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Claudine Gay Reflects on First Weeks of FAS Deanship

Claudine Gay assumed the deanship of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences six weeks ago.
Claudine Gay assumed the deanship of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences six weeks ago. By Courtesy of Stephanie Mitchell - Harvard University
By Angela N. Fu and Lucy Wang, Crimson Staff Writers

Since assuming the deanship of Harvard’s flagship faculty, Claudine Gay has visited biology labs filled with contaminated materials, released a comprehensive annual report of the University’s largest unit, and started planning a party for the entire faculty — all in just the first six weeks since she’s taken office.

Gay, who had previously served as dean of social science, took office on Aug. 15, replacing Michael D. Smith who served for 11 years as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Smith announced in March that he planned to resign as soon as recently appointed University President Lawrence S. Bacow found his replacement.

As FAS dean, Gay oversees more than 700 faculty members, including professors at the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Division of Continuing Education. She is the first woman and the first person of color to hold the position.

Gay said that she spent much of her first few weeks walking around FAS and talking to different people.

“My motivation has been, if I can understand the people and where they're coming from, and what their aspirations are, that my priorities will kind of emerge organically out of those conversations,” Gay said.

These conversations have ranged in topic from surface archaeology to the mathematical formula that describes tying a ribbon around a donut, she said.

One of her conversations brought Gay to the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, where she toured the lab of a faculty member, who warned her not to touch anything at the start of their meeting.

“For the next 10 minutes while we stood in that lab, and he was just in a very relaxed tone and matter of fact and chatting away, I literally was just frozen,” Gay said with a laugh. “But that was a lot of fun.”

Beyond the lab, however, Gay said she’s embraced the freedom of dropping in to learn about people across FAS and their work in her new role.

“I'm being exposed to all sorts of pockets of energy and innovation that I didn't know existed and yet they're really important to contribute to what is overall really vibrant on campus,” Gay said.

Gay praised her predecessor, Smith, and said she thinks they are both “data-driven” in their decision making processes. Gay also added that through her years of working with Smith, she’s learned from him to recognize the pros and cons in every decision.

“We acknowledge that a tradeoff is being made and that some people will be unhappy,” Gay said. “And I feel like that's something that Mike was always unafraid to do and in my three years working with him, I feel like I've built up my confidence and ability to do that as well.”

Like Smith, Gay intends to continue developing the tenure track and providing support for junior faculty members.

“I feel like we've made very important practices on that front especially around strengthening our practice around mentoring and also kind of just more professional development but I know we can always go further,” Gay said. “That's something that was important to me in my role as social science dean and will remain important to me going forward.”

Although Gay said she shares many similarities with Smith, she was also quick to point out a key difference —  her appreciation for parties. As the former dean of social science, Gay would throw semesterly parties for all the faculty members in the division, which she said she always loved doing. Gay said she hopes to plan a party for all the faculty members in the spring.

“I might like parties more than Mike,” Gay said. “I haven't been able to get myself organized enough to plan one for the entire faculty this semester, but I want to do one in the spring.”

—Staff writer Angela N. Fu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @angelanfu.

—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22

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