Gay previously made history when she was appointed as the first person of color and first woman to serve in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ top post. Gay, who will succeed President Lawrence S. Bacow in July, will also be only the second woman to preside over the University and the second Black woman to lead an Ivy League school, after former Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Gay said during her Thursday speech in Smith Campus Center that her parents taught her the importance of education from a young age.
“My parents believed that education opens every door, but, of course, they gave me three options: I could become an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer, which I’m sure that other kids of immigrant parents could relate to,” she said. “So let’s just say becoming an academic was not what my parents had in mind.”
“My decision to pursue a liberal arts and sciences education was a leap of faith, really, for all of us,” she added.
Students, alumni, and local politicians alike praised the historic nature of Gay’s appointment. As a scholar, Gay herself is an expert on minority representation and political participation.
Gay has worked to diversify Harvard’s faculty, appointing an inaugural associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and belonging and initiating a cluster hire of three ethnic studies faculty members following more than four decades of lobbying by Harvard affiliates for an ethnic studies department.
“It’s often really difficult to be what you can’t see,” said Boston City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who is also Haitian American. “That young Black women — that young Haitian women — will be able to dream of one day or know that one day they can be the president of Harvard and reach these high echelons of influence and power and have such an impact. It’s incredible.”
Jeannie Park ’83 —co-founder and board member of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, an alumni group that promotes diversity within the University’s ranks — lauded Gay’s selection in an emailed statement, calling the president-elect an “ideal leader” to prioritize issues of diversity and racial justice.
“The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard congratulates Dean Gay on her historic appointment as President of Harvard,” Park wrote. “We believe that a focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and racial justice must be at the fore of Harvard’s goals, and this appointment is an important strategic and symbolic step.”
Harvard Black Student Association President Rothsaida Sylvaince ’24 said she finds Gay’s appointment particularly meaningful in light of the affirmative action lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard. The case, argued before the Supreme Court in October, threatens to upend the decades of judicial precedent allowing colleges to consider race in admissions.
“This definitely helps to give really good news, I think, in a time where we’ve all been wondering what the future of a Black Harvard looks like,” Sylvaince said.
Kiersten B. Hash ’25, political action chair of the Harvard Generational African American Students Association, said Gay’s Haitian heritage is especially significant in light of the University’s Legacy of Slavery report released in April. The report detailed how slavery “powerfully shaped Harvard” and acknowledged the profits Harvard reaped from the slave trade and plantation labor in the Caribbean and American South.
“To see that someone that is descended from what Harvard profited off of is now leading the University speaks volumes, but I also think that it shows that Harvard has a legacy that it has to reckon with,” she said. “I think this is a good sign that progress can continue to happen.”
Hash added she hopes Gay will work to build relationships with Black student organizations.
“I would hope that we can get more time to interact with her and learn about her and find ways that we can collaborate to just make campus a better place,” she said.
Sylvaince said she hopes to see strides in diversity on other fronts following Gay’s selection.
“I hope that with her appointment, it helps to inspire the rest of us and the rest of Harvard as an institution to continue taking more steps towards creating more diversity and inclusion,” she said.