Claudine Gay had not started her first day as president of Harvard when she selected Hopi E. Hoekstra to serve as the next Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean, the first in a series of consequential appointments that will allow Gay to shape the future of the University for years to come.
Hoekstra’s appointment, one of four dean vacancies Gay inherited as president-elect, mirrored then-University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s decision to elevate Gay to FAS dean in 2018 — one of three dean selections made by Bacow at the start of his tenure.
The searches for Bacow’s two other deans, however, were already near completion by the time he was announced as president, giving Bacow only enough time to meet with the finalists before making his selections.
So when Harvard’s governing boards confirmed Gay as the University’s 30th president in December 2022, concluding the shortest presidential search in nearly 70 years, she was gifted the most valuable asset a university president-elect could ask for: time.
“It’s going to be a busy spring,” Gay told reporters in December after she was introduced as Harvard’s next president. “It’s going to be a busy season of searching.”
With more than six months before officially assuming the presidency, Gay had ample time to lead searches to fill the four looming dean vacancies — including for her successor as FAS dean, one of the University’s most powerful administrative roles.
In February, during Bacow’s first interview with The Crimson after Gay was announced as his successor, he said the selection of the four deans would be Gay’s “ultimate choice.”
“One of the most important things that presidents do is to fill key positions, including deans,” Bacow said.
By the time classes started in early September, Gay had filled three of the four dean vacancies, appointing new leaders at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Harvard Divinity School, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. But before the end of the first week of classes, like a game of whack-a-mole, a new dean vacancy popped up.
Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf announced last week his intention to step down as dean at the end of the academic year, all but assuring that by the end of Gay’s first year as president, at least five of the University’s 15 deans will be her appointees. (Gay is also still in the process of selecting the next School of Public Health dean.)
While the searches have allowed Gay to meet with parts of Harvard that she interacted with less as FAS dean, the first three dean appointments of her presidency suggest she intends to lean heavily on her FAS experience during the start of her tenure.
Gay opted to pick internal candidates for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which is part of the FAS. Hoekstra — a professor of natural sciences who taught a popular foundational biology course — was appointed to helm the FAS, while computer science professor David C. Parkes is set to take over as SEAS dean next month.
But even when Gay selected an external candidate to serve as Divinity School dean, she still landed on an FAS insider.
Marla F. Frederick, who will assume her role as the school’s dean on Jan. 1, spent more than 16 years at Harvard as a professor of African and African American studies and religion in the FAS, before departing for Emory University in 2019.
Gay could get a chance to select several more deans in the near future. Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 and Harvard Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 were both appointed by former University President Drew Gilpin Faust and assumed their posts in 2017.
Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 is also expected to retire before the end of Gay’s presidency, which would hand Gay another critical leadership appointment. In an interview with The Crimson in April, Garber did not reveal details about his career plans.
“I don’t really think about that,” Garber said when asked if he intends to retire soon. “I think about the work we need to do to ensure that the University is in a good place through this transition, and that Claudine Gay’s presidency gets off to the best possible start.”