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Culture

Claudine Gay: Harvard’s First Black President

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On December 15, 2022, for the first time in the university’s history, Harvard announced that Claudine Gay was named its 30th president. Come July 1, 2023, Gay will succeed Lawrence Bacow to become the first Black president of the university and the second woman, following Catharine Drew Gilpin Faust, the 28th president of Harvard.

“Today, we are in a moment of remarkable and accelerating change — socially, politically, economically, and technologically,” Gay said, as reported by The Harvard Gazette. “So many fundamental assumptions about how the world works and how we should relate to one another are being tested. Yet Harvard has a long history of rising to meet new challenges, of converting the energy of our time into forces of renewal and reinvention.”

Gay continued, adding, “There is an urgency for Harvard to be engaged with the world and bring bold, brave, pioneering thinking to our greatest challenges. As I start my tenure, there’s so much more for me to discover about this institution that I love, and I’m looking forward to doing just that with our whole community.”

Who is Claudine Gay?

Gay was born in New York City’s Bronx borough, spending much of her childhood in New York until she and her family moved to Saudi Arabia for her father’s job working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants, her mother a nurse, and her father an engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

She attended Phillips Exeter Academy for high school before pursuing higher education at Stanford University, where she studied economics as an undergraduate. At Stanford, she received the Anna Laura Myers Prize for best undergraduate thesis in economics. After earning her B.A. from the prestigious university in 1992, she pursued and ultimately received a Ph.D. at Harvard in 1998. She was also awarded the Toppan Prize for best dissertation in political science during her time at Harvard.

From 2000 to 2005, Gay was an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University and an associate professor from 2005 to 2006. Gay began teaching as a professor of government after Harvard recruited her in 2006. She was appointed a professor of African and African American Studies the following year. Nearly one decade after she began teaching at Harvard, Gay served as the Dean of Social Science from 2015 to 2018, when she was named the Edgerley Family Dean and led the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Over the years, Gay’s curriculum has covered a broad spectrum of political behavior, including politics and race in the United States, how neighborhoods and environments can shape political and racial attitudes in Black Americans, the root of both cooperation and competition between minority groups, Black politics post-Civil Rights, and much more. Gay is also the founding chair of the university’s Inequality in America Initiative, which launched in 2017 and is a “multidisciplinary effort to elevate and energize teaching and research on social and economic inequality.”

The significance of Claudine Gay’s appointment

Before Gay was named the university’s 30th president, she became the first woman and person of color to serve as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. As the president-elect, Gay is poised to serve as the first Black president and its second woman in the university’s centuries-long history.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, told The New York Times in an email, “This is a victory for diversity and excellence. Claudine has proven herself a first-class academic leader and a rigorous scholar in her own right.”

“And under her leadership, Harvard will continue to be a model in upholding the highest standards of academic excellence, advancing the frontiers of knowledge while also advancing strategies of inclusion,” Gates added.

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