University President Claudine Gay offered a first glimpse into her priorities during her inaugural address Friday afternoon, in which she urged attendees to “be courageous” in advocating for higher education and spearheading change at Harvard.
The nearly 30-minute speech, delivered to a large crowd in Tercentenary Theatre despite the pouring rain, marked her most extensive public remarks since officially assuming office as the University’s 30th president in July.
While Gay avoided direct references to some of the biggest debates swirling across campus — like the push to end donor and legacy admissions preferences, she did mention several challenges she will encounter as president over the coming years, including the existential threat of growing distrust in colleges and universities.
Here are four takeaways from the inauguration ceremony:
The title of Gay’s inaugural address, “Courage to be Harvard,” signaled that her tenure will be marked by a willingness to act boldly and will be decidedly different from that of her predecessor, Lawrence S. Bacow.
Bacow was 66 when the governing boards confirmed him as Harvard’s 29th president, an age when many university presidents retire. Bacow’s selection reflected the need for a seasoned leader who could safely steer the University through choppy waters, a role that was further cemented by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But Gay, 53, is expected to lead Harvard for at least 10 years, and her speech indicated that she was given a different mandate than her predecessor. Instead, Gay repeatedly emphasized her hopes for Harvard to act bravely and innovatively while encouraging affiliates to ask the question, “Why not?” when imagining the University’s future.
“‘Why not?’ is a call to action, the aspiration to do what might seem impossible,” Gay said. “Asking ‘why not?’ should be a Harvard refrain — the willingness to sound foolish, risk ridicule, be dismissed as a dreamer.”
Gay also pointed out that Harvard will celebrate its quatercentenary in 13 years. The remark suggested that Gay, who will be 66 in 2036, might be eyeing her tenure to last until that milestone.
“When I envision Harvard on our 400th anniversary, just 13 years away, I see an institution that connects in new and expanded ways, among ourselves and with society,” she said.
As president of Harvard, Gay will be expected to serve as an advocate for all of higher education.
While Gay repeatedly emphasized the need to rebuild the American public’s faith in the value of a college degree, she did not use her speech to explicitly embrace the role of higher education’s chief defender.
Except Gay didn’t need to. Earlier in the inauguration ceremony, City University of New York Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez did the job of bestowing the title of higher education’s spokesperson on her.
“Harvard’s president is often expected to speak on behalf of the entire sector,” Matos Rodríguez said. “This is not an easy task.”
“But if someone is profoundly capable and unmistakably ready to do this, it’s President Claudine Gay,” he added. “I have no doubt that she will represent all of us in higher education with passion, integrity, and vision.”
Gay’s own speech revealed a leader who understands that the spotlight awaits her eventually but feels no urgent rush to claim it. Instead, she focused on the need to collaborate with other university leaders to advocate for higher education at a time of “declining trust in institutions of all kinds.”
“Rebuilding trust in the mission and institutions of higher education won’t be easy,” Gay said. “It lies partly in our courage to face our imperfections and mistakes, and to turn outward with a fresh and open spirit — meeting a doubtful and restless society with audacious and uplifting ambitions, present in both the research we undertake and the students we educate.”
The Supreme Court handed Gay the first major challenge of her presidency when it declared Harvard College’s race-conscious admissions policy unconstitutional and effectively ended the use of affirmative action in colleges and universities.
But the monumental ruling went unmentioned in Gay’s inaugural address. The speech merely stated that “the inclusion of diverse viewpoints and experiences” is essential for the University’s work.
It also continued Harvard’s unofficial policy of refraining from discussing the specifics of potential changes to its admissions policies in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Gay’s decision to avoid discussing the Supreme Court ruling and the University’s internal review of its admissions practices likely stemmed from a desire to avoid fueling news headlines that would focus more on affirmative action than her installment ceremony.
Still, the omission marked a glaring absence in Gay’s speech, as the University seeks to maintain its commitment to admitting a diverse class of students.
Gay only reaffirmed Harvard’s mission of supporting various forms of diversity.
“When we embrace diversity — of backgrounds, lived experiences, and perspectives — as an institutional imperative, it’s not with a secret hope for calm or consensus,” she said. “It’s because we believe in the value of dynamic engagement and the learning that happens when ideas and opinions collide.”
As the University’s first Black president in its 387-year existence, Gay used her speech to reflect on Harvard’s history and her own historic presidency, briefly referencing four enslaved people — Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba — who lived and worked in Wadsworth House “as the personal property of the president of Harvard.”
“My story is not their story,” she said. “But our stories — and the stories of the many trailblazers between us — are linked by this institution’s long history of exclusion and the long journey of resistance and resilience to overcome it.”
Though brief, the explicit nod toward the history of slavery at Harvard in her installment speech was an indication that Gay will continue to prioritize the implementation of the seven recommendations laid out in Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery report.
The long-awaited report, which was released in 2022, detailed the “integral” role slavery had in shaping the University. The report found that slavery served as a key source of University wealth over three centuries, including through financial ties to donors who built their wealth off of slavery.
Thus far, developments have included naming higher education leader Ruth J. Simmons as senior adviser to the University president on engagement with historically Black colleges and universities and assembling a committee to lead the effort to memorialize individuals who were enslaved at Harvard.
Under Gay’s leadership, Harvard is expected to make significant progress toward fulfilling the recommendations from the report and reconciling with its history.
“Because of the collective courage of all those who walked that impossible distance, across centuries, and dared to create a different future, I stand before you on this stage — in this distinguished company and magnificent theater, at this moment of challenge in our nation and in the world, with the weight and honor of being a ‘first’ — able to say, ‘I am Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University,’” Gay said.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @claireyuan33.