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Who Is Claudine Gay? The Political Scientist Is Harvard’s First Black President

A renowned political scientist and current Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences will become the 30th and first Black president of the nation’s top Ivy League university.

Gay will take the helm at Harvard University in July. She is the second woman to hold the top position at the prestigious school since its founding in 1636.

Havard President Claudine Dean
Claudine Gay was elected Harvard University’s president on Dec. 15. She is the first Black woman to lead the Ivy League school. (Photo: Twitter/The Harvard Crimson)

Gay will take over the role from Lawrence S. Bacow, who announced he was retiring in June after five years. Bacow’s predecessor, historian Drew Gilpin Faust, was the first woman to serve as Harvard president.

The first Black woman was elected president on Dec. 15 by the Harvard Corporation, the university’s main governing board, after approval from its Board of Overseers.

The Black higher education leader hopes her appointment will inspire others.

“Today, we are in a moment of remarkable and accelerating change — socially, politically, economically, and technologically,” she said in a video statement. “So many fundamental assumptions about how the world works and how we should relate to one another are being tested.”

Who is Claudine Gay?

Born to Haitian immigrants in the Bronx, Gay, 52, said her parents taught her the importance of education.

So, Gay took full heed of her parent’s values and completed her bachelor’s degree in economics in 1992 at Stanford University, where she was awarded the Anna Laura Myers Prize for best undergraduate thesis. In 1998, she received her doctorate in government from Harvard. Gay also earned an award then, the Toppan Prize for best dissertation in political science.

Gay, who was hired at the university in 2006 after a stint at Stanford as an associate professor, is highly regarded in the political science field as an expert in political behavior. She started as a professor of government and then added African and African American studies to her instruction portfolio.

Gay was named the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government in 2015.

“Claudine has brought to her roles a rare blend of incisiveness and inclusiveness, intellectual range and strategic savvy, institutional ambition and personal humility, a respect for enduring ideals, and a talent for catalyzing change,” said Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chair of Harvard’s presidential search committee.

“She has a bedrock commitment to free inquiry and expression, as well as a deep appreciation for the diverse voices and views that are the lifeblood of a university community.”

Gay’s husband is senior research analyst Christopher Afendulis, an expert in health care policy. He is currently a research analyst at Stanford University and has worked as a research associate at Harvard. The two share a son.

The newly elected president has worked to expand financial aid opportunities for students. She announced an increase of the family income threshold to $75,000 to allow students to attend Harvard’s undergraduate college for free.

She also pushed the college to lift its summer work policy for students receiving financial aid.

The Harvard Corporation elected Gay after a “wide-ranging and intensive search.”

“She is a terrific academic leader with a keen mind, great leadership and communication skills, excellent judgment, and a basic decency and kindness that will serve Harvard well,” said Bacow, Gay’s predecessor. “Perhaps most importantly, she commands the respect of all who know her and have worked with her.”

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