At the tail end of finals week in December 2022, as Harvard students packed up to scatter across the globe for winter vacation, the University dropped a surprise announcement: Claudine Gay, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, had been chosen to become Harvard’s next president.
Her selection prompted jubilant celebration from administrators, who gathered in the Smith Campus Center for the announcement. Observers noted the historic nature of her appointment as Harvard’s first Black president. Colleagues regaled her with praise of her leadership and scholarship.
After the celebrations, however, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — Harvard’s largest academic school — geared up to face its next big challenge: replacing its leader.
As dean, Gay has overseen several monumental developments within the FAS. The school reevaluated its own structure, hired new ethnic studies faculty in response to years of advocacy, and opened a new billion-dollar instruction center in Allston. It was rocked by a pandemic, faced a serious challenge to its race-conscious admissions policies, and roiled by allegations of sexual harassment against several FAS professors.
And now, the captain of the ship would be leaving.
Typically, The Crimson interviews top Harvard administrators once a month during the academic year on a range of topics. But Gay, occupied by her duties as dean and preparations for her new role, did not agree to regular sit-down interviews with The Crimson for the spring 2023 semester. Nor did she give interviews to any other independent media outlet, save for an end-of-semester interview with the Harvard Magazine, an alumni publication.
That changed on Friday, when Gay sat down for her final interview with The Crimson as FAS dean. As she readies to assume her new post in Massachusetts Hall on July 1, she reflected on her eventful five-year tenure as FAS dean and shared her hopes for the future of the institution.
In interviews this semester about the search for a new FAS dean, faculty were divided over whether the attention and financial support of FAS leadership should be directed toward STEM or to the arts and humanities.
Gay said these discussions among the faculty “really speak to the enormous ambition” of her FAS colleagues.
She felt that the school’s increased focus in quantum engineering, climate research, and ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration were major accomplishments of her tenure.
The past few years have seen an increased investment in University science, notably reflected in multimillion-dollar gifts for the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence and the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability.
Within the FAS, Gay oversaw the launch of the Science and Engineering Complex, a landmark development on the Allston campus for STEM research and education with a $1 billion price tag. The institution also recently scaled up its investment in quantum science, including the launch of one of the world’s first Ph.D. programs in the subject.
Gay stressed the “value of practical benefits of a liberal arts and sciences education” to Harvard’s academic mission in the interview.
She also argued for the importance of embracing approaches that crossed disciplinary boundaries.
“There are very few, if any — certainly can’t name one — societal challenges, where one discipline has a monopoly on insight. Virtually everything that our society confronts requires multidisciplinary perspectives and expertise,” Gay said.
Gay also mentioned the FAS strategic planning process, a three-year internal evaluation of the FAS’ academics, budget, and technology launched nearly two years ago.
She said faculty would hear initial recommendations from the strategic planning process and have an opportunity to “make some choices about how we want to move forward as a school community” at an all-faculty retreat in August.
One of the defining events of Gay’s last semester as dean was the announcement of a $300 million unrestricted gift from hedge fund CEO and Republican megadonor Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 to the FAS. The donation was accompanied by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences being renamed in Griffin’s honor.
Gay thanked Griffin for his generosity.
“I have nothing but gratitude for this gift,” Gay said. “Really, my mind is focused on how do we realize the full promise of this gift which, because it’s an unrestricted gift to the FAS, enables us to really advance and support our academic core.”
In an interview with The Crimson last week, Penny S. Pritzker ’81, the senior fellow of Harvard’s highest governing body, the Harvard Corporation, said the negotiations for Griffin’s donation took place before she joined the Corporation. Gay was tapped as FAS dean two months after Pritzker joined the Corporation.
Gay declined to provide details about the negotiation process for the gift or her involvement in it.
The donation garnered criticism from GSAS students and former GSAS Dean Theda R. Skocpol, who slammed Griffin’s public support for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
In an interview with The Crimson last month, University President Lawrence S. Bacow defended the donation, arguing that Harvard should not have political litmus tests for its donors.
Though Griffin’s funds are unrestricted and Harvard has yet to announce how they will be allocated, many GSAS affiliates have called for a portion of the donation to be spent directly on graduate education and pay.
Gay declined to comment on any specific use of the funds, saying she was “really not in a position to provide you a line item accounting of this.” She added that graduate education is one priority for the FAS.
This summer, the Supreme Court is widely expected to rule against Harvard in the lawsuit against the school brought by anti-affirmative action organization Students for Fair Admissions. Such a ruling could overturn years of precedent and make race-based admissions policies unconstitutional. The decision is expected to come around when Gay would start her term as president.
In her interview, Gay reiterated her hope that the Court would rule in Harvard’s favor, stressing the importance of diversity among the student body.
“We will comply with the Court’s decision,” Gay said. “But we’ll also remain committed, as we have been for generations now, in the educational value of bringing diverse learners together in one community.”
“That’s something that we believe to our core, it’s part of our DNA,” she added.
She declined to answer whether there were plans in place in case the Court ruled against Harvard or say whether she has spoken with other University leaders about contingency plans.
“It would be premature, and cavalier, and an utter act of hubris to try to predict what the Court will do,” she said.
The SFFA case has also prompted scrutiny of Harvard’s practice of giving preference to legacy applicants, with many calling for the University to abolish legacy admission altogether.
Gay declined to answer how she would consider calls to abolish legacy admission as president.
After five decades of advocacy from students and alumni demanding a concentration in ethnic studies, Gay took the step in 2019 of announcing a cluster hire of three to four ethnic studies faculty. Last year, the FAS finalized the cluster hire, announcing that Taeku Lee, Erika Lee, and Jesse E. Hoffnung-Garskof ’93 would join Harvard’s faculty as full professors.
But advocates for ethnic studies are still demanding more from the FAS. During the inaugural Ethnic Studies Week in April, many advocates reiterated demands for a dedicated ethnic studies department, which Harvard lacks.
Gay said that despite the hiring of the three faculty, there was progress to be made in the field. She said she hoped to “build out the cohort” of ethnic studies faculty and foster “intellectual synergies” among existing faculty across the departments whose work concerns ethnicity and race.
“There’s already an emerging critical mass,” she said.
Gay has previously endorsed a concentration for ethnic studies but deferred to the faculty themselves to decide what form ethnic studies at Harvard should take.
During Gay’s tenure as dean, another landmark step the University took to further study and understand race was releasing the landmark Legacy of Slavery report, which documented the integral role that slavery played in Harvard’s growth.
Gay said that along with some symposiums organized in the FAS, she is focused on expanding Harvard’s collaboration with historically Black colleges and universities, another recommendation of the report.
Pointing to former College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, a professor in the History of Science Department who spent the past year working at Spelman College, Gay said that other faculty are “arranging to also have that kind of exchange,” and that she will be looking at similar initiatives for students.
“But those conversations are really still quite early,” Gay said. “But the ambition — and it’s one that I feel particularly passionate about — is just finding more ways for us to just be in conversation with our HBCU peers, sharing knowledge and educational opportunities and research opportunities in ways that really enhance all of our institutions.”
Two years into Gay’s tenure, The Crimson published an investigation uncovering numerous allegations of sexual harassment by three top professors in Harvard’s Anthropology Department: Theodore C. Bestor, Gary Urton, and John L. Comaroff.
In June 2021, Gay stripped Urton of his emeritus status and banned him from Harvard’s campus. Bestor — who stepped down as the director of Harvard’s Reischauer Institute following an FAS investigation — died in July 2021. Gay put Comaroff on unpaid leave following an FAS investigation, but he returned to teaching in the fall 2022 semester, sparking protests.
In the spring 2023 semester, students staged a walkout, a march, an email campaign, and a sit-in of University Hall protesting Comaroff’s presence on campus. Comaroff has consistently denied all allegations of misconduct.
Gay said institutions of higher education are all working to amend their policies to better cultivate “a community where all members can thrive and do their best work.”
“This is an area that I would agree represents unfinished business. But it’s one where I actually feel really hopeful, because I’ve been part of Harvard for a while, and I feel like I actually have seen a culture change around just the elevation and importance of building a culture of mutual respect,” Gay said.
Gay also pointed to a new University-wide bullying policy unveiled in March as a sign of progress made under her deanship.
“That’s going to require work in every school to adjust our processes and our various offices to support effective implementation” of the University’s new anti-bullying policies Gay said, adding that she worked with deans of other Harvard schools to create the policies.
Affiliates of Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department have called for bullying and harassment policies to be strengthened after an investigation by The Crimson detailed decades of bullying and workplace toxicity allegations against Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor Daniel P. Schrag.
According to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton, affiliates had opportunities to provide feedback on the draft anti-bullying policies during a comment period from April 2022 to the end of September 2022. He has declined to comment on other aspects of the EPS affiliates’ demands.
Gay will be vacating her current position and ascending to the presidency on July 1, but declined to promise a successor would be in place by that date, saying that she is “not setting any kind of artificial timetable” for the process.
The search launched in February with the creation of a 14-person search advisory committee.
“While I recognize that the sooner the better for me personally, my focus really is on identifying the right person, so I don’t have a calendar in mind,” she added.
Gay would not say if there would be an interim dean as the search continues. The last time the FAS had an interim leader was in 2006.
University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, who is co-leading the search for the next dean with Gay, previously said in an interview with The Crimson that an announcement for Gay’s successor is not “imminent.”
Along with finding her own successor, Gay will also have to appoint deans for the School of Public Health, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Divinity School. Gay appointed an interim for the HSPH dean, and Divinity School Dean David N. Hempton announced he will be extending his time in the position by a few months, but neither position has been permanently filled.
When asked what advice she would have for her successor, Gay gave three pieces of advice: to listen to students, faculty, and staff, to “pace yourself,” and to engage with other parts of the University.
“This is a big place. It’s an ambitious place. There’s so much that you can do,” Gay said. “But it is a marathon.”
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.