How Harvard’s Presidential Search Committee Landed On Claudine Gay


Snow had covered the ground in Harvard Yard for months when the search committees that selected University Presidents Lawrence S. Bacow, Drew G. Faust, Lawrence H. Summers, and Neil L. Rudenstine finished their work.

On Thursday, Cambridge’s first winter flurry was only a few days old. But the 15-member group that searched for Harvard’s 30th leader had already whittled its shortlist down to one name: Claudine Gay.

The search committee, led by Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81, considered more than 600 nominations over the span of just five months, making it the shortest Harvard presidential search in almost 70 years. Gay became the group’s final pick about two to three weeks ago, according to Shirley M. Tilghman, a search committee member who sits on the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing board.

Gay, the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will take over as University president on July 1, 2023, when she will become the first person of color and the second woman to serve in American higher education’s most prestigious job.


The committee — made up of 15 members of the University’s two governing boards — met formally about 20 times “in addition to many, many informal engagements,” Pritzker said in public remarks Thursday. The group consisted of all 12 Harvard Corporation fellows and three members of the Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body.

The Board of Overseers formally approved the selection of Gay on Thursday, Pritzker said in an interview following Harvard’s public announcement. The Corporation also voted to approve Gay on Thursday, Pritzker said, though every member of the board except Bacow sat on the search committee.


The search committee started with a list of 600 nominations that narrowed to approximately 50 “credible” candidates, said Tilghman, a former president of Princeton University who joined the Corporation in 2015.

“Then it was very difficult to go from a list of about 50 down to a number where the committee could actually meet the individuals and get a sense of their viability as a candidate,” Tilghman said in an interview Thursday evening.

The list then shortened to around 12, according to Tilghman. The committee interviewed contenders over “at least” the past two to three months, she said, including candidates who had no connection to Harvard.

Search committee members declined to identify other candidates they considered Thursday. Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the committee’s process.

The Corporation met with the Board of Overseers on Dec. 5 in Loeb House, but search committee members did not present Gay’s name to the lower governing board until Thursday, when Pritzker invited its members to weigh in on the final selection, according to Tilghman.

Gay then met with the Overseers herself, Tilghman said. Under Harvard’s charter, the lower governing board must approve the selection of the University president, but the vote has long been considered a formality.

The 15-member search committee was stocked with legal, academic, and corporate talent, including two billionaires, two former Obama administration officials, and two former university presidents.

The group held more than 200 informal conversations throughout its process, according to Diana L. Nelson ’84, a search committee member who sits on the Harvard Corporation.

Searchers focused on two key questions in their conversations with Harvard affiliates and industry experts, according to Tilghman: what qualities the 30th president should possess and what challenges Bacow’s successor will face.

The committee valued candidates’ scholarly reputation, according to Tilghman, who said the University “needed someone who had the ability to command the respect of the faculty.”

“We also felt, given the complexity of Harvard — and it truly is a complex institution — that it had to be someone with considerable, I would say, administrative ability,” she said. “It is just too complicated a job for someone who has never had to deal with something as complicated as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, so that eliminated some of the candidates who may have been extraordinary scholars, but really did not have the kind of depth of experience.”

Gay will be the third consecutive president plucked from within Harvard’s ranks, but Tilghman insisted Thursday that the group seriously considered individuals from outside the University, too: “We did not ever — either at the beginning, the middle, or even toward the end — ever assume that it was going to be a Harvard insider,” she said.

On Thursday, when the search committee announced Gay was its final pick, the Board of Overseers reacted with “overwhelming excitement and joy,” Tilghman said.

“Throughout the whole meeting, it was a sense that this was a group who felt they had made a really important, momentous decision — and they had made the right decision,” Tilghman said. “It was thrilling to be a part of it.”

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill contributed to reporting.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.