Claudine Gay Named Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences

President Bacow’s first major appointment

Claudine Gay is the new dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/HPAC

President Lawrence S. Bacow announced this morning that Claudine Gay—Cowett professor of government and of African and African American studies, and dean of social science within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)—will become dean of FAS August 15. She succeeds Michael D. Smith, who announced last March his intention to step down upon the appointment of a successor, concluding 11 years of service that coincided with the presidency of Drew Faust.

As dean of social science, Gay has had budgetary and appointment and promotion authority for slightly more than one-third of the FAS (252 faculty members in social sciences, in a total of 730-plus). She has also been directing the new Inequality in America Initiative, launching an interdisciplinary program of particular scholarly and public interest at the present moment.

In a statement announcing the appointment—his first senior personnel decision since becoming president July 1—Bacow said:

Claudine Gay is an eminent political scientist, an admired teacher and mentor, and an experienced leader with a talent for collaboration and a passion for academic excellence. She is a scholar of uncommon creativity and rigor, with a strong working knowledge of the opportunities and challenges facing the FAS. She radiates a concern for others, and for how what we do here can help improve lives far beyond our walls. I am confident she will lead the FAS with the vitality and the values that characterize universities at their best.

Updated July 24, 8:00 a.m. with the addition of the following two paragraphs:

In his message to the FAS community, Bacow described Gay’s personal qualities in these terms:

She inspires trust. She is broadly curious and eager to engage with new ideas and diverse views. She listens intently and speaks incisively. She relates to people with warmth and ease. She is committed to free expression and robust dialogue across lines of difference and to inclusion as a pillar of Harvard’s strength. She radiates a concern for others—and for how what we do here can help improve lives far beyond our walls. She is someone who elevates every conversation she is part of….

That could well be read as a prospectus for the sort of leaders Bacow intends to appoint generally, and for the characteristics and personal priorities he himself expects to project—a subject explored more fully in Harvard Magazine’s forthcoming portrait of the new president (to be published in the September-October issue and released online in mid August).

Gay said:

It is hard to imagine a more exciting opportunity than to learn from and lead the faculty, staff, and students of the FAS. I am reminded daily that ours is an extraordinary community—diverse, ambitious, and deeply committed to teaching and research excellence. We are all drawn here, each in our own way, by a passion for learning, a search for deeper understandings, and a will to serve the common good. I look forward to working together to advance our shared mission, one never more important than it is now.

The statement noted her scholarly interest in “understanding the political choices of ordinary people and how those choices are shaped by their social, political, and economic environments.” According to her scholarly homepage:

My research interests are in the fields of American political behavior, public opinion, minority politics, and urban and local politics. My research has considered, among other issues, how the election of minority officeholders affects citizens' perceptions of their government and their interest in politics and public affairs; how neighborhood environments shape racial and political attitudes among Black Americans; the roots of competition and cooperation between minority groups, with a particular focus on relations between Black Americans and Latinos; processes of immigrant political incorporation; and the consequences of housing mobility programs for political participation among the poor, drawing on evidence from the Moving To Opportunity demonstration program. 

Gay, like Bacow, is the child of immigrants to the United States—in her case, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, according to the announcement. She grew up in New York and then in Saudi Arabia, where her father, a civil engineer, worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A Stanford graduate (economics), Gay earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1998 (her dissertation is titled, “Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics”).

After holding assistant and associate professorships in political science at Stanford—and holding a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences—she was recruited to Harvard in 2006. In the government department, she served as director of graduate studies from 2010 to 2015, and has been a member of FAS’s General Education committee and of committees associated with Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and Center for American Political Studies. A Radcliffe Institute Fellow during the 2013-14 academic year, she was named to the social-science deanship in 2015 and became Cowett professor the same year.

Dean Smith said of his successor:

Claudine is a thoughtful academic leader who listens generously, delights in the intellectual diversity and energy of our community, and is driven by a deep commitment to our mission of teaching and research excellence and to this institution. She is an inspired choice, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is exceedingly fortunate to have her in this role.

The Dean-Designate’s Views

In a brief conversation this morning, Gay said simply about her appointment, “I’m excited.” Considering the opportunity to assume a leadership position in “such an extraordinary University, and FAS is at the center of that,” she found it “impossible to say no.”

Citing a quarter-century of engagement with the community, dating to the beginning of her graduate studies, she continued, “The work that we do here is more important than ever” to the United States and the world. She listed challenges such as inequality, immigration, climate change, and diversity—many of them, naturally, with strong roots in the social-sciences fields where she has been academically immersed. She also said that the task force on inclusion and belonging was “a call to action” for the leaders of Harvard’s schools, who must figure out “how to make that vision real” in Harvard’s practices, financial priorities, faculty appointments, and student experiences.

As she embarks on her FAS responsibilities—soon, given the limited transition time—Gay said she would draw on what she learned as social-sciences dean; rather than entering with a long agenda, she “prioritized listening,” and would do so now, especially as she familiarizes herself with the parts of FAS she has not worked with in the past. Beyond that, she said, she would be guided by her “value commitments around transparency, equity, and diversity,” while continuing to bring the inequality initiative along, scaling it up, and finding resources to make it sustainable.

As for specific challenges facing FAS, she said she was “encouraged by the new vision” for the General Education curriculum, and by the energy its new faculty director, Jason Mitchell, professor of psychology, and the new dean of undergraduate education, Amanda Claybaugh, bring to the task. There is “a fair amount of work to do over the next year,” she said, but she expects a “robust and compelling” curriculum to begin emerging by the fall of 2019.

What of FAS’s budget constraints? From her experience as social-science dean and director of the inequality initiative, she observed that obviously, “When you have more, you can do more, and when you have less, you have to prioritize.” In the long term, academic initiatives depend on philanthropic support, she said, particularly for an institution like Harvard which is heavily dependent on its endowment and whose endowment returns have been “modest,” as she put it. Within finite resources, the faculty will have to set priorities and make tradeoffs in order to innovate—as she has done during her divisional deanship and in launching the inequality initiative. “The faculty have boundless ambitions,” she said, and the goal is both to support them with resources and, necessarily, to make equitable tradeoffs to enable progress. (FAS’s endowment is, in nominal terms, $15.2 billion, as of June 30, 2017—$1.4 billion less than at the end of fiscal 2008, and in real terms, several billion dollars smaller. In the meantime, the faculty continues to invest in priorities such as undergraduate House renewal, which will likely entail new borrowing of several hundred million dollars. Those pressures have led to holding the size of the faculty nearly constant for the past decade.)

Gay conceded that restraining faculty growth has been “a source of frustration.” But she noted that the faculty’s intellectual renewal has been sustained, in part, by the searches conducted to bring new professors to Harvard to fill openings created by retirements or other departures from Cambridge. As social-science chair, she said, she emphasized “optimizing” every search, and encouraging faculty members to survey their fields constantly, so that when a search is authorized, they are fully prepared to identify, attract, and appoint the most promising new scholarly colleagues. “It works pretty well,” she said.

Harvard’s New-Look Deans

With Gay’s appointment, the University has recently welcomed something of a decanal youth movement. She joins an increasingly diverse group of academic leaders who include Michelle Williams at public health, Bridget Terry Long at education, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin at the Radcliffe Institute.

Like Bacow, Gay has a family story to tell. Both her parents were college-educated, she said, but their view of the connection between higher education, for her and her brother, and career plans was “relatively narrow.” Her broader interests, she said, “at best mystified them and at worst worried them greatly,” but with the guidance of wonderful mentors at Stanford, she was able to “embrace the full potential of the liberal arts,” to open up intellectual space for herself, and to pursue an academic career. In her own advising, she said, and particularly for first-generation and immigrant students, she tries to do the same, without recruiting them into any one academic discipline or path. “I was deeply informed by the experience I had” in the academy, Gay said.

Her experience as a divisional dean, like Bacow’s prior presidential experience at Tufts, also equips her to plunge into leading FAS with a valuable base of knowledge and contacts, even as her responsibilities broaden significantly.

Now, at a moment of heightened public interest in higher education, amid concerns about social opportunity and equity, this scholar of the social sciences will have the broadest possible opportunity to apply the lessons of her academic and managerial experience alongside her Harvard faculty colleagues—and beyond.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg
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