘Outstanding From the Beginning’
In many ways, Gay is an insider in the elite academic world, having walked the halls of some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions: Phillips Exeter Academy for high school, Princeton and Stanford for college, and Harvard for graduate school.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Gay was born and raised in New York with her older brother, Sony Gay Jr. After attending the City College of New York, her mother became a registered nurse and her father a civil engineer.
Gay also grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her father, Sony Gay Sr., worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Gay later moved back to the U.S. where she lived in Georgia and Colorado, before attending the elite preparatory high school Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Roxane Gay, Claudine Gay’s first cousin, said she believes the experience of growing up in several countries and cities prepared her cousin for a career of adjusting to new circumstances and challenges.
“When you live abroad you have to learn how to navigate other cultures and you have to learn how to not necessarily assimilate, but adapt,” Roxane Gay said. “If you do that from an early age, that enables you to be able to thrive in almost any situation.”
At Exeter, Claudine Gay competed on the women’s track team and served as director of circulation for the school’s newspaper, the Exonian, before graduating from the school in 1988. Her cousin, Roxane Gay, also attended the school, graduating in 1992. Claudine Gay currently serves as a trustee at Phillips Exeter.
Roxane Gay said her cousin is still the same as her younger self: “Very resolute and badass and confident of her place in the world.”
Claudine Gay first enrolled in Princeton University as an undergraduate, but she transferred to Stanford after her freshman year because she needed a change, according to a 1989 article in the Stanford Daily.
“Princeton is cold, traditional and austere. Stanford has a much more nurturing, humane environment,” Gay told the Stanford Daily. “Everybody at Princeton was already middle-aged. At Stanford people are working but still seem to be having a really good time.”
Gay majored in economics at Stanford and also served as a resident assistant on the second floor of Kimball Hall, an undergraduate dormitory.
Angela E. Rickford and John R. Rickford, who served as Kimball Hall resident fellows at the time, said they received around 100 applications for the position of resident assistant before narrowing it down to 30 people.
During the interview process, the Rickfords individually evaluated each applicant with a letter grade. When they compared notes at the end, both realized they gave an A+ to only one person: Claudine Gay.
“She was outstanding from the beginning,” Angela Rickford said.
Angela Rickford said she remembered being nervous that Gay would decline their offer — despite Kimball Hall being a popular location for resident assistants — because she expected everyone would try to hire Gay.
“I remember saying to John, ‘I don’t think we will get her because if we both independently gave her an A+, then everybody else who is interviewing her is probably going to give her a high grade and she’ll end up having lots of options,’” she said. “But, lucky for us, she did choose us.”
Gay graduated from Stanford in 1992, winning the Anna Laura Myers Prize for best senior thesis in the economics department. She moved to Harvard for graduate school and completed her Ph.D. in 1998, receiving the Toppan Prize for best political science dissertation.
Rising through the Ranks
Taking the podium where Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 had just announced her as the next president, Gay laughed, shook her head, and covered her mouth in disbelief. Gay, the otherwise formal and composed Harvard administrator, was visibly overwhelmed by emotion as she faced the cheering crowd who now recognized her as their future leader.
“This is crazy,” Gay said, laughing.
But many of Gay’s current and former colleagues disagree, pointing to her intellectual talent, leadership abilities, and personality.
Hochschild, who taught several Harvard seminar courses alongside the future president, said Gay’s talent was easily recognizable from the start.
“Since coming out of graduate school — which of course she did here — it’s just been real clear that she is just a very high quality person,” Hochschild said.
Barry R. Weingast, a professor of political science at Stanford, said that Gay stood out among her peers when she started teaching at Stanford University.
“She was not nervous as many assistant professors are,” Weingast said. “She knew where she was going. She knew what she needed to do.”
Gay received “early tenure” at Stanford after publishing several articles that gained widespread recognition before she was poached by Harvard in 2006, according to Weingast.
A scholar of political behavior, Gay has written numerous articles focusing on issues of race and politics in the United States. She has co-edited a book with Hochschild and two other scholars, but she has not authored a book.
“She just thinks very clearly,” Hochschild said. “She has the capacity to hone in on what really matters.”
Ariel White, a former graduate student in the Government Department, said Gay — the chair of her dissertation committee — was a “brilliant scholar” and someone she was lucky to work with.
“She always listens very attentively, and then she asks these very simple-sounding questions that get right to the heart of the matter,” she said. “That was the thing that made me realize, ‘Oh, this is the scholar who I want reading my work and reacting to it and making it better.’”
In 2015, former Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith tapped Gay to serve as dean of Social Sciences.
“Her name came up with lots of fantastic comments by many of her colleagues about the kinds of skills and actions that she’d already been doing simply as a faculty member within the Social Sciences,” he said.
Smith recalled being “severely impressed” by Gay during the hiring process and praised her diligence as dean.
“I loved working with her day in and day out on the issues that would come up,” he said. “When she would come to our meetings, she was always extremely well-prepared, understood the issues that we needed to be talking about when we had difficult problems.”
Three years later, Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow appointed Gay to succeed Smith as FAS dean.
“She is a scholar of uncommon creativity and rigor, with a strong working knowledge of the opportunities and challenges facing the FAS,” Bacow said in a July 2018 press release announcing her appointment. “She radiates a concern for others, and for how what we do here can help improve lives far beyond our walls.”
When Bacow announced in June 2022 that he would step down, Dean of Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey said he immediately knew who Bacow’s successor should be.
“My first thought was that Dean Gay should be our next president,” he said.
‘Receptive Institutional Leader’
As Gay prepares to move from University Hall to Massachusetts Hall, colleagues said they expect intellectual and demographic diversity to be key items on her agenda.
Kelsey highlighted faculty appointments and curriculum changes as important issues for Gay’s tenure.
“She’s been really determined to ensure that we have the faculty we need to meet the challenges and to match the interests of a new generation,” he said. “I think she will continue to do that from Massachusetts Hall.”
During her time as dean of the FAS, Gay worked to bring more ethnic studies scholars to Harvard, hiring three ethnic studies professors last year. In an April 2022 interview, Gay said she supports the creation of an undergraduate concentration in ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration.
Taeku Lee, a Government professor who joined Harvard in 2022 as part of the ethnic studies cluser hire, wrote in an emailed statement that he joined Harvard in large part because of Gay’s “vision for and leadership on the Ethnicity, Indigeneity, and Migration initiative.”
“I am filled with hope for the University and, no surprise, for the future of ethnic studies by her selection as Harvard’s 30th president,” Lee wrote.
As president, Gay will also face a decades-old demand for an ethnic studies department.
Dean of the Social Sciences Lawrence D. Bobo said Gay “fundamentally has bought into the core aspirations” of the push for a department.
“She has worked very hard to build a faculty that is not only more intellectually diverse along these lines, but really demographically more diverse,” he said. “She will certainly, I would expect, continue that as a priority.”
Bobo said he would not be surprised to see the creation of an ethnic studies department during Gay’s tenure, but said that it is “not obvious” to him that a department is “the form it ought to take.”
“There are several options here,” he said. “I want people to be able to sit down and design it knowing that — if they reach consensus on a plan and lay out the intellectual case for it — knowing that they’re going to have a very receptive institutional leader in Claudine Gay.”
Gay also steered the FAS through several scandals related to sexual harassment during her tenure as dean.
In summer 2019, Gay stripped Government professor Jorge I. Domínguez of his emeritus status and disinvited him from the FAS campus after an investigation. Gay also suspended Economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr., who faced accusations of sexually harassing co-workers. In 2021, the school reinstated Fryer’s teaching and research roles.
Following a 2020 Crimson investigation that uncovered allegations of sexual harassment in the Anthropology Department, Gay stripped professor Gary Urton of his emeritus status and sanctioned professor John L. Comaroff for violating the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies.
Harvard faculty also praised Gay’s leadership of the FAS after the Covid-19 pandemic forced students to depart campus in March 2020.
Bobo pointed to a meeting in early March 2020 when Gay informed FAS leadership that campus would be closing and learning would shift online.
“She handled that meeting with extraordinary aplomb and confidence and planfulness,” Bobo said. “Over the months that followed, she exhibited what I can only regard as really exceptional clarity of purpose, steadiness at the helm, and exuded a real confidence that we were going to make a very difficult situation work.”
“She never seemed shaken by the pandemic and the challenges that it posed,” Kelsey said. “She kept the team together.”
Hochschild, who served as the Government Department chair for the first two years of Gay’s tenure as FAS dean, said Gay has “strong views.”
“She’s not shy about expressing them or about wanting to implement them when it was her job to make a decision in her role as dean,” Hochschild said. “But she’s very committed to participation in the process of reaching the right answer.”
Smith described Gay as a “straightforward” person who is “not playing any games.”
“She doesn’t feel the need to hide any aspects of herself, and I don’t see any reason why she would because she has so many strong attributes,” he said.
“You can’t push her around, and I think that’s a fantastic quality,” he added.
When moving into Haskins Hall as a first-year graduate student at Harvard, Gay brought the three things “that seemed most essential to my success at the time,” she said at the December press conference: “A futon, a Mac Classic II, and a cast iron skillet for frying plantains.”
Gay continued to share her love for cooking at Harvard several decades later as a professor.
Hochschild said that Gay would invite their whole class to her house at the end of every year.
“She was the one who organized it and brought in lots and lots of food and made sure that everybody was engaged and talking,” she said.
While Hochschild said Gay was funny and a “very good hostess,” Gay also maintained her classroom persona during these informal gatherings.
“She never loosened up a whole lot, or at least not in broad company,” Hochschild said.
Kelsey said Gay also enjoys going on runs and eating hot lunches, adding that she “does not like a cold buffet.”
White also praised Gay for being a “genuinely warm and caring” mentor despite her hectic schedule.
“She was getting pulled in a million directions,” White said. “But invariably, when I had a meeting on the calendar with her, and I got into her office, she had always read the thing that I had sent her. She had thoughtful comments on it.”
“During that time that we were meeting, it was like I was the only person she had to talk to that day,” White added.
The New Face of Harvard
With degrees from Exeter, Stanford, and Harvard, Gay’s ascension through the ranks of academia seemed almost inevitable. Her cousin, Roxane Gay, recognized this potential in Claudine Gay from a young age.
“I think she was always well-suited for academia,” Roxane Gay said. “She’s always been graciously curious and interested in how things work and how people work and how we can do the business of life better.”
Roxane Gay said she knew her cousin could reach the top in academia if she set her mind on it, adding that she can’t imagine a better person to serve as “the face and the heart of Harvard in the public sphere.”
Bobo said the presidential search committee made the right decision by far.
“I don’t think there was anybody else who was genuinely a close second,” he said. “This was very definitely the right outcome — and an exciting one.”
Roxane Gay also recognized the history behind her cousin’s selection.
“It’s always nice when institutions like Harvard that are so steeped in tradition and steeped in resisting change are able to move forward and be a part of the world as it is, instead of as it once was,” Roxane Gay added.
Lee, the first hire in Claudine Gay’s ethnic studies faculty search, wrote in an emailed statement that Gay is the president that the Harvard student body has “long awaited and rightly deserve.”
“We often tout our students as the future leaders of their communities and of the world, yet the example of far too many in positions of power today is deplorable and demoralizing,” Lee wrote. “So I am also filled with hope for our students, who can now take from Dean Gay as president a shining example of what ethical, impactful leadership can be.”
More than three decades later and thousands of miles away from where they once lived in Kimball Hall together, Angela Rickford said some of Gay’s characteristics have not changed.
“She’s just a winner,” Rickford said. “Always was.”
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.