Social scientist and dean of largest University faculty excited to seize ‘moment of possibility’
Since 2018, Gay has served as the Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the University’s largest and most academically diverse faculty, spanning the biological and physical sciences and engineering, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts. As dean, she has guided efforts to expand student access and opportunity, spur excellence and innovation in teaching and research, enhance aspects of academic culture, and bring new emphasis and energy to areas such as quantum science and engineering; climate change; ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration; and the humanities. She has successfully led FAS through the COVID pandemic, consistently and effectively prioritizing the dual goals of safeguarding community health and sustaining academic continuity and progress. The disruptive effects of the crisis notwithstanding, she has also launched and led an ambitious, inclusive, and faculty-driven strategic planning process, intended to take a fresh look at fundamental aspects of academic structures, resources, and operations in FAS and to advance academic excellence in the years ahead.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Gay received her bachelor’s degree in 1992 from Stanford, where she majored in economics and was awarded the Anna Laura Myers Prize for best undergraduate thesis. In 1998, she received her Ph.D. in government from Harvard, where she won the Toppan Prize for best dissertation in political science. A quantitative social scientist with expertise in political behavior, Gay served as an assistant professor and then tenured associate professor at Stanford before being recruited to Harvard in 2006 as a professor of government. She was also appointed a professor of African and African American Studies in 2007. She was named the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government in 2015, when she also became dean of social science at FAS.
“Claudine is a remarkable leader who is profoundly devoted to sustaining and enhancing Harvard’s academic excellence, to championing both the value and the values of higher education and research, to expanding opportunity, and to strengthening Harvard as a fount of ideas and a force for good in the world,” said Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chair of Harvard’s presidential search committee. “As the Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 2018, and previously as dean of social science, Claudine has brought to her roles a rare blend of incisiveness and inclusiveness, intellectual range and strategic savvy, institutional ambition and personal humility, a respect for enduring ideals, and a talent for catalyzing change. She has a bedrock commitment to free inquiry and expression, as well as a deep appreciation for the diverse voices and views that are the lifeblood of a university community.
“As her many admirers know, Claudine consults widely; she listens attentively; she thinks rigorously and imaginatively; she invites collaboration and resists complacency; and she acts with conviction and purpose,” continued Pritzker. “All of us on the search committee are excited by the prospect of her bringing her high aspirations and interdisciplinary outlook across the Yard from University Hall to Massachusetts Hall. We are confident Claudine will be a thoughtful, principled, and inspiring president for all of Harvard, dedicated to helping each of our individual Schools to thrive, as well as fostering creative connections among them. She is someone intent on affirming the power of curiosity-driven learning. And she is someone eager to integrate and elevate Harvard’s efforts — throughout the arts and sciences and across the professions — to address complex challenges in the wider world.
“For all her professional accomplishments, even more impressive are Claudine’s personal qualities — her quality and clarity of mind, her broad curiosity about fields beyond her own, her integrity and fair-mindedness, and her dedication to creating opportunities for others. She will be a great Harvard president in no small part because she is such a good person,” said Pritzker.
Speaking after her election, Gay said, “I am humbled by the confidence that the governing boards have placed in me and by the prospect of succeeding President Bacow in leading this remarkable institution. It has been a privilege to work with Larry over the last five years. He has shown me that leadership isn’t about one person. It’s about all of us, moving forward together, and that’s a lesson I take with me into this next journey.
“Today, we are in a moment of remarkable and accelerating change — socially, politically, economically, and technologically,” said Gay. “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,” she continued. “With the strength of this extraordinary institution behind us, we enter a moment of possibility, one that calls for deeper collaboration across the University, across all of our remarkable Schools. There is an urgency for Harvard to be engaged with the world and to 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.”
Gay was elected to the presidency today by the Harvard Corporation, the University’s principal governing board, with the consent of the University’s Board of Overseers.
The election concludes a wide-ranging and intensive search launched after Larry Bacow’s June announcement that he would step down at the end of the academic year after serving as president since 2018 and as a member of the Harvard Corporation since 2011.
“Over the last five years, Claudine and I have worked very closely together,” said Bacow. “She is a terrific academic leader with a keen mind, great leadership and communication skills, excellent judgment, and a basic decency and kindness that will serve Harvard well. Perhaps most importantly, she commands the respect of all who know her and have worked with her.
“Claudine is a person of bedrock integrity,” Bacow added. “She will provide Harvard with the strong moral compass necessary to lead this great university. The search committee has made an inspired choice for our 30th president. Under Claudine Gay’s leadership, Harvard’s future is very bright.”
Known for her broad intellectual curiosity and interdisciplinary outlook, Gay is recognized as a highly influential expert on American political participation. Her research and teaching explore how various social and economic factors shape political views and voting behavior. She is the founding chair of Harvard’s Inequality in America Initiative, a multidisciplinary effort that has advanced scholarship in areas such as the effects of child poverty and deprivation on educational opportunity, inequities in STEM education, immigration and social mobility, democratic governance, and American inequality in a global context.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Gay has pursued her scholarship as a fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She currently serves on the boards of the Pew Research Center, Phillips Exeter Academy, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science. She also served as a member of the American Association of Universities advisory board on racial equity in higher education.
“Claudine Gay combines in one person many of the attributes that will be required of Harvard’s new president,” said Shirley Tilghman, who served as president of Princeton University from 2001 to 2013, is professor emerita of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton, and serves on the Harvard Corporation. “She is a brilliant scholar of political science whose commitment to teaching, scholarly excellence, and academic freedom has been unwavering throughout her career. She has also become a wise and effective administrator who has ably led the Faculty of Arts and Sciences through some of the most challenging years in its history. Harvard is lucky to have her at the helm.”
Reacting to Gay’s appointment, Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University and president emerita of Brown University, said, “In selecting Claudine Gay as the next president, Harvard’s governing boards have demonstrated a commitment to ensuring that Harvard remains not only the preeminent university in the world but also the university that leads with increasing relevance to the world today.
“Claudine has shown throughout her exceptional career a deep commitment to academic excellence, unerring support for innovation, and consistent leadership in promoting fairness and broad access to educational opportunity,” continued Simmons. “She will be an inclusive leader who deftly and respectfully mediates different perspectives, setting a needed example for the University and the nation. She possesses the character, values, and know-how to lead Harvard to a new level of excellence in the coming years.”
As dean of FAS, Gay has advanced an ambitious agenda of academic priorities, with a focus on bringing resources from across disciplines to bear on issues of public consequence. Working with the faculty, she has sought to identify new areas of teaching and scholarship and supported work that crosses academic disciplines to tackle important challenges.
Under her leadership of FAS, Harvard in 2021 launched one of the world’s first Ph.D. programs in quantum science and engineering and began work on a state-of-the-art facility for the Harvard quantum community designed to integrate the educational, research, and translational aspects of the emerging field. She has also worked to create new pathways and lower barriers to working across disciplines. In 2019, FAS announced plans to hire new faculty and strengthen multidisciplinary scholarship and teaching in the broad domain of ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration. More recently, FAS and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have launched cluster searches for new faculty focused on aspects of climate change, as part of the University’s larger plans to build strength in that area across its Schools. Announcing the search, Gay noted that “fighting the climate crisis requires engagement by the full breadth of academic disciplines.” She has also played a key role in major fundraising initiatives for undergraduate financial aid and in such diverse academic areas as quantum science, economics, Asian American studies, and the arts.
In addition, Gay has been engaged in a range of academic and programmatic initiatives, including as a leading voice within both the Academic Council and the Provost’s Council, the two principal University-wide forums for charting institutional priorities and plans. She serves on the oversight committee for the new Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence, and she has been involved in the implementation of the recommendations of the April 2022 report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery and the launch of the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability. In overseeing the Division of Continuing Education, she has helped shape Harvard’s evolving approach to expanding access to the University’s educational resources, particularly through emerging modes of online learning.
Gay also has a deep commitment to academic freedom, calling it “the touchstone for everything we are trying to achieve,” and has been a strong advocate for inclusive excellence throughout her career, including during her deanship.
“I couldn’t be more pleased by the selection of Claudine Gay as the next Harvard president,” said Hopi Hoekstra, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University. “I have had the pleasure of working with her over many years and at many levels of her career. She is deeply committed to academic excellence across the University, and in touch with the issues that matter most to the academic enterprise — from supporting academic freedom, to fostering an inclusive campus, to promoting new and interdisciplinary academic areas, to building an exceptional faculty, in both teaching and research. She is approachable, a good listener and has a strong moral compass. Importantly, she is perceptive, thoughtful, and deeply wise. Her leadership as dean of the FAS has been nothing short of extraordinary.”
Seeking to enable a strong, creative, and intellectually vibrant FAS for the long term, Gay initiated a faculty-led, multiyear strategic planning effort in the fall of 2021. The wide-reaching review puts a particular focus on assuring excellence in graduate education, enhancing faculty support and development, and organizing academic communities in ways that promote novel and meaningful collaborations across academic disciplines. In announcing the strategic planning process, she urged her faculty colleagues to see themselves as “founders of a future FAS,” adding: “We are asking big questions: What is the vision for our School? How do we build an FAS that empowers us as teachers and scholars, and that meets the needs of this generation and the next? Because we want to dream big.”
“It was a pleasure working with Dean Gay on this important initiative,” said Jeremy Stein, the Moise Y. Safra Professor of Economics, who was a co-chair of the FAS study group that led the effort. “Her commissioning of this long-range strategic project, the broad framing that she gave us as a mandate, and the very helpful input and advice she contributed at every step along the way all showcased the ambition and thoughtfulness that she brings to bear on behalf of building a better future for Harvard. It was especially heartening to see how she kept our teaching and research mission front and center throughout, while at the same time pushing us to think in new and creative ways about how we could best fulfill that mission.”
Under her leadership, FAS has also reviewed its tenure processes, with recommendations designed to better prepare candidates for tenure reviews, increase transparency, revamp the second-year review for promotion to associate professor, and mitigate potential bias throughout the system.
Gay is credited with leading FAS faculty, students, and staff through a pandemic that has caused disruption and dislocation at Harvard and across higher education. In the earliest days of the crisis, she brought together academic and administrative expertise from across FAS to inform and shape the response. The priorities she articulated in early 2020 underpinned efforts to manage the pandemic and eventually bring the FAS community safely back to campus while ensuring academic continuity and access for students and sustaining the research enterprise. FAS marshaled forces to support faculty instruction throughout the pandemic, including the sudden and large-scale shift to online education in the spring of 2020, and in the process has learned valuable lessons that will continue to inform innovations in teaching and learning on campus and beyond.
“Dean Gay very clearly established the fundamental principles that guided how FAS addressed the many challenges posed by the pandemic,” said Christopher Stubbs, the Samuel C. Moncher Professor of Physics and of Astronomy and Dean of Science in FAS who served as a leading member of the FAS Pandemic Planning and Response Group. “By convening the FAS Pandemic Planning and Response Group she brought together a wide range of voices and perspectives from across the FAS community. Equally important, in my view, her emphasis on rebuilding a sense of academic community and shared purpose has been vital to our successful return to campus.
“Dean Gay’s ability to lead from principle and values, alongside a natural instinct to bring people together from across disciplines and areas of expertise to address big challenges, will serve Harvard well in the years to come,” said Stubbs.
As dean, Gay has worked to expand access to Harvard by enhancing financial aid. Earlier this year, she announced an increase, to $75,000, of the family income threshold below which students admitted to Harvard College can attend for free, with no obligation to pay tuition, room, board, or other fees. The move built on a 2020 announcement that any summer work expectation would be eliminated for students receiving financial aid.
“As we approach our 400th anniversary as an institution, I’m excited about Claudine’s energy and ambition for the University and her potential for transformational leadership,” said Paul Choi, president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers and a member of the search committee. “She is intensely focused on intellectual excellence and rigor and bringing together Harvard’s strengths to help address the biggest problems our society faces.”
Gay is married to Dr. Christopher Afendulis, an expert in health care policy. They have a son.
The election of Gay as president marks the culmination of a robust and intensive search process. The process formally began in early July, with an email from the search committee to more than 400,000 faculty, students, staff, alumni, higher education leaders, and others well positioned to provide advice. Members of the search committee spoke personally with more than 150 individuals to solicit their advice and nominations and consulted with dozens of key faculty leadership groups and groups of alumni and friends from across Harvard’s Schools. The search committee met some 20 times, for hours at a stretch.
As chair of the search committee, Pritzker thanked the leaders of the various advisory committees for their work on the search.
“I want to thank especially the members of the three advisory groups formed to gather additional community-wide input and to offer their own diverse perspectives to the search committee,” wrote Pritzker in her message to the Harvard community. “The members of these three groups — faculty, students, and staff — invested extraordinary time and effort in reaching out to colleagues across the University, and their work produced a range of insights vital to the search committee’s deliberations. I personally have learned a great deal from their work, and all of us on the search committee are very grateful for their commitment. That gratitude extends to the hundreds and hundreds of people who, in one way or another, offered their thoughts on the search. Your observations not only helped inform our selection of the new president they also produced a wealth of valuable perspectives on the University’s perceived strengths and shortcomings, and on people’s hopes for Harvard as it approaches its fifth century.”
“I was privileged to be able to work with colleagues across Harvard University and the presidential search committee to articulate faculty perspectives and priorities. All of us felt that Harvard and indeed higher education face unprecedented challenges in this moment,” said Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at Harvard Kennedy School, who chaired the faculty advisory committee. “To meet these challenges, we need a president who understands the manifold excellence that resides in so many disciplines and professions here, and who has the skill and temperament to cultivate that excellence and weave our many strengths together so that Harvard can contribute to addressing the profound problems of our societies. We need a president who has the discernment to preserve what has made Harvard preeminent, but also the courage to move forward with the boldness that these times demand.
“Claudine Gay has demonstrated vision to advance research and education, deep commitment to Harvard’s mission, temperament to listen and learn from the many rich sources of expertise in our faculty, and fortitude to make difficult decisions. She is the best of a new generation of higher education leaders, and I look forward to helping her realize her vision and goals for Harvard in the years ahead.”
The student advisory committee reached out to students across Harvard throughout the semester to seek input on opportunities and challenges facing the University, as well as the attributes they would value in its next president. “I’m very glad Harvard includes the student voice in the presidential search,” said Christopher Cleveland, A.B. ’14 Ed.M. ’19, a Ph.D. candidate who chaired the student advisory committee. “It was great to work with the committee to engage our peers on the qualities we sought in a president. We were able to share with the presidential search committee our perspectives on where Harvard can advance the student experience across all Schools, and our hope that it will be a leader on the many complex issues that society confronts.”
“The presidential search committee recognized the importance of staff input from day one, and nearly 1,000 members of the Harvard community participated in the 30 staff advisory committee listening sessions,” said Meredith Weenick, executive vice president of the University and chair of the staff advisory committee. “Throughout, we heard employees’ aspirations for the next president: someone who will value staff and lead with humility, creativity, and courage.
“Claudine Gay’s inclusive approach to leadership will inspire staff and a workplace where everyone can thrive,” Weenick added. “Her thoughtful leadership throughout the pandemic exemplified both her compassion for individuals — students, faculty, and staff — and her commitment to supporting research, teaching, and University operations under the most challenging of circumstances.”
Pritzker closed her message to the community by recognizing Bacow.
“I would not want to end this message without again thanking Larry Bacow for his outstanding service, as he looks toward his final six months as our president,” she wrote. “His wisdom, judgment, foresight, experience, humility, and values have served Harvard and higher education extraordinarily well during these challenging times, and all of us are deeply in his debt. I know he looks forward to a productive home stretch this spring, and we will have more opportunities to recognize and celebrate his leadership in the months to come.
“For today,” she said, “please join me in congratulating Claudine Gay as our new president-elect.”