Harvard appoints Claudine Gay as first Black president

The social scientist and daughter of Haitian immigrants says the university must ‘engage and be of service to the world’.

Claudine Gay
'The idea of the "ivory tower"- that is the past not the future of academia,' says Harvard's incoming president, Claudine Gay [Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University via AP]

Harvard University has appointed Claudine Gay, a social scientist and faculty dean, as its next president, making her the first Black person and second woman to lead the prestigious academic institution.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Ivy League school announced on Thursday that the Harvard Corporation, the university’s main governing board, elected Gay to serve as its 30th president starting on July 1.

She will replace Lawrence Bacow, who had guided the university through the COVID-19 pandemic and this year announced his plans to step down in June.

Gay, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is currently a democracy scholar and the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at the university.

Gay, 52, said on Thursday that it is urgent for the university be more engaged with the world and to “bring bold, brave and pioneering thinking to our greatest challenges”.

“The idea of the ‘ivory tower’- that is the past not the future of academia,” she said. “We don’t exist outside of society but as part of it. That means that Harvard has a duty to lean in, engage and to be of service to the world.”

Several Harvard officials praised Gay’s leadership after her appointment was announced.

“Claudine Gay’s inclusive approach to leadership will inspire staff and a workplace where everyone can thrive,” Meredith Weenick, executive vice president of the university, said in a statement through Harvard’s official news website, the Harvard Gazette.

Chuck Schumer, leader of the Democrats in the United States Senate, also hailed Gay’s selection as Harvard’s president. “I was so happy to hear of this historic moment,” he wrote on Twitter.

Gay was appointed months after Harvard released a report acknowledging that slavery was “integral” to the university in its first nearly 150 years.

“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Bacow wrote in a university-wide email in April.

“Consequently, I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society,” he said.

The university authorised a $100m fund to address the legacy of slavery.

The Supreme Court is due to rule next year on a challenge to Harvard’s race-conscious admission policies in a case that could unravel affirmative action programmes, which boost the enrollment of Black and other minority students at higher education institutions.

Harvard has warned that if the lawsuit succeeds, it would “diminish students’ opportunities to live and learn in a diverse campus environment – denying them the kind of experiences that are central to Harvard’s educational mission and critical for success in our diverse society”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies