UPDATED: December 16, 2022, at 4:55 a.m.
Claudine Gay will become Harvard University’s 30th president, the school announced Thursday, ending a swift five-month search process that will elevate a person of color to lead America’s oldest academic institution for the first time in its history.
Gay, the current dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will succeed Lawrence S. Bacow, who announced plans to step down in June. She will begin her term in Massachusetts Hall on July 1, 2023.
“When I imagine Harvard in the years ahead, I see a university that is even more connected to the world through our scholarship,” Gay said at an event announcing her selection Thursday. “The idea of the ivory tower — that is the past, not the future, of academia. We don’t exist outside of society, but as part of it.”
Gay, 52, will take over atop the University just as the Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision on a high-stakes affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard that could reshape admissions processes across American higher education.
She will also be tasked with steering the University’s finances through global economic uncertainty caused by a post-pandemic inflation spike, which precipitated a $2.3 billion drop in Harvard’s endowment value this year. Her tenure is likely to include a capital campaign as the University approaches its 400th anniversary.
At a press conference after her announcement on Thursday, Gay declined to elaborate about how Harvard might navigate a post-affirmative action reality, saying only that the University “will continue to champion the value of diversity.”
Gay will oversee Harvard’s continued expansion into Allston, as the school has moved ahead with ambitious development plans despite intense headwinds from local residents.
“With the strength of this extraordinary institution behind us, we enter a moment of possibility,” she said Thursday. “One that calls for deeper collaboration across the University, across all of our remarkable schools.”
Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81, who chaired the presidential search committee, announced Gay’s election in an email to Harvard affiliates Thursday afternoon, hours after the Harvard Board of Overseers voted to confirm the pick.
“We are confident Claudine will be a thoughtful, principled, and inspiring president for all of Harvard, dedicated to helping each of our individual schools thrive, as well as fostering creative connections among them,” Pritzker wrote.
The 15-member committee landed on Gay after just five months, making it the shortest Harvard presidential hunt in almost 70 years. The group met formally about 20 times, Pritzker said in public remarks Thursday, whittling down an initial list of more than 600 nominations.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Gay grew up in New York and attended high school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. She attended college at Stanford University before receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1998.
Gay joined Harvard’s faculty from Stanford in 2006 as an expert on democracy and political representation in the Government Department. She became dean of the FAS’s Social Sciences Division in 2015 before ascending to her current post in 2018.
“She’s one of the Academy’s most creative and rigorous thinkers about vital aspects of democracy and political participation,” Pritzker said. “She is a political scientist, who is deeply engaged with practical issues and concerns — someone who is strongly focused on how the ideas and inventions born in our universities can make a positive difference in the world.”
As dean, Gay has steered the FAS through the Covid-19 pandemic and a stream of controversies related to sexual harassment and faculty diversity.
As academia writ large has grappled with a reckoning on sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Gay levied sanctions against several well-known professors. In the early summer of 2019, she stripped the emeritus status of Government professor Jorge I. Domínguez, who faced allegations of nearly four decades of sexual misconduct, and suspended a high-profile Economics professor, Ronald G. Fryer Jr., who was accused of sexually harassing co-workers.
Harvard became engulfed in controversy in early 2022 after Gay sanctioned Anthropology and African and African American Studies professor John L. Comaroff following University investigations that found he violated the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. Dozens of high-profile professors rallied to support Comaroff, questioning Gay’s sanctions in an open letter before reversing course just days later after a federal lawsuit against Harvard outlined years of misconduct allegations against anthropology scholar.
Gay also launched a review of Harvard’s tenure process after ethnic studies scholar Lorgia García Peña was denied tenure in November 2019, prompting backlash from students and faculty. The FAS review, released in October 2021, largely upheld Harvard’s tenure process but recommended some adjustments to add more transparency around associate professor reviews and the use of ad hoc committees.
Gay has supported the creation of an ethnic studies department at Harvard, a longtime demand of student and alumni activists. She initiated a cluster hire of ethnic studies scholars that brought in three scholars in the field this year. She has also worked to diversify the faculty, including by appointing an inaugural associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and belonging in the FAS.
As Gay walked into the Harvard Commons in the Smith Campus Center on Thursday for the University’s public broadcast, the room erupted into applause. When the president-elect took to the podium, she joked that she was surprised to see so many people at the reception — “I thought I was the only person still on campus” — before turning to her vision for the school.
“Harvard is where I found my intellectual home,” Gay said Thursday. “It has nurtured and inspired me since I first set foot in the Yard. I’m deeply invested not only in what Harvard is today, but also in what Harvard’s leadership means for the future.”