A Dean’s Adieu

Claudine Gay’s perspective on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, shortly before she becomes Harvard’s president

FAS Dean and President-elect Claudine Gay

During a morning conversation on May 18, Claudine Gay reflected on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) priorities and progress during her service as dean since 2018: aims and accomplishments that can become somewhat overshadowed by the demands of coping with the pandemic and the news of her selection last December to become the University’s thirtieth president on July 1. Her second-floor office in University Hall affords a clear view the few hundred feet west across Harvard Yard to what will be her new quarters in Massachusetts Hall 43 days from now. The transition itself of course looms far larger than that, but Gay—immersed in simultaneously leading FAS and assembling her administration’s new team (with four decanal searches underway)—was characteristically focused and precise when addressing the business at hand.

Even as she admitted she had not had much opportunity for reflection during the past few very busy months, Gay said she took “a lot of pride when I think back about these past five years.” Naturally, that stems in part from addressing the pandemic challenges: sustaining academic priorities (initially through the pivot to remote instruction), maintaining research, protecting community members’ health and safety, and staying “true to our commitments around access and affordability.” Those were the goals she articulated at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. Although not everything turned out perfectly, she said, FAS “got a lot right.” If that were the only outcome of her deanship, she continued, “I would still hold my head high as I walk across the Yard.”

But in fact, much else transpired. From the time of her selection as dean—President Lawrence S. Bacow’s first major appointment—Gay progressively refined an agenda for FAS. During a summer 2021 interview three years into her tenure, she summarized those priorities as “advancing academic excellence,” “innovating in the student experience,” and addressing “culture”: who the faculty are and how they do their work.

Looking back now, she discerned gains in several areas—none of which would have seemed feasible when the pandemic shut down residential operations in March 2020. 

Academic excellence. “Front of mind,” she said, “is the faculty hiring that we managed to sustain.” Appointing and retaining outstanding professors is the work dearest to any FAS dean’s heart: critical to sustaining academic excellence and renewing the intellectual culture. During her deanship, 12 percent of current tenured and tenure-track FAS faculty were appointed.

That’s not an inconsiderable number given two factors. First, 43 percent of faculty members then present when Michael D. Smith stepped down had been appointed during his 11-year deanship, so a lot of renewal had already taken place (and once hired, Harvard faculty members tend to stick around). Second, during the pandemic, Gay had hit what she called the “pause button” on searches, beginning in March 2020—initially out of fear that FAS might face a financial crisis. Hiring resumed late that year: “We went at it with purpose,” Gay said, once the financial picture became clearer and faculty members (who had been preoccupied adapting to online teaching and rejiggering their research) regained sufficient “bandwidth” to engage in the time- and attention-consuming business of defining positions, inviting applications, vetting candidates, and proceeding through FAS’s careful appointment process.

She highlighted two aspects of faculty renewal within the aggregate number of appointments. First, in areas of substantive focus, FAS was able to change its intellectual “trajectory,” she said. By making several appointments in ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration, with considerable support from alumni donors, “We were able to expand our academic footprint” and attain “critical mass” in a field of inquiry, she noted. The faculty is replicating that in the utterly different realm of quantum science and engineering, where a substantial investment is being made in a new doctoral program, research, and facilities. The current search for a group of faculty members expert in climate science and aspects of climate change and sustainability is intended to have similar impact. (More broadly, this kind of cluster hiring, and identifying new priorities for research and teaching, are among the matters being considered in FAS’s larger strategic planning effort, discussed further below.)

Second, and less visible outside FAS itself, Gay cited the large number of faculty members retained in face of offers from other institutions to relocate. “Every hire and every retention feels like a victory,” she said, noting the “intense and competitive academic environment over the last few years,” especially in key fields (no doubt involving some of those listed above, plus areas of rapid growth like computer science).

The resulting composition of the faculty, as affected by appointments and retentions, “feels really important,” Gay said.

Tenure-track faculty. Alongside high-level appointments, she said, “We’ve been doing a lot of work over the past few years about supporting our tenure-track faculty.” FAS’s 723 “ladder faculty” are heavily skewed toward the tenured ranks (581) compared to those who are on the tenure track (142). But the latter are, of course, the scholarly leaders of the future. During the pandemic, Gay noted, FAS acted to keep tenure-track faculty members’ careers from being derailed (for example, giving them more time to complete research critical to their subsequent candidacy for promotion, and more resources to pursue it in face of increased family-care and other needs). That emergency aside, she cited policy changes and investment to make “the experience of being on the tenure track feel more supported, being able to thrive” and to have personal and academic success. Such changes, highlighted in recent dean’s annual reports, include changes in and clearer communication about the process for review and promotion, more emphasis on academic and professional mentoring, and more support for tenure-track faculty members who are parents. The aim, she said, is “investing in this very critical part of our faculty at a time” when such investments are “impactful” for their careers, pandemic or not.

Financial aid. At a time of uncertainty and challenge for families, Gay cited financial aid and continued “progress in making sure that our program remains competitive for the world’s most talented students.” That includes the recent increase in the family-income threshold to qualify for no-cost attendance at Harvard College to $85,000, beginning with the class of 2027 enrolling this August. (That figure was raised from $65,000 to $75,000 in 2022, effective for the class of 2026.) She also pointed to the elimination of a prior summer-earnings requirement, a change made to enable financial-aid recipients more readily to pursue internship or other experiences that might be valuable academically or for their future career aspirations.

Nonetheless, she acknowledged that financial aid, like faculty hiring and retention, remains sharply competitive: Princeton and Stanford have both raised their family-income threshold for free attendance to $100,000. “Those challenges remain in view,” she said. “We remain committed to being competitive and, in the long term, leading the Ivy League in financial aid”—and have set a path to get there. Gay noted that FAS had raised a lot of money to support undergraduate aid: $116 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2022. She deemed that “one of the areas where the power of the Harvard alumni community is utterly revealed,” and a prime reason she felt comfortable in increasing the family-income threshold by those successive $10,000 increments during the past two years: a foundation for her successor to pursue that long-term goal of an Ivy League-leading financial aid program.

Strategic planning. Gay was asked how weathering the pandemic experience changed FAS itself. She engaged 125 professors and staff members in pandemic “scenario planning” to shape the faculty’s response to the crisis. “I always had a lot of confidence in our faculty, not only because they’re brilliant folks,” she said, but because they can and will mobilize their talents to address challenges apart from their own research interests and work. In the pandemic response, she continued, she “saw all the benefits of inviting the faculty in” and tapping their insights into how to meet the urgent challenges. That in turn led to a small strategy group, organized in the fall of 2020, to examine FAS’s long-term financial challenges (“an absolutely fantastic experience,” she said), and thereafter the much more ambitious, all-faculty strategic planning effort now underway. “Inviting the faculty in, being collaborative with them,” she said, “that’s absolutely the MO.” 

As reported, the planning aims to address what Gay called “some of the opportunities open to the FAS if we have the courage to step up to them”: in essence, scrutinizing everything from faculty appointments and productivity to the organization and operation of departments and centers to graduate-student admissions and training, all intended to focus on identifying and pursuing the most important research opportunities. (Other major priorities, like the College experience and teaching, obviously remain important, but they are not the subject of this FAS-wide review.)

The timing of Gay’s transition is dicey: the next major milestone in the review comes in August, when an all-faculty retreat will “take stock of the lessons” learned during the past two years of self-study, she said, with discussion of recommendations and “an opportunity to start making some choices about how we want to move forward.” The success of the effort, she emphasized, “depends on maintaining that strong partnership and collaboration” with faculty members as a whole: a mission that continues with her, but also, of course, with a successor FAS dean.

Without signaling any results before the faculty members deliberate, she said, the planning effort so far had demonstrated that “as overstretched and even tired as our faculty are, when you invite them to participate, they are all in.”

In that sense, the faculty’s timing is propitious: FAS itself, she said, is in very strong financial shape (with more unrestricted funds on hand than in recent decades: dry powder for future academic investments), putting it in position to “assure our mission remains vital and impactful.” She is eager, she said, to see how her successor deploys those resources: “It’s empowering, an opportunity maybe to take some risks”—especially if the strategic planning identifies such priorities.

What lies ahead. Considering FAS’s planning so far, Gay observed, “That says something: (a) invite the faculty in; and (b) they embrace it.” Perhaps one might expect that style to carry over to the larger role of leading the University, when President Gay seeks to encourage and support faculty renewal and pursuit of the most important new fields of inquiry.

Her elevation to the presidency is especially interesting because she is the first FAS dean to be appointed to the job. FAS itself is radically heterogeneous, embracing the entire spectrum of liberal arts and sciences, with diverse means of research and teaching. In that regard, the University, with its largely autonomous schools, looks like a larger version of FAS. A place like Harvard Business School, with its famous case method, covers many realms of management, but with far more similarities among faculty members’ research and classroom teaching than one finds among FAS departments and concentrations.

Gay seems to revel in that. “The variety, the heterogeneity, the diversity—whatever you want to call it: that is what makes it so stimulating to be a part of this community and so satisfying to lead it.” Nothing else in academia looks like the Harvard FAS, she said—a challenge to any dean aiming to support the very best work by faculty members whose interests span theoretical physics and ancient Greek drama, but rewarding to effect. Of course, professors themselves are specialists, “immersed in narrower and narrower communities” of scholarship, she said. But “there is a satisfaction that comes from…denaturalization of your assumptions,” whether through interacting with fellow professors in a faculty-wide plan to realize FAS’s aspirations, or (one imagines) as the leader of such work: a dean, or president.

“I’ve been so busy, there have been very few opportunities to just stop and reflect,” Gay said, “but when I do, I have such an overwhelming sense of gratitude” for the past five years as dean. She could not have imagined such a role a decade ago, before she was appointed social sciences dean, she conceded; now, “I’m hoping it’s been great preparation for the next role. I’ve truly enjoyed the last five years, and hope I’ve learned things that will serve me and the institution well in the next role.”

With searches to complete and an agenda to set, she hasn’t booked much personal time off in coming months, beyond snagging tickets to a summer concert at Gillette Stadium. In the meantime, the community has had a chance to learn some things about its next leader: a self-confessed data-hound (Gay is a quantitative social scientist) who embraces strategy and structure—but, counter to the stereotype, is energized by encounters with dozens of ideas and engagement with literally hundreds of people. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken Harvard this long to figure out the path from University Hall to Massachusetts Hall. 

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg
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