Newly installed Harvard President Claudine Gay asked University affiliates to join her and “be courageous” as they work to expand “the possibilities of what Harvard can be and what Harvard can do for the world” during her inaugural address Friday afternoon.
Standing at the podium in Tercentenary Theatre amid a heavy downpour, Gay delivered her most extensive public remarks since the governing boards selected her in December to serve as Harvard’s 30th president.
Gay, dressed in the Harvard president’s traditional black front-buttoned cassock, anchored her nearly 30-minute speech with four questions that she said Harvard must have the courage to ask and answer: why, why not, why here, and why now?
“Now it’s my turn, right?” Gay quipped while making her way up to the podium after more than an hour of speeches. She began her address by thanking the audience for enduring the rain — but joked that she would not shorten her speech as a result.
“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,” she said.
Gay also extended her gratitude to her family — in attendance were her father, Sony Gay Sr., her husband, Christopher C. Afendulis, and her son, Costa Gay-Afendulis. She also noted the absence of her mother, Claudette Gay, who died earlier this year.
“I wish very much that she were here, if only for the chance to hear her say, ‘I told you so,’” Gay said.
Gay acknowledged Harvard’s legacy of slavery, naming four enslaved people — Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba — who lived and worked as “personal property” of the Harvard president.
“My story is not their story,” she said. “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.”
Then, Gay turned her focus to the first question of her speech: “Why?”
Having the courage to ask that question is fundamental to all academic endeavors, Gay said.
“Ideally, we shouldn’t need courage to ask ‘Why?’” Gay said. “But ‘Why?’ pokes at things. It raises doubts and raises eyebrows.”
But the courage of Harvard, Gay said, lies in part in being willing to confront unpleasant truths and engage in open conversation.
“Knowledge is our purpose,” Gay said. “We serve that purpose best when we commit to open inquiry and freedom of expression as foundational values of our academic community.”
“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,” Gay added. “It’s because we believe in the value of dynamic engagement and the learning that happens when ideas and opinions collide.”
Still, Gay recognized the difficulty of implementing these imperatives.
“All of this is easy to salute in the abstract,” Gay said. “We must summon the courage to be Harvard, to love truth enough to endure the challenge of truth-seeking and truth-telling.”
In times of difficulty, though, Gay said, it can be just as valuable to ask, “Why not?”
She pointed to Harvard’s success in continuing its educational mission amid the pandemic’s quieting effect on campus, forging forward where others faltered.
“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,” she said.
The last two questions — “Why here?” and “Why now?” — come from Harvard’s unique responsibility in the world due to its “outsized capacity to seek truth and to do good.”
Gay said the answer to “Why now?” is “because ‘now’ needs us so that ‘later’ has a fighting chance.”
Referencing a lack of trust among the general public in higher education, Gay pointed to the declining faith in “institutions of all kinds,” amid rampant misinformation, political polarization, and the warming planet.
“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,” Gay added. “And these views persist despite volumes of evidence demonstrating the critical role of education for economic mobility, and for individual and family well-being.”
The answer to these questions — the guiding principle for Harvard in the years ahead — Gay said, is courage to “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,” Gay added.
“Let us be courageous together,” Gay concluded as the audience leapt to their feet in a standing ovation.