Harvard University recently announced exciting news: Dr. Claudine Gay, who is currently the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was introduced as the University’s 30th president-elect. Dr. Gay earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Stanford University, where she was awarded the prize for best undergraduate thesis, and a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard, where she won the prize for the best dissertation in political science. She then served as a tenured faculty member at Stanford before returning to Harvard and becoming dean of Social Sciences and then of the full Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Now Dr. Gay, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, will be the first African American and first person of color to be Harvard University’s president.
Dr. Gay joins an ever-growing list of illustrious Black women at the top of American colleges and universities. Some of the early trailblazers include the incomparable Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded and led Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls and later merged her school into what is now Bethune-Cookman University, and pioneering scholar, writer, and activist Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, who served as president of Frelinghuysen University. Decades later historian and legal scholar Dr. Mary Frances Berry became the first Black woman to head a major research university as chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Gay’s current peers include Dr. Ruth Simmons, outgoing president of Prairie View A&M University, who also served as president of Smith College before becoming the first Black president of an Ivy League institution at Brown University. My own alma mater, Spelman College, has had five Black women leaders in a row since 1987, beginning with Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole and extending through Dr. Helene D. Gayle, a pediatrician and public health physician who became president of Spelman last year after serving as president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust and the international humanitarian organization CARE and spending 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control and leading the Gates Foundation’s programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues.
Dr. Gay will also have new peers in Dr. Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, who has just been named as the first woman president-elect of Columbia University, and Dr. Sian Leah Beilock, the first woman president-elect of Dartmouth College, when all three begin their administrations later this year, joining women presidents already serving at Brown University, Cornell University, and the University of Pennsylvania within the Ivy League. Each of these leaders sets an important example for the students at her own school and beyond.
When Dr. Gay spoke after being introduced as Harvard’s next president, she paid tribute to the example set for her by her parents: “They came to the U.S. with very little and put themselves through college while raising our family. My mom became a registered nurse and my dad a civil engineer, and it was the City College of New York that made those careers possible. … My parents believed that education opens every door.” Now she is committed to opening those doors for others. Dr. Gay will take over at a time when Harvard and other peer universities are grappling with their responsibilities for their institutions’ histories, including the ways in which they profited from the slave trade and enslaved people’s labor, and with the path forward for continuing to welcome diverse student bodies and scholarship as academia moves into the increasingly diverse future with affirmative action and certain modes of critical thinking under attack. It is a pivotal moment in higher education, and I join many others who will be cheering her on. You can’t be what you can’t see – and I know many young people will now see themselves in President Gay and be inspired to set new goals of their own.