Claudine Gay, President-Elect

Claudine Gay, president-elect, reacts to crowd ovation December 15, 2022, as her appointment is announced.

For the first time as president-elect, Claudine Gay responds to a rousing welcome on December 15.Photograph by Jonathan Shaw/Harvard Magazine

Claudine Gay—dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) since 2018—will become the thirtieth president of Harvard University on July 1. The announcement of her election by the Harvard Corporation, with the consent of the Board of Overseers, was made on December 15. She will succeed Lawrence S. Bacow, who last June announced his plan to step down at the end of this academic year. The transition promises to be seamless: Bacow appointed Gay dean; accordingly, she has been a member of the president’s academic council, is well acquainted with other Harvard leaders, and is known by governing-board members.

By Harvard’s recent standards, the announcement brings to a swift close a search inaugurated formally on July 7, when Penny Pritzker, the Corporation’s new senior fellow, unveiled the search committee. Faculty and staff advisory committees were not named publicly until August 25 (and the student cohort not until September 22). Unlike the 2017 search—in which Bacow, a Corporation and search committee member, did not emerge as a possibility until mid-December—this time things came together quickly, and the search committee promptly sealed the deal. The early announcement was a pre-Christmas gift of a sort: it affords the president-elect extra time to prepare for her expansive new responsibilities (see below).

It was a day of Crimson firsts: first woman senior fellow, first black president, and first FAS dean appointed president (the deanship was instituted in 1870).

The President-Elect

Claudine Gay, a Stanford graduate in economics, earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1998 for a thesis entitled “Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics.” A scholar of political behavior with a focus on race and politics in the United States, she was assistant and then associate professor of political science at Stanford from 2000 until she was recruited to Harvard in 2006 as a professor of government; subsequently appointed as a professor of African and African American studies in 2007; and named Cowett professor of government in 2015—the year she became dean of social science, overseeing more than one-third of FAS faculty.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Gay has pursued her scholarship as a fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Radcliffe Institute (2013-2014). She currently serves on the boards of the Pew Research Center, Phillips Exeter Academy (where she was a student), and the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

As FAS dean, Gay led her large, multidisciplinary faculty through the pandemic, disseminating long, encouraging messages explaining Harvard’s precautions and processes for maintaining teaching and research in the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She also had to address old business, disciplining several faculty members for sexual harassment or misconduct and making clear the norms for behavior that apply to all members of the community.

Emerging from the pandemic, Gay engaged FAS members broadly in a strategic planning exercise aimed at assuring its financial and intellectual resources; it may fall to her successor to complete that work. Along the way, she has made important appointments, such as a new dean of the division of continuing education (the locus of much of FAS’s online teaching expertise) and a new dean of administration and finance—useful experience for when she moves across the Old Yard from University Hall to Massachusetts Hall.

The Introductory Event

The event introducing the president-elect was held in the contemporary setting of Smith Campus Center’s Harvard Commons: a very different look from the nineteenth-century men’s-club environs of the Thompson Room, in Barker Center, where Presidents Drew Faust and Bacow first appeared. In brisk proceedings beginning at 3:15 p.m., Pritzker and the president-elect spoke for 25 minutes to an enthusiastic crowd of Corporation members, vice presidents, fellow deans, and others—including a beaming Bacow and his wife, Adele Fleet Bacow.

Pritzker, in her capacity as senior fellow and chair of the search, spoke first about Gay, and then about the selection process. She lauded the president-elect as “a remarkable leader,” “a remarkable scholar,” “a remarkable teacher and mentor,” “a bridge-builder,” “a champion of inclusion,” “a beacon of excellence,” and “a terrific human being.”

Amplifying that last point, Pritzker said of the president-to-be, “She’s engaging. Warm. Empathetic. Humane. At once confident and humble. A pleasure to spend time with. Someone with deep integrity. And someone who’s intensely curious. She’s always eager to learn more about fields beyond her own, always interested to learn about other people—their work, their lives, their ideas and aspirations. She leads from values, and those values run deep.”

Of the search, she said, “We have received more than 600 nominations. And we’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with an array of extraordinarily impressive nominees from both inside and outside Harvard. All of us…have learned a great deal from the experience—about Harvard, and about people’s hopes for its future.”

Pritzker concluded by lauding President Bacow: “Larry has done an absolutely superb job leading Harvard in recent years. He has guided Harvard through unprecedented challenges while driving important academic initiatives forward. He has led with wisdom, humanity, humility, and grace. Larry, thanks to you, Harvard and its presidency are poised to move from strength to strength.”

She then introduced Gay, “someone with a deep commitment not just to this University and its people, but to thinking imaginatively about how Harvard and its people can best be a force for good in the world.”

Awaiting the announcement and her time at the lectern, Claudine Gay with her husband, Christopher Afendulis

Photograph by Jonathan Shaw/Harvard Magazine

 

Gay, who stood with her husband, healthcare policy scholar Christopher Afendulis, Ph.D. ’97, near the rear of the room during Pritzker’s remarks, then came forward to speak—first, about her life trajectory and experience in higher education:

My parents are immigrants from Haiti. They…put themselves through college while raising our family: my mom became a registered nurse, and my dad, a civil engineer, and it was the City College of New York that made those careers possible.

College was always the expectation for me. My parents believed that education opens every door. But, of course, they gave me three options—I could be an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer—which I’m sure other kids of immigrant parents can relate to! So…my becoming an academic was not what my parents had in mind. So, my decision to pursue a liberal arts and sciences education was a leap of faith…. But thankfully, my parents supported my choice. And by virtue of that fact, my life’s path took shape.

Attending Stanford as an undergraduate ignited everything for me. That’s where I…experienced firsthand the detective work that is research and learned for the first time that knowledge is created and not just passed on. And it’s where I found what I wanted to do…with my life.

When I was applying to graduate schools, I needed a place where, no matter what I chose to pursue, there was excellence there. That place was Harvard. So it was easy to say “yes” when I had the opportunity first to come back as a professor, and then to serve as a dean.

love this place. Harvard…has nurtured and inspired me since I first set foot in the Yard. I am deeply invested, not only in what Harvard is today, but also in what Harvard’s leadership means for the future.

Turning to her future role, Gay said Harvard’s mission “calls us to take a leap into the unknown, to have the bravery, the drive, the unbridled curiosity to search for answers to the questions that really matter.…”

She envisioned a post-ivory tower institution:

When I imagine Harvard in the years ahead, I see a university that is even more connected to the world. Through our scholarship—the questions we pursue and the partnerships we build to advance and share knowledge; through our educational programs—who’s in the classroom, whether that classroom is on campus or online, and what we’re teaching; and through our public engagement—how we extend Harvard’s extraordinary teaching and research to have an impact on issues that matter.

The idea of the ivory tower is the past, not the future, of academia. We don’t exist outside of society, but as part of it. And that means Harvard has a duty to lean in and engage, and to be in service to the world. Our people, our collections, our research, how we use our convening power in business and law and public policy, for all of that, our commitment must be to openness and engagement.

She concluded her remarks by saying, “I can’t wait to get to work—after the holiday.”

Following the public event, Gay met with reporters, briskly answering questions on the affirmative action lawsuit (too soon to say, but Harvard “will continue to champion diversity”); her public role in moving Harvard beyond the ivory tower (the University will be “engaged with the issues that feel urgent,” such as “the future of democracy”—but she won’t decide on her own public role until she is better acquainted with the parts of the institution she doesn’t yet know well); divestment; and other issues. Reprising her remarks earlier in the afternoon, she said of the University’s challenges that Harvard would “meet that moment the way we always have—stepping into it” and “bringing fresh thinking to the challenges we face.” When asked by the Crimson about a capital campaign, she deftly replied, “I’m going to enjoy my next seven months and then discuss that later.”

The day was done, but the last of Gay’s earlier remarks still echoed in the transformed afternoon: “I can’t wait to get to work.”

The Search and Next Presidency

The political contextWhen Bacow was presented as president-elect in 2018, he and then senior fellow William F. Lee focused on the external environment and threats to higher education. Speaking at a time when the Trump administration dominated public discourse, Lee called Bacow a leader who “clearly sees and is ready to confront the great challenges facing us at a moment when the value of higher education is being questioned, at a moment when the fundamental truth of fact-based inquiry is being questioned and called into doubt.” Citing Bacow’s experience and deep familiarity with Harvard, he continued, “We wanted someone who could hit the ground running, because neither we nor higher education have time to spare.”

For his part, Bacow said, in worry and alarm, that for the first time in his life (a life wholly shaped by the opportunities afforded by higher education), the value of such an education had come into question. After the introductory news conference, he amplified his concern: “This was not an opportunity I sought, but I also realized this was not an opportunity which I could turn away, because of the challenging times we face.”

Now, nearly five years later, the context has changed. Following the pandemic disruptions of education and the change in national administrations, criticisms have largely shifted toward state level, public institutions and issues such as the teaching of critical race theory or the meaning of free speech. The urgency of the moment that figured in the 2017-2018 search thus has somewhat lessened—at least for well-endowed private research institutions like Harvard.

Gay, Harvard’s president-to-be, and President Lawrence S. Bacow, who appointed her FAS dean

Photograph by Jonathan Shaw/Harvard Magazine

 

Accordingly, the search committee may have sought a different kind of leader: someone who could be afforded more time to become acquainted with the institution in all its complexity, and to take more stock of its internal academic opportunities and needs, rather than arriving fully armored for battle against urgent external threats. In Dean Gay, of course, it gets an insider who is capable of assessing where the institution wants to go. If the Corporation were indeed intent on considering Harvard strategically, the moment is doubly favorable because the University’s financial resources are ampler than they have been in a long time.

Crimson finances. Harvard’s internal context has changed for the better, too. When Bacow was elected, the endowment was valued at $37.1 billion. That was barely larger than the sum at the end of fiscal 2008, just before the financial crisis and Great Recession—despite the proceeds from the $9.6-billion Harvard Campaign. In part, that reflected the then-uneven investment record of Harvard Management Company (HMC). But from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2017, University spending increased 40 percent, to $4.9 billion. The endowment-dependent financial model was under strain, limiting investments in scholarship and teaching.

Today, after a complete makeover of HMC, returns are improving, and the historic investment year emerging from the shock of the pandemic pushed the value of the endowment to more than $50 billion (where it remains). Those better endowment returns, continued donor support, deft refinancing of debt to reduce interest costs, renewed federal funding for research, and the unexpected effects of the pandemic on operating expenses have led to recurrent budget surpluses, culminating in $406 million of black ink in fiscal 2022.

Thus, one of Bacow’s bequests to Gay is considerable fiscal running room. The Corporation is being measured about distributing funds from the run-up in the endowment’s value, but the rate of annual increase in the distribution (about 4.5 percent) is more than twice that when he moved into Mass Hall, and on a larger base. That largesse, plus the surpluses, make it much easier for deans to invest in academic programs.

On the Agenda

Given a less threatening political environment and robust finances, what might be on Gay’s agenda?

The leadership. As president, Bacow appointed a new executive vice president and vice presidents for human resources and for information technology. But successor divinity and public health deans need to be appointed, as does a new vice president for finance. Within FAS, the engineering and applied sciences deanship becomes vacant at the end of the academic year, too. All those changes reflect a natural transition, with the incumbents dating from Faust’s administration. Now, the FAS deanship will require attention, as well. It would not be surprising to see other posts turn over, as Gay, assembling her team, considers the provost’s role, her fundraising ambitions, and so on.

Science…and other disciplines. Harvard continues to commit enormous sums to science initiatives, from the quantum science program to climate change and sustainability and research on artificial and natural intelligence. Those programs have attracted robust donor support, but may well require more—as will the labs of newly appointed professors. There is similar interest in basic life sciences and biomedical research, with costs on a similar scale. And always there are relationships to manage with the affiliated hospitals, many of them under financial stress in the wake of the pandemic.

So, the University science enterprise will require lots of attention—as will the humanities and arts, and social sciences, which are not growing and perhaps feel like stepchildren. As FAS dean, Gay has direct experience of most of these fields, so she can perhaps devote more time to exploring the professional schools’ needs and wants.

Diversity. In framing the search on July 7, Penny Pritzker named as a trait for prospective candidates “a commitment to embracing diversity along many dimensions as a source of strength.” Diverse appointments were a hallmark of Bacow’s staff and administration, and he created the position of chief diversity and inclusion officer (the initial appointee, Sherri Ann Charleston, was a member of the staff advisory committee for this search). Harvard’s devotion to such principles and processes, in each school and operating unit, is beyond question. The selection of Gay is emblematic of those values.

And yet, external factors may well intervene. The Supreme Court is deciding the case challenging the College’s consideration of race in admissions. Just as the new University administration takes office next summer, a half-century of admissions practices may become illegal, upending Harvard’s chief means of enrolling a diverse student body. Though any response will nominally be the College’s, Gay might have the opportunity (or the desire) to make a mark early in her presidency by rethinking legacy, faculty, and other admissions preferences. (The College may also face a transition if William R. Fitszsimmons, the long-term dean of admissions and financial aid, who has remained at his post throughout the grinding rigors of the current litigation, decides to call it a career once the Court rules.)

At the same time, Gay will likely want to implement the recommendations of the report on Harvard and the legacy of slavery—a part of coming to terms with its history and current meanings.

Greater Boston. Harvard continues to pursue its plans for Allston: a new American Repertory Theater facility and graduate-student housing, a conference center, and the commercial enterprise research campus scheduled to rise along Western Avenue, opposite the Business School. (Work on the latter may be affected by current high interest rates, local office vacancies, and a large pipeline of life-science labs under construction.) The institutional master plans for Allston and the Longwood Medical Area are both due for renewal and review by Boston authorities this year. Beyond that, Harvard’s new president will want to establish relationships with new peers at Boston University, MIT, and Tufts, and those continuing at the helm of other area academic partners.

Higher education. Although Harvard enjoys enviable strengths, much of higher education is under extreme stress. Enrollments nationwide declined during the pandemic and have not fully recovered, jeopardizing tuition-dependent schools. As noted, the state political context varies widely, too. To the extent that Harvard is a voice for higher education overall, there is plenty of work to do—and much opportunity to be generous.

Over the horizon. The University remains intellectually ambitious—and an expensive place to run. The Harvard Campaign concluded in 2018, and President Bacow, focused on the pandemic and the major projects and programs described above, did not begin to organize a successor campaign. For all its assets, Harvard and its most ardent supporters will inevitably want to define the goals for and launch another significant fund drive to expand research, teaching, and outreach. That could become a major, and possibly defining, task for Gay’s administration.

And looming over the timing of such an effort is 2036: Harvard’s four-hundredth anniversary, and another opportunity to take stock of what the place has accomplished and might aspire to. Any fundraiser worth her salt would love to conclude a stupendous campaign by 2032 or 2033—and then to launch a successor, to supercharge the next Crimson century. In Gay, the University has a leader at age 52 young enough to stay the course, if wanted.

*     *     *

Between now and July 1, expect a series of announcements concerning appointments. Thereafter, one might project more hints of Gay’s emerging agenda—certainly by the time of a gala installation ceremony, most likely early this fall. In the meantime, the holidays now well behind them, the president-elect and her staff have plenty to keep them busy.

For a full account, including Pritzker’s and Gay’s complete remarks and the University announcement, see harvardmag.com/gay-president-22

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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