The oldest institution of higher education in the United States announced Thursday that Claudine Gay has been selected as its 30th president. When her term begins next July, Gay will be the first Black person to serve in Harvard’s top leadership role since its founding in 1636. Each president before her has been white. With the exception of Drew Faust, who led the University from 2007 to 2018, all of them have been men.
“This is a historic appointment considering how few Black presidents have led American universities,” says UCLA Professor Eddie R. Cole, a historian and expert on presidential leadership in higher education. “At a time when Harvard’s own race questions – affirmative action, campus climate, and its profits from slavery – have captured the nation’s attention, this will be one of the most significant presidential hires for years to come.”
Because it’s one of the wealthiest and most prestigious educational institutions in the world, because she’s a woman, and because she’s Black, some will undoubtedly ask if Gay is merely an affirmative action hire. Definitely not. Is she qualified? Incontestably.
Harvard’s new president is an extraordinarily accomplished scholar and experienced leader who’s deeply familiar with the institution. Gay earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1998. She then spent several years on the faculty at Stanford University, her undergraduate alma mater, where she earned tenure. She returned to Harvard in 2006 as a tenured professor in the Department of Government. Two years later, she also joined the Harvard Department of African and African American Studies.
In 2015, Gay was awarded the distinguished Wilbur A. Cowett endowed professorship and began a three-year tenure as Dean of Social Science. She was then promoted to the Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a position she has held since 2018. She is founding chair of Harvard’s Inequality in America Initiative, which its website characterizes “a multidisciplinary effort to elevate and energize teaching and research on social and economic inequality and to use what we learn to inform the public debate and public response to these challenges.”