Harvard University’s Next President Is A Black Woman

Harvard University’s Next President Is A Black Woman

Shaun Harper

The oldest institution of higher education in the United States announced Thursday that Claudine Gay has been selected as its 30th president. When her term begins next July, Gay will be the first Black person to serve in Harvard’s top leadership role since its founding in 1636. Each president before her has been white. With the exception of Drew Faust, who led the University from 2007 to 2018, all of them have been men.

“This is a historic appointment considering how few Black presidents have led American universities,” says UCLA Professor Eddie R. Cole, a historian and expert on presidential leadership in higher education. “At a time when Harvard’s own race questions – affirmative action, campus climate, and its profits from slavery – have captured the nation’s attention, this will be one of the most significant presidential hires for years to come.”

Because it’s one of the wealthiest and most prestigious educational institutions in the world, because she’s a woman, and because she’s Black, some will undoubtedly ask if Gay is merely an affirmative action hire. Definitely not. Is she qualified? Incontestably.

Harvard’s new president is an extraordinarily accomplished scholar and experienced leader who’s deeply familiar with the institution. Gay earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1998. She then spent several years on the faculty at Stanford University, her undergraduate alma mater, where she earned tenure. She returned to Harvard in 2006 as a tenured professor in the Department of Government. Two years later, she also joined the Harvard Department of African and African American Studies.

In 2015, Gay was awarded the distinguished Wilbur A. Cowett endowed professorship and began a three-year tenure as Dean of Social Science. She was then promoted to the Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a position she has held since 2018. She is founding chair of Harvard’s Inequality in America Initiative, which its website characterizes “a multidisciplinary effort to elevate and energize teaching and research on social and economic inequality and to use what we learn to inform the public debate and public response to these challenges.”

 

In addition to campus leadership roles, Gay serves on the boards of the Pew Research Center, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and Phillips Exeter Academy.

Jarvis R. Givens, an associate professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a faculty affiliate in the African and African American Studies Department, has had opportunities to witness Gay’s leadership. “She’s a brilliant scholar, a visionary leader, and an ethical person,” he observes. “I’ve also been consistently impressed by her timely and critical responses to a significant number of challenging situations at the University, from the pandemic to matters related to gender equity. Our university is lucky to have Claudine Gay steering the ship.”

Gay’s research and teaching have primarily focused on race and politics in the United States. She has written about inequities in housing mobility, tensions between Black and Latino Americans, the effects of Black congressional representation on political participation, environmental determinants of racial attitudes and political behaviors, and race relations in Brazil. Earlier this year, she was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

While Gay will be the first person of color to serve as Harvard’s president, she won’t be the first to lead an Ivy League university. Ruth Simmons, a Black woman, served as Brown University’s 18th president from 2001 to 2012. Prior to that, she was president of Smith College for six years. Simmons earned her Ph.D. from Harvard.

Lori Patton Davis, a professor at The Ohio State University and the nation’s top expert on Black women in higher education, sees Gay as a “possibility model” who will surely inspire other Black women to pursue leadership roles at colleges and universities. “It’s taken more than 20 years following Ruth Simmons’ presidential appointment at Brown for another Ivy League campus to experience the greatness of a Black woman president,” she notes. “My hope is that Gay’s presidency reveals not only the possibility, but also the promise of higher education when Black women lead.”

Because there have been so few presidents of color at U.S. higher education institutions (most especially research universities like Harvard), Gay’s selection is monumental and praiseworthy. But ensuring the conditions are right for a Black presidential first to ultimately succeed at a place where whites comprise the single-largest racial group among students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors is more important.

My research on campus racial climate at colleges and universities consistently shows that executives and senior leaders of color often experience racialized political resistance to their appointments. Trustees, faculty members, and sometimes even members of their own cabinets undermine their leadership in various ways that are attributable to race – and for women of color, attributable to the intersectionality of race and gender. “History demonstrates that any president, but especially a Black leader at a predominantly white campus, needs the autonomy to truly lead,” Cole asserts.

In addition, leaders of color often tell my research team members and me that they have to balance larger institutional priorities with addressing long-overdue diversity, equity, and inclusion problems. Many reflect on the ridiculous presumption that simply hiring a first-ever president of color will magically, instantly fix decades (in Harvard’s case, centuries) of racism, racial harm, and institutional neglect. That expectation often places unfair pressure on those leaders and results in unearned critiques and disappointments.

Additionally, a Latina president, for example, usually has to worry about how the campus community will react if her leadership team becomes perceivably “too Latino” (based on the addition of 1-3 people), or if none of her new hires are white. They get accused of reverse discrimination, despite the irrefutable evidence that confirms the overrepresentation of white colleagues among tenured faculty members, department chairs and deans, and mid-level and senior administrators. Also, leaders of color too frequently receive racist emails, encounter racial microaggressions and stereotypes, and are caricatured in racist cartoons and other ways online.

Unfortunately, Gay’s stellar academic credentials and impressive administrative resumé won’t exempt her from some of these experiences. Navigating these challenges and realities probably won’t be new to her, though as Harvard’s president she’ll likely experience them more often and with greater intensity. Hopefully not.

“While I’m excited about her leadership, I’ll also be observing how President Gay is treated and the expectations placed upon her,” Patton Davis says. “Being a trailblazer is groundbreaking, but it also comes with a specific set of experiences, particularly for women of color.”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/shaunharper/2022/12/15/harvard-universitys-next-president-is-a-black-woman/?sh=790b92f62025

%d bloggers like this: