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Claudine Gay Takes Office, Officially Becoming Harvard’s First Black President

University President-elect Claudine Gay addresses administrators, faculty, and select affiliates immediately after the announcement of her selection.
University President-elect Claudine Gay addresses administrators, faculty, and select affiliates immediately after the announcement of her selection. By Julian J. Giordano
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

Claudine Gay took office as the 30th president of Harvard University on Saturday, becoming the first person of color to lead the country’s oldest institution of higher education in its 386-year history.

Gay, 52, assumed the University’s top post more than six months after she was selected by Harvard’s presidential search committee and confirmed by the Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body — to succeed Lawrence S. Bacow.

She had a busy several months as president-elect while preparing to move into Massachusetts Hall, making key appointments as she prepared to take office.

In May, Gay appointed University Marshal Katherine G. O’Dair to serve as her chief of staff. She also announced interim deans for the Harvard School of Public Health and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and extended Harvard Divinity School Dean David N. Hempton’s tenure as the University continued its search for his successor.

In her most significant appointment to date, Gay selected Hopi E. Hoekstra to serve as her own successor as the University’s next Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean last week. Hoekstra is a Harvard professor in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology departments.

The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Gay became just the second woman to lead the university where she obtained her Ph.D. 25 years ago. The presidential search committee selected Gay after just five months — Harvard’s shortest search process in almost 70 years.

Gay began confronting the first great challenge of her presidency two days before officially taking office. Her ascension to Harvard’s top post comes on the heels of the Supreme Court decision on Thursday that effectively struck down affirmative action in higher education admissions.

She pledged in a public video message on Thursday that the University will remain resolute in its efforts to foster a diverse student body.

“The Supreme Court’s decision on college and university admissions will change how we pursue the educational benefits of diversity,” she said. “But our commitment to that work remains steadfast, is essential to who we are, and the mission that we are here to advance.”

While Gay officially began her historic presidency on Saturday, she will have to wait until her inauguration on Sept. 29 to ceremonially receive the University’s keys, seals, and charter before sitting briefly in the infamously uncomfortable Holyoke Chair.

As Bacow prepared to officially hand the University’s reins to Gay after just five years in office, he sent one final message to Harvard affiliates on Friday.

“Well, today is the day I retire,” he wrote.

Bacow called his time helming Harvard — his second university presidency after 10 years leading Tufts University — “the most interesting and satisfying of my career.”

“Together, we navigated both challenges and opportunities,” Bacow wrote. “And, through it all, you gave me confidence that we would successfully find our way through our most difficult times.”

“At every turn, someone saw in me what I did not see in myself; someone helped me understand places like this in ways that I had not understood them before; someone taught me that no one gets anywhere of consequence alone,” he added.

Bacow ended his farewell email by thanking the students, faculty, and administrators he led from the corner office in Mass. Hall.

“I will always be grateful for the twists and turns that gave me the opportunity to be your president,” he wrote. “I will carry fond memories of our time together for the rest of my life.”

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.

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