Harvard is set to inaugurate its first Black President Claudine Gay on September 29. Here is what you need to know about her.

BY Solomon Mensah September 8, 2023 11:13 PM EDT
Claudine Gay. Photo credit: via

When it was announced last year that Claudine Gay would assume the role of the 30th president of Harvard University, the world’s most prestigious higher learning institution, there was a surge of excitement within communities of color and champions of gender equality.

For people of color, Dr. Gay’s appointment in July 2023 was nothing short of historic. She would become the first black person ever to hold the esteemed position of Harvard’s presidency since the institution’s establishment in 1636. On the other hand, champions of gender equality were equally thrilled, as Claudine Gay would be only the second woman to lead Harvard University.

Born on August 4, 1970, in the Bronx, New York, Claudine Gay is the child of Haitian immigrants. Her parents initially met in New York City, both having come to the United States for their studies. Her mother pursued nursing, while her father chose engineering.

Dr. Gay’s father later joined the United States’ Army Corps of Engineers, leading to a move to Saudi Arabia. Young Claudine followed her father to the Gulf state, spending the early part of her childhood there.

28claudinegay – Claudine Gay with her family. (Provided by Harvard University)

In 1988, she graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Her Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University in 1992 was particularly notable, as she was awarded the prestigious Anna Laura Meyers Prize for her undergraduate thesis.

Claudine Gay would go on to earn her Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University in 1998. Remarkably, she received the prestigious Toppan Prize in Political Science for her Harvard dissertation. Following the completion of her Ph.D., she quickly gained recognition within the academic community in the United States.

According to The Crimson, a Harvard College newspaper, several universities, including Princeton University, attempted to recruit her, but she declined those offers. Instead, she chose to join Stanford University, serving as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science from 2000 to 2006.

In 2006, Dr. Gay accepted an invitation from Jennifer L. Hochschild, the person who initially encouraged her to consider Princeton University. Hochschild had moved to Harvard by then, and Claudine Gay joined Harvard University as a Professor of Government, returning to the very department she had graduated from. Within a year of joining Harvard, she was appointed as a professor of African American Studies.

Her academic journey has been nothing short of illustrious. In 2015, she was named the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government and African-American Studies and also assumed the role of Dean of Social Studies at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Three years later, she was appointed the Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at Harvard.

During her tenure as the Dean of FAS, she oversaw both graduate and undergraduate studies and focused on achieving four key goals: promoting interdisciplinary studies among students, enhancing diversity among students, fostering faculty engagement in the university’s community, and encouraging collaboration among professors.

Claudine Gay is highly regarded for her leadership during the COVID pandemic, skillfully balancing the academic community’s health and academic progress.

When the former president of Harvard, Larry Bacow, announced on June 22 that he would step down in a year’s time, Penny Pritzker, a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Corporation, led a search committee to find his replacement. The spotlight eventually fell on Claudine Gay, selected out of 600 nominees. On December 15, 2022, Harvard University officially announced Dr. Gay as its next president.

“I don’t think there was anybody else who was genuinely a close second. This was very definitely the right outcome — and an exciting one,” remarked Dr. Gay’s cousin, Roxane Gay, regarding her meteoric rise within Harvard.

Claudine Gay assumed her post on July 1, 2023, and will be officially inaugurated on September 29, 2023. As “The Crimson” notes, “While Gay officially began her historic presidency on Saturday, she will have to wait until her inauguration on Sept. 29 to ceremonially receive the University’s keys, seals, and charter before sitting briefly in the infamously uncomfortable Holyoke Chair.”

A communiqué shared with members of the Harvard academic community, as seen by BlackStars News, outlines the inauguration plans:

“The inauguration itself will begin at 2:00 p.m. in historic Tercentenary Theatre, situated in the heart of Harvard Yard. Following the academic procession, participants will enjoy greetings, reflections, and performances by members of the Harvard community, culminating in President Gay’s inaugural address. The festivities will then continue with a joyous community-wide celebration in the neighboring Old Yard.”