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‘Our Forever President’: Black Harvard Graduates Celebrate Claudine Gay at Affinity Ceremony

Harvard Business School graduate Ian I. Irungu address attendees in Sanders Theater at the celebration for Black graduates.
Harvard Business School graduate Ian I. Irungu address attendees in Sanders Theater at the celebration for Black graduates. By Jina H. Choe
By Madeleine A. Hung and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

Two Harvard graduates presented an award for faculty who show “a strong commitment to social justice” to former Harvard President Claudine Gay during the University-wide celebration of Black graduates on Tuesday evening in Sanders Theatre.

During the ceremony, attended by more than 1000 Black Harvard graduates and family members, speakers honored Gay and condemned Harvard’s response to student protests against the war in Gaza. The event was one of 11 affinity graduation celebrations organized by the Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

Following opening remarks by Harvard Business School graduate Ian I. Irungu, HBS graduate Jada S. Haynes and Harvard Law School graduate Abigail D. Hall presented the Faculty Award — an award given to a Harvard faculty member who “demonstrates a strong commitment to social justice, and issues related to race, class, and education” — to Gay, who was not in attendance.

Gay served as Harvard’s 30th president, the first Black person in the role in the University’s nearly 400-year history. She resigned on Jan. 2 following allegations of plagiarism and criticisms of her response to antisemitism following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel — making her tenure the shortest in Harvard’s history.

The announcement of Gay as the winner of the award was met with cheers and a standing ovation.

“Dr. Gay’s journey is a profile in grace and courage that has left an indelible mark on this institution. Her legacy within our community cannot be understated,” Hall said. “As the first Black president of Harvard, Dr. Gay shattered glass ceilings, substantiating the highest hopes of minorities who strive in academia.”

Harvard Divinity School Dean Marla Frederick accepted the award on Gay’s behalf.

“On behalf of President Claudine Gay — our forever president — I truly want to thank you all for this award recognizing her strong commitment to social justice and her unwavering commitment to empowering students on their educational journeys,” Frederick said.

She added that the award was “remarkably bittersweet” for being presented during a graduation celebration amid “conflict and division within higher education and across the globe.”

“Even though we are marking this celebratory graduation moment without President Gay at the helm the way many of us thought we would when celebrating at her inauguration — and certainly the way I anticipated when she appointed me as Dean of Harvard Divinity school just this past year — I want you to understand that in the midst of all that has transpired, she continues to teach us in both word and deed,” Frederick said.

A student receives their stole at the Harvard Black student affinity graduation ceremony.
A student receives their stole at the Harvard Black student affinity graduation ceremony. By Jina H. Choe

Harvard Graduate School of Education graduate Aundrey D. Page then presented the Titus and Venus Award to HBS graduate Kristen G. Shipley and Harvard Kennedy School graduate Faith S. Ambrose. The award honors students who have strengthened “a legacy of community-building amongst the Black Harvard Community” and will work full-time in a role that directly impacts the African diaspora.

The keynote speaker, African and African American Studies teaching fellow Sunn m’Cheaux and HGSE graduate Sabrina C. McFarland-Kelley, who delivered a spoken word performance, both donned keffiyehs and condemned Harvard’s response to pro-Palestine activism on campus.

“In this your senior year, we have seen streams of obscene scenes from the screens of our smart devices of unconscionable brutality perpetrated against the Filastin people by the apartheid state of Israel with the banking and bombs of its accomplice, the United States,” m’Cheaux said, using the Arabic term for “Palestine.”

“Here and around the world, students, faculty, alumni organize, mobilize resistance movements to fight our own institution’s facilitation of the dehumanization of the Filastin people,” m’Cheaux added.

m’Cheaux’s remarks come days after the Harvard College Administrative Board suspended five undergraduates and placed at least 20 others on probation for their participation in the 20-day pro-Palestine encampment of Harvard Yard, which ended last week.

Though the sanctions barred 13 seniors from graduating at Commencement on Thursday, members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to add them back to the list of degrees recommended for conferral on Monday.

As of Tuesday evening, the status of their degrees remains uncertain.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the criticism.

The event also featured a student address by Harvard Graduate School of Design graduate Tosin Odugbemi and closing remarks by Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sherri A. Charleston.

At the end of his address, m’Cheaux shared advice for the graduating class of 2024.

“I hope that you know that you are wonderful and powerful in all that you do and that you cannot do it alone,” he said. “No one can do everything, but anyone can do something, and together we can do the right thing.”

—Staff writer Madeleine A. Hung can be reached at

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

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