Claudine Gay stood alone at the podium at the Oct. 2 meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to face Harvard’s flagship faculty for the first time as its dean.
“When you’re all together in one room, you’re very intimidating,” Gay said with a laugh.
Before getting down to business, she noted that the seafoam green color of the Faculty room — the place where Harvard’s professors gather once a month — matches the walls of her new corner office.
Gay may have a fancier office now, but it's not her first time in a major administrative role. Just three years ago, former FAS Dean Michael D. Smith appointed Gay to serve as dean of Social Science, a position in which she made major decisions about the University’s hiring and curricula.
So Gay did not need to introduce herself to the scores of professors seated before her. Most were already well aware of who she is.
And even the most oblivious Harvard faculty member could hardly have failed to notice Gay's appointment. She is the first new FAS Dean in 11 years, taking the role just after the University inaugurated a new president — but her assumption of the deanship attracted still more attention due to its unprecedented nature. She is both the first woman and the first person of color to hold the position since its inception in the early 1940s.
“Claudine Gay’s appointment as the first African American Dean of FAS sends a strong signal about the reach of President [Lawrence S.] Bacow’s and of Harvard University’s commitment to living into its values of diversity, inclusion, and belongingness; of being an institution where judgments about quality of mind and commitment to truth know no bounds of race or gender,” current Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo wrote in an emailed statement.
In an interview immediately after administrators announced her hiring, Gay said she hadn't thought much about the historic significance of her appointment. She said she was wholly focused on the future of Harvard’s largest faculty.
Gay has wasted no time getting started. Since taking office on August 15, Gay has compiled the annual FAS Dean’s report, overseen Faculty and Faculty Council meetings, and worked to learn more about the school she will likely lead for years to come.
Over the past three decades, Gay has mainly split her time between the two major educational powerhouses and perennial competitors that bookend the United States — Stanford and Harvard. She received her B.A. in Economics from Stanford University in 1992 before heading to Harvard to earn her Government Ph.D. She returned to Stanford in 2000 as a political science assistant professor and won tenure there in 2005.
She stayed at Stanford for a year after receiving tenure, but then left again to join Harvard's Government department as a professor. Government Department Chair Jennifer L. Hochschild said she had already tried to persuade Gay to work with her once before — years earlier, back when Hochschild was teaching at Princeton.
“When I was a faculty member at Princeton we tried very hard to persuade her to come to Princeton as an assistant professor, and she didn't,” Hochschild said. “She went to Stanford instead.”
In 2005, Hochschild found herself courting Gay again. This time, it worked.
Government professor Daniel P. Carpenter, who served as a fellow in the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford with Gay, said many universities competed with Hochschild to win the young political scientist's favor. Gay was a hot commodity and highly sought-after at the time, Carpenter said.
“This is a person who has, a scholar who has, exceeded at the highest level of her profession,” Carpenter said. “I’m proud to have played a meaningful role in bringing her back here and I think it was a brilliant move by our department and by our university.”
Two years after arriving at Harvard, Gay was also appointed a professor in the African and African-American Studies Department. Her research has largely focused on American political attitudes and opinions, especially among minority groups.
Gay has co-taught Government 2576: “Racial and Ethnic Politics in the United States” with Hochschild for multiple years, including this past spring semester.
MIT Political Science professor Ariel White, one of Gay’s former graduate students, said she teaches some of Gay’s “groundbreaking” work to her current undergraduates.
“She was one of the first people to use survey data in the realm of racial attitudes that also kind of incorporated information about people's contexts,” White said. “So not just what do people think about race or what do members of different groups think about any number of political things, but how does where they live and the makeup of where they live matter for how they think about things and how they act.”
Bobo, who first met Gay at Stanford, lauded the newly minted dean's contributions to the field of African American studies.
“She is one of the leading students of African American political thought and behavior, bringing a careful analytical eye and remarkably high level statistical skills to her work,” Bobo wrote in an email.
Gay’s appointment to the FAS deanship is not the first time she broke barriers. In 2015, when Smith named Gay Dean of Social Science, she became the first woman to hold that position, too.
In accepting the offer, Gay assumed responsibility for a division housing some of the largest departments in FAS, as well as several museums, and research centers whose areas of study span the globe. Three of the five largest undergraduate concentrations — Economics, Government, and Psychology — fall under the social sciences.
Several of Gay’s colleagues within the division said she was always attentive to her faculty’s needs, remaining open to ideas and projects they wished to pursue.
“She’s interested in the activities of the faculty,” History of Science Professor and former Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds said. “She’s just in many respects a real delight to work with because of her openness and her willingness to engage with faculty on any number of issues.”
History and African and African American Studies professor Walter Johnson said he benefited from Gay’s support on a number of projects and proposals — ranging in topic from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to prison education.
“Of the most positive and fruitful conversations that I’ve had with deans in my entire career, many of those, a very large number of those, have been with Claudine Gay,” Johnson said.
Sociology professor Mary C. Waters also credited Gay for her work in recruiting and hiring faculty within the division.
“She also worked with chairs for excellent hiring and shepherding promotions through in terms of faculty appointments,” Waters said.
During her tenure, Gay oversaw the hiring of FAS’s first tenured professor of Native American Studies Philip J. Deloria.
“The hires of Phil Deloria, Joe Gone, and Tiya Miles take Harvard from a place about which one might have asked serious questions regarding the institution’s commitment to Native American Studies and its Native American students to an institution for which those commitments are becoming a point of distinction,” Johnson wrote in an emailed statement.
Johnson said Gay’s accomplishments are one indication of her “institutional effectivity.”
“She gets things done. That’s not easy at Harvard sometimes,” Johnson said. “In her comparatively short time as Dean of the Social Sciences, she’s accomplished a tremendous amount.”
Almost all of Gay’s colleagues pointed to her founding of the “Inequality in America Initiative” as one of her major accomplishments.
Launched in 2015, the program brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines to study issues of inequality. More than 50 scholars and professors across the University are currently involved with the program. Teams of researchers work to examine inequality both in America and abroad, as well as the way issues of inequality intersect with education, work, migration, and citizenship.
Waters, who leads a group of researchers focused on "Mobility and Migration," said the value of the Initiative lies in its ability to bring people together.
“There were many people at Harvard working on inequality, and we were working very isolated from one another,” Waters said. “So she created the conditions where we could work together.”
Since its inception, the Initiative has held conferences and worked to recruit faculty studying inequality. Last year, the program held its first-ever symposium, inviting experts from across the country to deliver a series of talks.
The Initiative’s most recent accomplishments include establishing a postdoctoral program. The two inaugural postdoctoral fellows — both of whom started this fall — will remain at Harvard for two years. The Initiative has already begun searching for fellows for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Though the program includes dozens of Harvard professors, its work has involved outside activists and artists, too, according to Johnson, who leads the “American Inequality, Globally” research team. Together, participants have worked towards “the elimination or at least the reduction of inequality in the United States,” Johnson said.
“For me, that's enormously exciting because one of the things that motivates me is the idea of trying to make our ideas consequential in the world, and it seems to me that's a vision she exemplifies,” Johnson said.
Now that she's taken the rudder of the FAS deanship, Gay’s responsibilities have mushroomed. In her new role, she oversees three separate divisions and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as the hundreds of departments, programs, centers, committees, research institutes, and museums housed under the vast umbrella of FAS.
Gay said in early October that she spent much of her first few weeks on the job familiarizing herself with the enormous terrain over which she now presides. She said she hopes introductory meetings and conversations will allow her to “organically” form her priorities.
“Really what I've been doing for the last six weeks is walking around the FAS a lot and sitting and talking with people,” Gay said. “We're so many different things so just the sheer size is something that has really been eye-opening, fortunately in a positive way.”
Gay will face challenges such as overseeing SEAS’s move to Allston in 2020, contending with a new tax on University endowments that will affect FAS funding, and balancing the needs and wants of her school’s different constituents.
Even before Gay’s selection, one group of students and alumni made their priorities for her deanship clear. During the search for Smith’s successor, the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition — encompassing nearly 50 student and alumni groups — wrote an open letter to Bacow advocating that he appoint an FAS Dean who would support and implement a formal ethnic studies program.
Gay said that, rather than creating a program right now, she instead wants to focus on continuing to recruit faculty in the field. She said she will return to the topic in the spring when she meets with ethnic studies proponents.
“I think we have to begin with actually building and strengthening that faculty,” Gay said.
At the October faculty meeting, Gay said she is optimistic for the future.
“We are just a faculty full of enormous possibility and what a huge advantage it is to teach and pursue our research in a setting with such a diverse and vibrant community," she said.
—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume contributed reporting.
—Staff writer Angela N. Fu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at email@example.com.
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