“The Promise of This New Presidency”

Harvard officially installs Claudine Gay, its thirtieth leader.

Claudine Gay at the podium addresses audience

Courageous in the rain, President Claudine Gay delivers her installation address | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Claudine Gay spent part of the last day of summer and the first day of the fall semester introducing herself to the community she has led since July 1—and in doing so, building a bridge to the aspirations she holds for the University during her presidency.

During the College class of 2027’s convocation, on Labor Day afternoon, she told the newest Harvardians about her sixth-grade agonies upon discovering that her friend Stacey had a middle name—something Gay’s parents had not provided her. They explained their choice in naming her, and said, “Your name is enough”—“a powerful statement,” she continued, “about my inheritance, my identity, and my capacity.” She hoped the first-year students would confront their own doubts and moments of feeling insufficient bearing that lesson in mind: “You have been given a name, and it is all that you need to make a name for yourself.”

The following day, September 5, she opened the term with the first Morning Prayers service in Memorial Church, where she recounted her “very brief career in reality television”: on Romper Room—where, at age five, in August 1975, she was a somewhat wayward participant among the “preschool-aged children singing songs, playing games, and learning lessons with the help of a cheerful and compassionate teacher.” Her riff on childhood curiosity took a turn as Gay recounted finding her Romper Room diploma while sorting through the belongings of her mother, Claudette Gay, who died on May 24, the day before Commencement—making this new semester “my ‘first day of school’ without my mother.” Her path to Morning Prayers, Gay said, was “[p]ropelled by belief in the power of education, the power of curiosity and ideas, the power of attentive and industrious work—instilled in me by my mother and father, nurtured in me by my teachers and my mentors.” Students’ and professors’ Harvard lives, she hoped, would be shaped by the recognition that the University “is not just for her students, not just for the people who are fortunate enough to be considered members of our community. Our reach, our embrace, our obligation is wider than that—and can and should be wider still.” She concluded with a charge for their work here: “Each of us has a hand in deepening the connection between our mission and our society. That connection is what matters to me. And every year brings fresh opportunity to renew that commitment.”

That Crimson connection—from the academy to a world in need of new ideas and hungry for those eager to serve—figured prominently in her remarks last December 15, when Gay was introduced as president-elect. The same idea shaped the intellectual symposiums conducted on campus this morning. With that as prelude, this afternoon’s installation provided the stage and the occasion for Claudine Gay to begin truly shaping Harvard’s direction under its thirtieth president, by laying out her vision for its values—importantly including that commitment to engage with and serve the wider world—as the institution approaches its four-hundredth anniversary (see “Let Us Be Courageous Together” below).

Pomp for the Circumstances

The afternoon installation exercises began with the Harvard Band welcoming the procession of faculty members and others into Tercentenary Theatre—a highlight of such occasions, given the rainbow of academic finery on display (delegates from nearly 200 academic institutions and societies, including robust representation from historically black colleges and universities).

But then there was a surprise: as the president’s party entered, Veronica Leahy ’23 began performing a saxophone summons: her own composition for the occasion. Leahy—composer, multi-instrumentalist, and music director—was a dual graduate of the College and Berklee College of Music. At Harvard, she composed for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals for two seasons, founded the Student Composers Festival, and was music director for the Gilbert & Sullivan Players. For this occasion, she composed both the closing number for the September 28 performances honoring Gayand the opening work for today’s procession, which featured fellow Harvard and Berklee student musicians: no challenge for someone used to juggling studies at two schools and multiple artistic commitments. As Leahy brought the group down the aisle, the other musicians—trumpeters, trombonists, and more sax players planted in the audience—fell into the order of march, making for a celebratory instrumental chorus defining the occasion. The crowd was on notice that a new Harvard era was dawning.

The ceremony proper began with another Crimson composition: “Inauguration Theme and Fanfare,” composed by Williams professor of urban planning and design Jerold Kayden ’75, J.D.-MCRP ’79 (originally for the renovated Harvard Art Museums’ opening in 2014), here performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, conducted by Federico Cortese.

Following a tribal welcome and land acknowledgement by Elizabeth Solomon ’79, A.L.M. 20—director of administration for the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, member of the board of directors and treasurer of the Massachusett-Ponkapoag Tribal Council—Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, rose to give the invocation. He established the tone for the installation by speaking about “a spirit of promise”—especially “the promise of this new presidency”:

As we embark upon this new season, this new year, and this new presidency, I invite you to join me in invoking a spirit of promise.

A promise is an audacious thing, perhaps especially in a time like our own. The future we behold is uncertain at best, as any future must be. But at worst it threatens instability and turmoil. What promise can we call upon in this invocation?

But it is into precisely this future that we invoke promise today and it is in light of exactly this uncertainty that we seek inspiration. Alone among creatures, we humans can make and keep promises. We can anticipate a future stretched out before us but we can also show the boldness to set our stake in that future. Making a promise demands courage, tenacity, and ingenuity. It requires the honesty to assess the challenges before us, but also the creativity to imagine our lives free of them. A promise has the vision to recognize a possible world, and the resilience to make that world so.

As we embark upon this new season, this new year, this new presidency, may these virtues be the hallmarks of our community and of our commitment to one another. May these qualities characterize our work and our scholarship together. May we be filled with courage, tenacity, and ingenuity. May we show honesty, creativity, vision, and resilience. May we be filled with the boldness of our promise, with the promise of this new presidency and new chapter in Harvard’s long history, with the promise of all the good Harvard can do in the world.

May we keep the promises we make here today, in the name of that which makes all things new. Amen.

The subsequent musical interlude—a performance of “America the Beautiful” by solo saxophonist Yosvany Terry, senior lecturer in music and director of the jazz ensembles—conveyed resonant subtexts. To immigrants and their families, like Sony and Claudette Gay, who came from Haiti, and their children Sony Jr. and Claudine, “America the Beautiful” seems like the right introductory anthem for their entry into life on these shores. And Terry traces his own lineage to the kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) before, as his biography puts it, his relatives were “taken to work in Jamaica and Haiti,” and descendants ultimately reached Cuba, where he was born: a life trajectory that echoes elements of Gay’s own. (Terry also performed in the artistic tribute to Gay on Thursday evening, in Sanders Theatre.)

Musician plays the saxophone with audience behind him
Yosvany Terry plays a solo "America the Beautiful." | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Welcoming the President

Turning to the formal formalities, Harvard senior fellow Penny Pritzker, who led the presidential search (and was just named by President Joe Biden to oversee Ukraine reconstruction), welcomed the crowd to the official business of the day: investing Gay with the symbols, and powers, of the University presidency.

The customary greetings from diverse constituents began with Massachusetts governor (and alumna—a twofer) Maura Healey ’92. She joked about migrating from government concentrator to governor, and hailed Gay: “I believe your wisdom and integrity, our humane and inclusive vision, make you a leader for our time”—a leader “driven by her values to meet the moment.”

Man at podium speaking to audience
Félix V. Matos Rodríguez talked about higher education on the broadest scale—including the education President Gay's parents pursued. | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

On behalf of the assembled leaders of higher education, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of the City University of New York, was next to the lectern. The first Latino leader of the giant system (about a quarter-million degree candidates, and some 185,000 adult and continuing-education students), he represents both the Ivy Leagues (Yale undergraduate, Columbia Ph.D.) and, in his present role, the promise of higher education for the citizenry at large. There is also a connection to Gay’s roots: as she related last December 15, her parents “came to the U.S. with very little and 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.” (CCNY is part of the vast CUNY system.) Rodríguez referred to Gay’s parents and their enrollment at what some call “the poor man’s Harvard.” Their experience, he said, “inspired their daughter to pursue her own education, setting her on a path” to her present eminence. “I have no doubt,” he continued, “that she will represent all of us in higher education with passion, integrity, and vision, always grounded in the lessons learned from her parents.”

The next musical interlude, an a cappella number, Rockapella’s “Change in My Life,” courtesy of the Harvard Opportunes, is a regular part of that ensemble’s repertoire. The theme lines seemed particularly relevant to the occasion, for both President Gay and the Harvard community at large:

But with you I belong, ’cause you helped me be strong
There’s a change in my life since you came along

Returning to the rhetoric, Natale Sadlak, M.D. ’24, presented the student greetings. An aspiring physician whose interests and research focus on identity, health equity, and marginalized populations, including care for the LGBTQ+ community, she served on the student advisory committee during the presidential search. Sadlak, herself a daughter of immigrants (from Poland and Malaysia) just two generations removed from illiteracy, said Gay, as president, “embodies the path that Harvard is on, a blending of its future and its past, a mixture of the legacy of the University and the promise of new perspectives.” Her vision, Sadlak continued, focuses on “the many ways Harvard could grow into its next chapter, from acknowledging its history to moving past the Ivory Tower and engaging with our neighbors”—and so accords with students’ aspirations for the place. She called on them to enlist in shaping its future, saying, “[A]s members of this community, we all share some role in this reshaping. It is up to us to model the Harvard we envision in each of our actions, both on this campus and beyond.”

The staff representative, Alpha Sanneh, associate director of Harvard University Information Technology, said that “those of us who have worked in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have seen you in action. We know what an amazing and inspiring leader you are”—and graciously agreed “to share you beyond FAS.” He presented her with greetings from more than 650 staff members.

Man in blue faculty robe talks at podium
Tommie Shelby, friend and fellow scholar, hailed his colleague's academic values. | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Tommie Shelby, Titcomb professor of African and African American studies (one of Gay’s departments) and of philosophy, conveyed greetings from the faculty: an important message about both academics and the new president’s character, drawing on connections both personal and intellectual. Of Gay, he said, “having come from our ranks, she knows the pride and passion we bring to our research and teaching, our boundless curiosity, and the immense pleasure we derive from discovering something new. She also knows our big yet fragile egos, our arrogant and opinionated ways, perhaps especially about university administrators.” As a member of the faculty advisory committee for the presidential search last year, Shelby said, he had seen wide consensus emerge on finding:

A person willing and able to defend the value of higher education to an often-skeptical public.

Someone committed to protecting our culture of open inquiry, respectful debate, and the free expression of ideas.

A leader, respectful of our traditions, but looking to the future and to what we should and must become.

In Gay, he continued, “We have that leader…. She brings to her new role the highest standards for academic excellence and a deep sense of civic responsibility. When faced with large and unfamiliar challenges, she is unflappable and a true collaborator. Guided by data and her values, she is decisive. She is also eager to facilitate research that cuts across disciplines so that we might find answers to the questions that matter.”

Having known Gay as a departmental colleague and dean, he said, he also resonated to her as a person, as her family and his “have enjoyed many wonderful meals and, when our children attended school together, some perhaps not as wonderful school plays.” As a result, “I can confidently and sincerely say that she is always—herself. There is no mask or artifice in her interactions. Her strong and steady character is ever evident. Supremely accomplished, she remains humble and approachable. A genuinely empathetic person, worthy of our trust.”

Finally, he addressed the precedent in her appointment:

As we all know, Claudine, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is Harvard’s first black president. Like so many others, I celebrate this precedent, not merely because of its symbolism and “optics,” but because of what it says about Harvard and our place—the place of all who ever wondered if they belong—within it.

Claudine’s background and life experience, along with her scholarly expertise in racial and ethnic politics, will be enormous assets as we maintain and deepen Harvard’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in a hostile political environment.

The eminent scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, despite earning his A.B. [1890] and Ph.D. [1895] here, would lament toward the end of his life that, when a student, he “was in Harvard, but not of it.” I’d like to think that were he here today, Du Bois would be overwhelmed with pride and feel that this university was, finally, his too.

Last but not least, Tracy “Ty” Moore, president of the Harvard Alumni Association, spoke on behalf of that far-flung University constituency. On their behalf, he said, “There are no superlatives to accurately capture the tremendous enthusiasm, palpable positive energy, and…belief that our alums have in you.”

people mopping the stage
Prelude to a dance: making the stage safe for Madelyn Ho | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Again turning from the talk, Madelyn Ho ’08, M.D. ’18, a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, then performed “Syzygy” (choreographed by Taylor and composed by Donald York, created in 1987)—after the dance platform was swabbed to reduce the rapidly accumulating rainfall. This was something new under the sun: a dance work at installation, on a special platform deployed in front of the formal podium familiar to so many hundreds of thousands of past attendees at Harvard Commencements and installations ceremonies. Ho, a chemical and physical biology concentrator, took a dance course on Taylor’s technique and repertory as a senior. After touring with Taylor 2, she enrolled in medical school—only to win appointment to the main Taylor troupe during her third year. She thus embarked on two demanding roles, as medical student and dancer.

The title of the work she performed, referring to the alignment of celestial bodies and the connections among them as they orbit and transfer energy, perhaps conveys a sense of corresponding and connected things within the University—maybe the work President Gay, faculty and staff members, students and alumni will undertake together: an implicit invitation for all concerned to get involved. Of her role, Ho said, “There are moments where I’m taking in everyone’s energy, and then other moments where I feel like I’m the one who’s giving energy to everyone else.” In the solo, Ho—who usually plays the still, central planet—breaks free. “This piece felt right,” she says. “It felt celebratory, it felt joyous, it felt like it was about community.”

The Making of the President

With that, the time had come to attend to the business of the day. Meredith L. Hodges, president of the Board of Overseers (and executive director of the Boston Ballet), began the formal installation rites. Echoing Moore’s enthusiasms a bit more formally, she said on behalf of the Overseers (who are elected by the alumni, “[W]e celebrate your ascension to Harvard’s highest office. You are an extraordinary scholar, educator, and leader, wise and warm, inclusive and humane, collegial and collaborative, open-minded and open-hearted.”

4 people standing in academic robes for photo op
Former presidents Drew Gilpin Faust (seated left), Lawrence S. Summers (left) and Lawrence S. Bacow (right) with new Harvard President Claudine Gay | PHOTOGRAPH BY JENNIFER CARLING/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Former Harvard presidents Lawrence S. Summers, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Lawrence S. Bacow (who appointed Gay as FAS dean in 2018) conferred upon her the insignia of the office. (With Gay’s term in office begun, Harvard now has six living past and present presidents; but Derek C. Bok, 1971-1991 and 2006-2007, has curtailed his travel and appearance, and Neil L. Rudenstine, 1991-2001, has been attending to a family health issue.) Summers presented two silver keys, symbolizing the opening of doors to knowledge and truth. Faust presented the oldest College record book. And Bacow conveyed the Corporation seal of 1650, and the Great Seal of the University adopted in 1885. (Yes, archivists were on hand to attend to the treasures.)

Penny Pritzker then concluded with the charge to the president: “We celebrate not just this university, but the very idea of a university. We celebrate its power to expand opportunity and transform lives. We celebrate its power to enlarge knowledge and to propel profound human passion to learn. We celebrate its power to advance free inquiry and to cultivate mutual understanding. And we celebrate its singular power to be a force for good in the world.”

It was with those capacities in mind, she said, that “We are proud to entrust you with the high privilege and the profound responsibility of leading Harvard in the years ahead. We pledge to join you in the shared enterprise of realizing Harvard’s boundless potential to serve the world. May you lead us forward with wisdom and grace, with ambition and humanity and humility, with foresight and a sense of history. And with the spirit of restless inquiry, and robust engagement that has shaped Harvard for centuries, and will shape it for centuries to come.” And with that, she conveyed the Charter of 1650 granted by the general court of the colony of Massachusetts Bay, the University’s founding, and greatest, treasure.

She then invited Gay to sit in the president’s (notoriously uncomfortable) chair, allowing that she “need not sit in it for very long.” And since “the chair is yours,” Gay could finally command the lectern.

“Let Us Be Courageous Together”: President Gay’s Installation Address

Claudine Gay has taken to “speaking” with the community through short video messages, beginning with her pre-presidential comments June 29 on the Supreme Court affirmative action ruling, a September 5, fall-term-opening welcome, and this week’s pre-installation conversation. Now, thousands could hear her in real time, in person and online, as she took the most consequential step to date to set the tone for her nascent administration.

Installation addresses tend to be more inspirational than programmatic, but Gay had unique take on the form. Drawing on her personal experience, in an implicit way that not all listeners might expect, she laid out a vision of Harvard values that might serve the institution and members of the community particularly well if they come to find her call to engage with the wider world resonant.

In her address, titled “Courage to Be Harvard” (read the complete text as prepared for delivery at the bottom of this report), the newly inaugurated President Gay talked about her personal journey, and connected it to Harvard’s:

Not four hundred yards from where I stand, some four centuries ago, four enslaved people—Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba—lived and worked in Wadsworth House as the personal property of the president of Harvard University. My story is not their story. I am a daughter of Haitian immigrants to this country. But our stories—and the stories of the many trailblazers between us—are linked by this institution’s long history of exclusion and the long journey of resistance and resilience to overcome it.

And because of the collective courage of all those who walked that impossible distance, across centuries, and dared to create a different future, I stand before you on this stage—in this distinguished company and magnificent theatre, at this moment of challenge in our nation and in the world, with the weight and honor of being a “first”—able to say, “I am Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University.”

She then turned to courage more generally: the institutional courage of the University to probe the boundaries of “Why?” and “Why not?” in order to “to question the world as it is and imagine and make a better one”—and to respond confidently to two others: “Why here?” and “Why now?

Why?” she said, propels “scientific breakthroughs, archival discoveries, fresh artistic forms, new remedies for physical and social ills”: the righting of wrongs, the overturning of conventional wisdom. Familiar though that work is, or ought to be, in the academy, she said it takes courage because it “pokes at things. It raises doubts and raises eyebrows. It clashes with those who may prefer, as President Kennedy once said, ‘the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’ To persist with Why? is to give up the safety of silence, the ease of idle chatter, the satisfaction of an echo chamber. The goal of Why? is not comfort, it is knowledge. Knowledge is what transforms lives. Knowledge is our purpose.” And in support of that purpose, Gay insisted, the community must “commit to open inquiry and freedom of expression as foundational values”—a part of which is the embrace of diversity, “because we believe in the value of dynamic engagement and the learning that happens when ideas and opinions collide.”

If “Why?” is the key to understanding the world, Gay continued, “Why not?” is the call to action to improve it: to “improve health care in Haiti and Rwanda,” to “get the innocent off death row,” and to “close persistent gaps in education.”

“When I envision Harvard on our 400th anniversary, just 13 years away,” she continued, “I see an institution that connects in new and expanded ways, among ourselves and with society—an institution whose people ask Why not? as eagerly as they ask Why?” She sketched a vision of partnerships with citizens, industry, and government; broader dissemination of Harvard teaching; and wider sharing items in the University collections. Taking such steps would foster more people to ask Why not me?, she said, citing the pathbreaking work of pioneers like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Bunche.

But asking Why? and Why not? is insufficient, Gay explained. Given Harvard’s “outsized capacity to seek truth and to do good,” it has a “special responsibility”—to “help anchor our democracy,” to “explore, define, and help solve the most vexing problems of society,” from poverty and disease to climate change, and to “create opportunity” wherever talent can be found. She cited the dismaying evidence of Americans’ rising disdain for higher education—a spur to acting now “so that ‘later’ has a fighting chance.”

She cited an early poem by Langston Hughes, where “a mother says to her son, ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.’ Still, she tells him, she’s ‘been a-climbin’ on’—through ‘the tacks … and splinters, / and boards torn up.’ And so, she implores him, ‘don’t you turn back. / Don’t you set down on the steps.’ She gives him an example—not of reaching a goal but of pushing through difficulty, no matter the impediments, because pushing through is the only way of moving forward.”

The courage to act, Gay said, “is a disposition,” proceeding in face of “a dangerous and skeptical world. Far from defending an ivory tower, we strive for a staircase open to all. An upward path with no boards torn up. Not only for our students but for the billions of people who will never set foot in Harvard Yard, yet whose lives may advance a step because of what we do.” Her parents, leaving Haiti, took that first step, and then the critical second one of pursuing a higher education, she recalled.

In her conclusion, she linked that family courage to the community’s courage in its response to COVID-19, “a feat of collective epigenetics that refashioned our institutional DNA.” In improving itself—“in the short walk, and long journey, from Wadsworth House to this podium today,” Gay said, she discerned “the courage to be Harvard.” As she set the University’s compass “by its constellation of brilliant—if sometimes unruly—stars,” she joked, she called on all present to:

Let us summon the courage to be the Harvard that the world needs now.

The courage to preserve the openness and diversity we need to ask Why? and the visionary courage to ask Why not?

The courage to “listen for the music” in other points of view.

The courage to admit our mistakes and confront our shortcomings.

The courage to convert disruption into forces of renewal and reinvention.

Why not here? Why not now? We have it in each of us. We can see it in one another.

Let us be courageous together.

Certainly Claudine Gay’s family journey, from Haiti to the United States and up the ladder of higher education and advancement, took courage. But so, too, did a set of choices she made on her own (described here). One was her decision to turn from the practical, professional training that her parents encouraged toward the liberal arts. Another, after she attained a doctorate through demanding work in the quantitative social sciences, was to turn her back on the academy, briefly, for work as a commercial consultant. But the critical choice was then to return: to commit fully to the work of the university and scholarship and teaching—the venue and the effort that alone can change the world’s trajectory. That is the step that led her, in an unplanned way, to a life of apparent engagement and fulfillment—and now to the pinnacle of higher education leadership.

At a time when handwringing about the flight of college graduates into lucrative finance, consulting, and high technology careers is commonplace, Gay’s career, and message, point in a fresh direction. By connecting the work of the academy to service on behalf of mankind, she is signaling a different life path: one that the talented people who come to and thrive in places like Harvard are uniquely qualified and privileged to enjoy. Her own choices affirm the power of scholarship and teaching to better understand and meet the world’s challenges, and to equip leaders to address them, in a mutually empowering way.

Yes, there is inspiration aplenty in the awesome story of any immigrant family’s ascent. But there are equally rich rewards, Gay’s life seems to suggest, in fully realizing the potential of the academy as a place to learn, to discover, and then to emerge in service of some larger calling. Doing so, she must hope, can both close the current gap between the academy and the larger citizenry, and show members of this community an extraordinary route toward the best kind of lives they can lead. The rewards are there, her address seems to suggest, for those with the courage to pursue them.

Envoi

After Meredith Hodges’s conclusion to the formalities, the benediction was offered not by Reverend Potts or another faith leader, but rather by Tracy K. Smith, professor of English and of African and African American studies, the former U.S. poet laureate, who offered a new work for this day[JSS1] . Setting aside her planned introduction, Smith said, “I know why it is raining—the sky is overjoyed.” Her poem, “Panoramic,” began suitably by acknowledging the joint beginnings symbolized by the day: “If we’re lucky, it will go on, / this poem that we’re writing together.” Like Gay, she asked questions: “Can we ferry hope?/ Can we outpace feight[JSS2] ?” On this occasion, the answers were surely yes.

Tradition demanding to be served, the assembled then joined in singing “Fair Harvard.” But in keeping with the spirited spirit of the day, there was one final surprise: the recessional accompaniment for the president’s party was a high-energy workout by Harvard College Bhangra, inspired by the Punjabi dance form. The students lent a great dash of color to the gray afternoon (all the more amusing for the “H” logos on the back of the dancers’ costumes). As Gay stepped down from the platform, her husband, Chris Afendulis, administered a peck on the cheek: perhaps her first kiss in her somber Harvard president’s gown. Their son Costa beamed in spite of (or perhaps because of) the newfound attention.

The blaring music was just the right way to work up an appetite for the further entertainments and food trucks deployed in the Old Yard—including, of course, Gourmet Kreyole (Haitian), and selections from sopapillas to tandoor and Belgian waffles. And Harvard University Dining Services pitched in with tent service featuring sustainable cuisines with Caribbean, Mediterranean, Spanish, and East Asian themes: diversity indeed.

                                                        •   •   •   •   •   

In all, President Gay’s installation featured less solemn talk, and more kick-out-the-jams performative celebration, than the exercises put on by some predecessors. Perhaps in keeping with the new boss’s businesslike manner, the formalities were observed, but not drawn out—leaving plenty of time for fun (Gay managed to take in Beyoncé’s concert at Gillette Stadium during the summer) and lots of opportunities to showcase Harvardians’ artistic side (often too hidden on such occasions). When all was said and done, the University had done it up properly to make its thirtieth leader official. The institution had had the courage to take those steps through time and space from the enslaved people who lived in service to the president in Wadsworth House to a new kind of president. And she had had the courage and presence to address that incomplete path forward head-on.

The festivities concluded, there is plenty of work to do—on new admissions policies (if Shelby’s hopes for diversity are to be fulfilled), scaling up research on inequality and climate change, making sense of artificial intelligence in the classroom and society at large, deciding how to support graduate students (facing high Boston living costs) and middle-class undergraduates (facing high private tuitions)—not to mention more decanal appointments to make, Washington leaders and peers throughout higher education to meet, and more. The president’s endless agenda awaits—but until the morrow, at least. For today, the whole Crimson community had plenty of reasons for indulging in the good vibes.

People with umbrellas crowded in Tercentenary Theatre
Installed, wetly | PHOTOGRAPH BY JENNIFER BEAUMONT/HARVARD MAGAZINE

On a final note: one power the Corporation cannot confer on a president is control over the weather. Following a summer of near-record precipitation in eastern Massachusetts, Tropical Storm Ophelia worked its way soddenly north as the autumn equinox came and went, making for yet another cool, gray, damp Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday morning. The weather brightened thereafter, making for acceptably dry, if prematurely cool, September 28. But the drenching pattern prevailed today, for the installation exercises proper. Given the commandment that it never rain on a Harvard Commencement, Gay and her team can attend to that one detail anon. Convene one and all in Tercentenary Theatre again next May 23.

Read about the September 28 performances honoring President Gay here.

Read about the September 29 academic symposiums here.


“Courage to Be Harvard”

President Claudine Gay’s Installation Address

(as prepared for delivery)

Family, friends, colleagues, students and postdocs, alumni, distinguished guests.

I stand before you today humbled by the prospect of leading Harvard, emboldened by the trust you have placed in me, and energized by your own commitment to this singular institution and to the common cause of higher education.

I am grateful beyond measure to the Governing Boards for placing their confidence in me; to my predecessors for offering their perspectives, their wisdom, and their support; to my colleagues and mentors, from this University and beyond, for leading in ways that continue to guide and inspire me.

I am thankful to the many members of our campus community who have worked so hard, for so many months, to make today’s event possible.

And, most of all, I am uplifted by love, love that has empowered and sustained me for as long as I can remember, love that has made me who I am.

My dad, Sony Gay, is unmatched in his optimism and in his curiosity about people and the world, twin gifts that he passed on to my brother and me.

My mom, Claudette Gay, passed away earlier this year but not before learning of my election and smiling broadly at the news. I wish very much that she were here, if only for the chance to hear her say, “I told you so.”

Both of my parents, each on their own, left everything they knew in Haiti to forge new lives in the United States. And because they understood that coming to America was not enough, they eagerly sought college education—to ensure the future they wanted for themselves and for their family.

That future came to include my best friend and my wonderful husband, Chris Afendulis. Marrying Chris remains the best decision I ever made. He has always put our family first. He makes this day—and every day to come—possible for me.

And our beloved son, Costa. In moments big and small, and with the many gifts he has already begun to share with the world, he reminds me of the meaning of the work before me, the work before all of us, and our responsibility to the future.

For nearly twenty generations, Harvard presidents have upheld that precious trust. I feel the presence of those twenty-nine predecessors here today. And the three former presidents sharing the stage with me, no strangers to this podium, have set a high rhetorical bar. Though Drew Faust helpfully pointed out in her address that “inaugural speeches are a peculiar genre…by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about.”

I claim no exception for my remarks today. But I will attempt to defy the genre by talking about one thing I do know—and that is the importance of courage, without which my presence here today would not be possible.

Not four hundred yards from where I stand, some four centuries ago, four enslaved people—Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba—lived and worked in Wadsworth House as the personal property of the president of Harvard University. My story is not their story. I am a daughter of Haitian immigrants to this country. But our stories—and the stories of the many trailblazers between us—are linked by this institution’s long history of exclusion and the long journey of resistance and resilience to overcome it.

And because of the collective courage of all those who walked that impossible distance, across centuries, and dared to create a different future, I stand before you on this stage—in this distinguished company and magnificent theatre, at this moment of challenge in our nation and in the world, with the weight and honor of being a “first”—able to say, “I am Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University.”

Their courage, that courage, is what I want to reflect on today: The courage of this University—our resolve, against all odds—to question the world as it is and imagine and make a better one. It is what Harvard was made to do. John Adams drafted it right into the Massachusetts Constitution, to ratify our charter, celebrating the “university at Cambridge” where “wisdom and knowledge…diffused generally among the body of the people” could “preserv[e]…their rights and liberties,” spread “the opportunities and advantages of education,” and “inculcate the principles of humanity.” By continually recommitting ourselves to our central purpose, with renewed vision and vigor, we advance the prospects of humankind.

And, as every generation must believe of its own time, never have those tasks felt more urgent.

What we offer to the world will depend on Harvard’s courage—our courage—to ask two questions that propel our work—Why? and Why not? And it will depend on the courage to answer, with confidence, two others: Why here? and Why now?

Why? is a question that comes to us early in life. If you know a young child, you know this well: Why are we here? Why is the moon out during the day? Why can’t I eat ice cream for breakfast? Why is she talking so much? We may be tempted to stop asking Why when we accept the default answers around us, until something sparks us to question those answers.

Harvard has always been a place to ask Why? It animates our research and teaching.

Why? is the question of scientific breakthroughs, archival discoveries, fresh artistic forms, new remedies for physical and social ills.

Why? rights wrongs, overturns conventional wisdom, and opens the blue sky of human pursuit and possibility.

Why? is how students and faculty move toward discovery and challenge each other to push to the next levels of understanding and insight.

This simple query is the very basis of academic life.

Ideally, we shouldn’t need courage to ask Why? We should feel no more danger of recrimination or risk of censure than a young child. But Why? pokes at things. It raises doubts and raises eyebrows. It clashes with those who may prefer, as President Kennedy once said, “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” To persist with Why? is to give up the safety of silence, the ease of idle chatter, the satisfaction of an echo chamber. The goal of Why? is not comfort, it is knowledge. Knowledge is what transforms lives. Knowledge is our purpose.

We serve that purpose best when we commit to open inquiry and freedom of expression as foundational values of our academic community. Our individual and collective capacity for discovery depends on our willingness to debate ideas; to expose and reconsider assumptions; to marshal facts and evidence; to talk and to listen with care and humility, and with the goal of deeper understanding and as seekers of truth.

The political philosopher John Rawls—who spent 30 years on the Harvard faculty—would teach his magisterial work, A Theory of Justice, alongside the works of those who most powerfully disagreed with him, encouraging his students to “listen for the music”—harmony, counterpoint, and all.

In that same spirit, when we embrace diversity—of backgrounds, lived experiences, and perspectives—as an institutional imperative, it’s not with a secret hope for calm or consensus. It’s because we believe in the value of dynamic engagement and the learning that happens when ideas and opinions collide. Communities that welcome diverse perspectives thrive not because they endorse all as valid but because they question all on their merits.

Now, all of this is easy to salute in the abstract, especially from these rarefied heights. But it is hard to protect in practice. Debate and the inclusion of diverse viewpoints and experiences, while essential for our work, are not always easy to live with. They can be a recipe for discomfort, fired in the heat of social media and partisan rancor. And discomfort can weaken our resolve and make us vulnerable to a rhetoric of control and containment that has no place in the academy. That is when we must summon the courage to be Harvard. To love truth enough to endure the challenge of truth-seeking and truth-telling. To love truth enough to ask Why?

The desire to understand the world urges us to ask Why? The hope to improve the world compels us to ask Why not?

Why not? is a call to action, the aspiration to do what might seem impossible:

Why not improve health care in Haiti and Rwanda?

Why not get the innocent off death row?

Why not map the 100 billion neurons of the brain or close persistent gaps in education from pre-K to adult learners?

Why not fight the climate crisis on every front or keep lit the flame of exploration—in the darkest depths of the sea and the furthest reaches of space-time?

Asking Why not? should be a Harvard refrain—the willingness to sound foolish, risk ridicule, be dismissed as a dreamer. We’ve seen it time and again—the courage to take a chance, even when success seems beyond reach. And the courage to collaborate, to listen, to compromise, to grow. To bring our imaginations and talents together in a different way.

I witnessed the power of asking Why not? as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences when this space was largely emptied by a pandemic and quieted by uncertainty. We might have faltered. Many did. But we dared to work together—faculty, staff, students. Schools across the University shared ideas, resources—and our strength. We set aside long-held assumptions about teaching and research, we rethought the nature of our community, we broke down barriers to collaboration. We acted quickly and decisively, with a strong sense of shared purpose, and became a model for others. I had never been prouder to be part of this University.

When I envision Harvard on our 400th anniversary, just 13 years away, I see an institution that connects in new and expanded ways, among ourselves and with society—an institution whose people ask Why not? as eagerly as they ask Why?

Why not improve people’s lives everywhere through our scholarship, outreach, and partnerships?

By building new coalitions with citizens, industry, and government, we can accelerate the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge and effective ideas to serve the public good. On every matter of consequence, from disorders of the mind and body to disorders of the body politic, we have work to do.

Why not reach as many people as possible through our educational programs?

By using new forms of how and where we teach, hard-won during the pandemic and boosted by new technologies, we can reach more learners, change more lives, and bring the power of education to communities far beyond our campuses.

Why not open our treasure troves of books, objects, and artifacts to the world?

By increasing access to our magnificent collections, verging now on half a billion items, we cast the myriad elements of civilization into the living world—in all their error, and wisdom, and beauty—to be reconsidered, remade, and remembered by the next generation.

When we summon our courage to ask Why not?, to join new ways of thinking with new ways of acting, we expand the possibilities of what Harvard can be and what Harvard can do for the world.

We also foster the courage of those who dare to ask Why not me? A simple question that can spark profound change. The moment Margaret Fuller talked her way into the Harvard library, when women were excluded from the entire institution, and went on to publish foundational works on feminism and human rights. The day Ralph Bunche sought a graduate fellowship to Harvard’s government department and went on to help dismantle colonialism and arrange a cease-fire in the Middle East that would win him the Nobel Peace Prize.

There are many among us here today whose presence would be unimaginable were it not for their courage to ask Why not me?

Which leads us, finally, to Why here? and Why now?

Harvard is blessed with outsized capacity to seek truth and to do good, imbued with awesome potential to change the lives of individuals and the prospects of communities. This means that asking Why? and Why not? is not enough—can never be enough. Harvard has a special responsibility.

A responsibility to help anchor our democracy—by cultivating norms and values essential to a free society and by ensuring the free flow of knowledge not only among students and faculty but to all citizens to enable them to make informed decisions.

A responsibility to explore, define, and help solve the most vexing problems of society—the struggle against tyranny, poverty, disease, and war; the challenge of protecting a planet and its people from the devastation of climate change.

A responsibility to create opportunity—by identifying talent and promise wherever it resides and bringing that talent to Harvard. We are still on a journey that began in earnest with President Conant—to draw from a deeper pool of talent and provide our institution with the excellence it deserves and our diverse society with the leaders it needs and expects.

Of course, we cannot do these things alone. Joining us today are delegates from institutions representing states and nations near and far, and our trusted partners from state and local government who make possible our collective contributions to the country and to the Commonwealth. I hope that today strengthens our connections. You give us courage. The most compelling answer to Why here? can be found in the way we work together to help others thrive.

How well we are doing depends on who you ask. According to some recent surveys, almost 40 percent of Americans believe higher education has a negative effect on the country, a majority think that earning a four-year degree is a bad bet, and still others that a college education doesn’t matter at all. And these views persist despite volumes of evidence demonstrating the critical role of education for economic mobility and for individual and family well-being.

And in that paradox lies the answer to Why now?

Because “now” needs us so that “later” has a fighting chance.

We are in a moment of declining trust in institutions of all kinds. Of endless access to information, but doubts and conflict about whom and what to believe. Of political polarization so extreme that gridlock is preferred to pragmatic collaboration. And all the while, the planet warms, inequality grows, democracies falter, and the next pandemic looms.

If not now, then when?

Rebuilding trust in the mission and institutions of higher education won’t be easy. It lies partly in our courage to face our imperfections and mistakes, and to turn outward with a fresh and open spirit—meeting a doubtful and restless society with audacious and uplifting ambitions, present in both the research we undertake and the students we educate, present in the world we are changing every day by fulfilling our mission.

Courage is hard, and hard to sustain. But we see it everywhere, steady in the face of war and injustice, sickness and loss, in stories of perseverance for a greater purpose. Fourteen years after he graduated from Harvard, W.E.B. Du Bois founded the NAACP and a newspaper called “The Crisis,” an extraordinary record of the struggle for human rights, where he published the poems of a young man working odd jobs named Langston Hughes. In one of Hughes’s poems, a mother says to her son, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Still, she tells him, she’s “been a-climbin’ on”—through “the tacks … and splinters, / and boards torn up.” And so, she implores him, “don’t you turn back. / Don’t you set down on the steps.” She gives him an example—not of reaching a goal but of pushing through difficulty, no matter the impediments, because pushing through is the only way of moving forward.

Courage is a disposition. It does not whine, or complain, or wring its hands. It also does not pretend that risk and challenge do not exist. Courage faces fear and finds resolve. And so must we hold fast to our purpose in a dangerous and skeptical world. Far from defending an ivory tower, we strive for a staircase open to all. An upward path with no boards torn up. Not only for our students but for the billions of people who will never set foot in Harvard Yard, yet whose lives may advance a step because of what we do.

It is as true today as it was when my parents mustered the courage to leave Port-au-Prince: If you want to build a better life, if you want to build a better world, higher education is the best foundation. Not because we are perfect. We are not. But because we find the courage to admit our imperfections. Because imperfection leaves room for improvement, room to ascend beyond anything we can dream of today.

I began this address claiming that I know something about courage. A bold claim, perhaps. But not a boastful one. Courage abides in a kind of purposeful detachment, admitting our fears and false steps even as we advance—to paraphrase Sojourner Truth, not allowing our light to be determined by the darkness around us. And in courage, we find freedom—where we dare to imagine and make a different future together.

I learned it from my parents who built a life of quiet achievement and high expectations that opened a world of possibility for my brother and me. I witnessed it on this campus, when the entire community reorganized itself during COVID, a feat of collective epigenetics that refashioned our institutional DNA. You have seen it, too, over four centuries—in the short walk, and long journey, from Wadsworth House to this podium today. That is the courage to be Harvard.

I have loved this place since the day I arrived as a graduate student in 1992. Now you have given me the great honor of leading this University into the future, setting a compass by its constellation of brilliant—if sometimes unruly—stars.

Let us summon the courage to be the Harvard that the world needs now.

The courage to preserve the openness and diversity we need to ask Why? and the visionary courage to ask Why not?

The courage to “listen for the music” in other points of view.

The courage to admit our mistakes and confront our shortcomings.

The courage to convert disruption into forces of renewal and reinvention.

Why not here? Why not now? We have it in each of us. We can see it in one another.

Let us be courageous together. Thank you.  

Additional reporting for this account was provided by Jonathan Shaw and Max J. Krupnick.

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