In making one of the biggest professional and symbolic breakthroughs in all of US higher education — becoming the first black female president of Harvard University — Claudine Gay is getting some predictable help on identifying what comes next.
Dr. (Prof.) Gay, to be clear, brings top academic credentials to the job. She earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Stanford University, winning the Anna Laura Myers Prize for best undergraduate thesis. She earned a doctorate in government from Harvard, winning the Toppan Prize for best dissertation in political science. She became a tenured faculty member at both institutions, before her promotions by Harvard to become dean of social science and then dean of the faculty of arts and sciences.
And yet within moments of the announcement that she will head the nation’s oldest university, one of the predictable responses for a nation still steeped in racism — harsh political pushback — arrived. Fiercely conservative outlets began publishing critiques citing anonymous sources questioning Gay’s qualifications and suggesting that her career success, instead of marking achievement by black women, was built on unfair favouritism towards them.
Amid a lifetime of navigating such experiences, Gay embraced the milestone with an introductory speech that celebrated her Haitian-born parents and their faith in the power of education and then gently reminded her fellow academics of the toxic political atmosphere surrounding them. Today’s high-tech world offers “endless access to information”, she told her colleagues in a jammed foyer of Harvard’s Smith Campus Center. “But it’s getting harder to know what to believe.”
Some of the many advocates of equity who long stood behind Gay made it clear that they are overjoyed by Harvard’s decision and by its potentially transformative power over all of US higher education, and yet are fully aware of the long united states International News pathway to equity that still lies ahead. They include Gloria Blackwell, chief executive of the American Association of University Women, which awarded Prof. Gay a postdoctoral fellowship nearly 20 years ago at Stanford. Gay’s fellowship was one of 13,000 that the association has funded since its founding in 1881, and her career success “is quite gratifyng”, says Blackwell.
“Harvard is the gold standard, obviously, for so many people, not just in their own country, but around the world.” Harvard seems to have taken a systematic and sustained approach in its pathway to placing Prof. Gay in its top post, says Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation, which funds work in areas of gender and racial diversity. The university says that it has chosen its new president after a five-month search process that assembled and considered 600 nominees. Yet, Silbert says the university also appears to have guided Gay into positions that would improve her readiness for the presidency.
The dean of arts and sciences heads the university’s largest and most academically diverse collection of faculty, and Gay’s experiences in that job included handling several high-profile sexual harassment complaints against prominent Harvard professors, and overseeing revisions to promotion and tenure policies designed to reduce biases. “I think Harvard felt like it needs to lead by example,” says Silbert “and make sure that everybody who goes to Harvard feels like they are represented at the very top.”
Although a black woman as president of Harvard is unprecedented, women presidents are not. Dr. Gay’s predecessor in the corner office was Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust. A hard-as-nails achiever, Faust churlishly declined to meet with your editor who travelled all the way to Boston. Nevertheless we wrote a cover story (EW, June 2009) on the world’s most respected university. It’s unlikely Dr. Gay will be a softer touch.