CAMBRIDGE — Harvard University on Thursday named Claudine Gay, dean of the school’s faculty of arts and sciences, as its next president in a historic move that will give the nation’s oldest college its first Black leader.
Gay will face myriad challenges. Harvard announced the appointment at a time when it is embroiled in a battle over affirmative action in admissions that is being litigated at the Supreme Court, and as it confronts its historical ties to slavery.
In her first public comments following the announcement, Gay challenged the traditional notions of the “ivory tower,” and seemed eager to expand Harvard’s reach to new communities and groups, including historically Black colleges.
She said Harvard will “remain committed” to recruiting and admitting diverse student populations regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in 2023. During arguments in October, members of the increasingly conservative court appeared eager to declare the race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina unlawful. Such a decision would overrule decades of precedent and require Harvard and other colleges to come up with new ways to build diverse classes.
“We believe very firmly in the educational benefits of bringing together a diverse community of learners,” she said at a news conference. “We will continue to champion the value of diversity irrespective of how the landscape around that might change.”
Gay, 52, will also oversee Harvard’s enormous expansion of its campus into Allston, a multibillion-dollar development that will require careful negotiations with the city and neighborhood. And she will face calls for more institutional commitment to confront the climate crisis.
The appointment drew praise on the Cambridge campus and beyond.
Noah Harris, who was the first Black man elected to be Harvard’s student body president in 2020, said he was “thrilled and encouraged” by the announcement. Harris, a recent graduate who will attend Harvard Law School in 2024, was among the students Harvard asked for input on the next president.
“Dean Gay has her ear to the ground and is well respected,” Harris said. “I’ve gotten so many texts. People are so excited.”
Cierra Brown, a current student and former president of Harvard’s Generational African-American Students Association, said Gay’s appointment is a “positive step” for the university, which she feels has much work ahead addressing inequities across the campus community.
“I don’t expect all of Harvard’s problems to go away overnight now that [Gay is president], but I have full faith in her,” Brown said. “It means a lot to Black students and those thinking about going here to see someone who is representative of more people.”
Gay, who assumes the post on July 1, replaces Lawrence Bacow, who announced in June that he would step down in June 2023 after five years. Bacow led the university through the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent testing program and also oversaw the end of the university endowment’s investments in fossil fuels after years of student and faculty protests and pushback.
Gay told reporters that she plans to expand the work Bacow’s administration started to address and reckon with the institution’s ties to slavery. In particular, she said she plans to increase partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, which could include “sharing assets” and learning “from the rich scholarly communities” at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
She added that she envisions Harvard expanding teaching and research to people who might not otherwise ever step foot on its campus.
“We have a number of ways of doing that now, particularly through the division of continuing education,” Gay said. “I would love to see us just step into that more fully.”
Gay also spoke of her love for the institution to the crowd of colleagues and students gathered at the Smith Campus Center.
“People are Harvard’s institutional strength,” she said. “I want to take on this role because I believe in them and I want a Harvard that matches their ambition and promise.”
Gay, whose parents are Haitian immigrants, also referenced Harvard’s obligations to society at large in a video produced by the university. The comments are timely, given ongoing conversations about wealthy institutions’ tax-exempt statuses.
“The idea of the ivory tower — that’s the past, not the future of academia,” she said. “We don’t exist alongside society but as part of it and at Harvard, we have that duty to lean in and engage and to be of service to the world.”
Gay joined Harvard in 2006 as a professor of government and became a professor of African and African American Studies in 2007. She served as dean of social science from 2015 to 2018.
In the video, Gay said she saw her parents put themselves through college while raising a family and touted the opportunities higher education provided to her family.
She said she will spend the next seven months speaking with and listening to members of the campus community before setting a specific agenda.
“As a woman of color, if my presence affirms someone’s sense of belonging at Harvard, that is a great honor,” Gay said in the video. “And for those who are beyond our gates, if this prompts them to look anew at Harvard to consider new possibilities for themselves and their future, then my appointment will have meaning for me that goes beyond words.”
Gay, who received her undergraduate degree from Stanford University and later earned a doctorate from Harvard, is a scholar of democracy and political participation.
She becomes the second woman to lead Harvard, after Drew Faust, who was president from 2007-2018. With her appointment, women will outnumber men as chiefs of the eight Ivy League schools. Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania appointed women earlier this year, joining Brown and Cornell.
“There has never been a moment in Harvard’s history where we have not faced challenges,” Gay said. “That is the nature of this university, to constantly be questioning and searching and exploring. It does underscore what makes it so exciting to be president.”
Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Hilary Burns can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hilarysburns.