First Black

Harvard Picks New President, a Dean 

Harvard University said  on Thursday that its new president would be Dr. Claudine Gay, the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  

She will be the first Black leader of Harvard, and the second woman to hold the position, succeeding Lawrence S. Bacow.

Dr. Gay will take office in July, just as the university faces a pivotal Supreme Court decision that may force it to revise its long-standing admissions processes, which have been criticized for considering factors that favor white and wealthy candidates while also using affirmative action to bolster enrollment by Black and Hispanic students.

As a proponent of increased diversity in hiring, as well as an expert on minority representation and political participation in government, Dr. Gay may be ideally suited to the task, supporters said.

“Claudine is a remarkable leader who is profoundly devoted to sustaining and enhancing Harvard’s academic excellence,” said Penny Pritzker, the chair of the presidential search committee.

Harvard made “academic history” with the announcement, said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research.

“This is a victory for diversity and excellence,” he said in an email.

“Claudine has proven herself a first-class academic leader as well as a rigorous scholar in her own right,” Dr. Gates added.  “And under her leadership, Harvard will continue to be a model in upholding the highest standards of academic excellence, advancing the frontiers of knowledge while also advancing strategies of inclusion.”

Dr. Gay has been a professor of government and of African and African-American studies at Harvard since 2006.  Her scholarship has explored how the election of minority officeholders affects citizens’ perception of government, cooperation between  minority groups and how housing mobility programs affect political participation for the poor, according to a biography on the university’s website.

To a standing ovation on Thursday afternoon, Dr. Gay reintroduced herself to the Harvard  community, the place where she started as a graduate student three decades ago, lugging a futon and a cast-iron skillet to fry plantains into Haskins Hall.

“That Claudine could have not possibly imagined her path would lead here,” she said.

Originally from New York, Dr. Gay, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said her parents had put themselves through college with very little money.  Her mother became a registered nurse and her father a civil engineer–careers made possible, she said, by the City College of New York.

“My parents believed that education opens every door, but of course they gave me three options: I could become an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer, which I’m sure that other kids of immigrant parents could relate to,” she said.  “Becoming an academic was not what my parents had in mind.”
The president-elect grew up partly in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked for the U.S Army Corps of Engineers.  She is a 1988 graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, where she served as a trustee.

Before joining Harvard’s faculty in 2006, Dr. Gay was an assistant professor and associate professor of political science at Standard University, where she earned a bachelor’s in economics.  She earned her doctorate from Harvard in 1998.

Her tenure as den has not been without controversy.  This year, several dozen Harvard professors, including some of the university’s most prominent, signed an open letter to Dr. Gay following the decision to discipline John L. Comaroff, a professor of African-American Studies and Anthropology.  He had been placed on academic leave following allegations of sexual misconduct.

An investigation by the university found Dr. Comaroff had engaged in verbal conduct that violated university policies, but it did not confirm claims of unwanted sexual contact.  A lawsuit against the university was filed by three women who said they were victims.

Dr. Gay has also been in the center of a controversy over the 2019 decision to deny tenure to Lorgia Garcia Pena, a professor of Romance language and literature.

The decision led more than 100 faculty members to write letters of protest, citing concerns that professors of color–Dr. Garcia Pena is both Black and Latina–were discriminated against in tenure cases.

A review ordered by Dr. Gay upheld the decision in October 2021.  Dr. Garcia Pena was just appointed professor at Princeton.

The selection of Dr. Gay was the product of a large-scale search that generated more than 600 nominations and included more than 20 committee meetings, Ms. Pritzker said.  The search committee was composed of members of the university’s governing boards, the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers.

The Supreme Court is set to rule, most likely in June, in a lawsuit filed against Harvard in 2014 by the anti-affirmative action organization students for Fair Admissions.

The case challenges the school’s use of “boosts” to increase the racial diversity of its classes.

With many legal experts predicting that the court, with its conservative supermajority, will overturn decades of precedent to rule against the use of affirmative action, Dr. Gay recently told The Harvard Crimson that the college would remain “unwavering in our commitment to building and nurturing a diverse and vibrant campus community.”

Exactly how the school will achieve that is not clear, but it could require a complete overhaul of Harvard’s admissions process to eliminate not only favoritism bestowed on legacies–the children of alumni–but also boosts for donors and athletes who compete in so-called country club sports.

As she assumes the  college’s reins, Dr. Gay will face other immense challenges.  They range from local opposition to a campus expansion into the Allston-Brighton neighborhood, faculty complaints about increasing workload and criticism of the Legacy of Slavery initiative, a $100 million fund earmarked to make amends for Harvard’s historical abuse of enslaved people.

Critics of the plan have said they are unclear about how exactly the money will be used.

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