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‘Quiet strength’ at the top: In Claudine Gay, Harvard turns to cool, unflappable leadership at a time of higher education turmoil

Harvard University 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.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Some of Harvard’s faculty stars were irate. Claudine Gay, a top dean, had just suspended a renowned anthropology professor after an investigation into sexual harassment allegations leveled at him — an investigation the professors considered incomplete and unfair to an esteemed peer.

“We are dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions,” the professors — including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Paul Farmer, and Jamaica Kincaid — wrote in a January 2022 open letter to the dean.

But Gay — then the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, who will become Harvard’s president July 1 — didn’t flinch. In a two-page response, written in a cool, even-handed tone, she dismantled every point in the professors’ missive and put them on notice that signing the letter had been rash.


“I want to note the obvious dangers of an asymmetry of information in a situation like this,” she wrote. Days later, after more allegations emerged against the professor, John Comaroff, nearly all the faculty members disavowed their letter.

The outcome of the unusually public spat — surrender by the challenging professors, vindication for Gay — was unsurprising to close observers of her career, who described her as a deeply thoughtful and unflappable leader who never makes a move without first studying her options from every angle. She exudes what one former mentor described as “quiet strength” but doesn’t shy from confrontation when circumstances call for it.

“She keeps things close to the chest,” said Suzanne Preston Blier, a Harvard art history professor. “I would not want to play poker against her.”

Harvard professors said that in elevating Gay, a political scientist who has spent most of her career at the university and held leadership roles for nearly a decade, the institution has opted for an insider’s steady, rigorous, and studiously unflamboyant leadership as the school, and the higher education industry writ large, faces uncommon challenges. It is a choice that eschewed the dramatic in favor of someone conspicuously unlike the presidents who preceded her — in favor, that is, of what Harvard believes it needs now.


Claudine Gay, dean of the school’s faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University, spoke to the crowd after being named the university’s next president in December. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

There is, of course, drama inherent in Gay’s arrival as the first Black president of the nation’s oldest university and in the historic challenge that will greet her on day one. In the weeks before Gay takes charge, the US Supreme Court is expected to outlaw affirmative action in college admissions, depriving Harvard and other selective schools of a tool they say is essential to admitting a racially diverse class. The anticipated ruling could prove an existential threat to the kind of university Harvard wants to be — and Gay to lead; at the least, it would create a stern test for her and her peers in academic leadership across the land, a cohort that will be watching intently to see how she meets it.

Some at Harvard believe Gay could prove the perfect match for the moment.

Jennifer Hochschild, a professor of government and African American studies, said Gay has the right temperament and values to guide Harvard into a post–affirmative action era, a time bound to be rife with contentious debates over how diversity should be defined and how universities can pursue it without running afoul of the law.

Gay, she said, has “a very deep, maybe lifelong commitment to diversity done the right way.” She predicts she would approach the challenge of post–affirmative action diversity, as she does all other issues, by “being analytic and factually driven, not emotionally driven.”


In her own measured way, Gay has signaled that Harvard will never give up on diversity, but that the school, under her leadership, will honor that commitment carefully.

“Irrespective of the [Supreme Court’s] decision, we will comply with the law,” Gay told reporters in December. “Beyond that,” she added, “we believe very firmly in ... bringing together a diverse community of learners, diverse in every way: interests and backgrounds, race, gender, geography.”

Meanwhile, other complex challenges loom. At Harvard and many other colleges, students and professors are riven by ideological differences over free speech and academic freedom. National politicians are attacking — with rhetoric and policy — what they view as an excessive liberal bias in higher education at the same time as public confidence in colleges and universities has declined to the lowest level in decades.

Closer to home, Gay, who is 52, will also oversee Harvard’s $100 million effort to redress its early ties to slavery and advance the university’s sprawling development plans in Allston.

Throughout her career, colleagues said, Gay has devoted herself to intense scholarly inquiry into the role of race in American politics and society. Those commitments continued into her years as an administrator and will almost certainly shape how she leads the nation’s most prestigious university.

“She’s going to be pushing us to say these need to be full, honest conversations, and they need to be guided by research,” said Dan Carpenter, the chair of Harvard’s government department, who has worked with Gay for more than 20 years.


“She’s just ideal for this moment,” he said.

Claudine Gay (bottom left) with her family. Harvard University

When Gay was a girl, her parents — Haitian immigrants to the United States — made it plain that she was expected to go to college, she said in a December speech after she was named to succeed current Harvard president Lawrence Bacow. (Harvard declined to make Gay available for an interview for this article.)

They had a plan for what would come next, too. “They gave me three options,” she said from the podium, wearing retro, cat-eye glasses and a bold crew cut. “I could become an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer.”

“Which I’m sure other kids of immigrant parents can relate to,” she added.

Being a lawyer was an option young Claudine actually entertained, her older brother, Sony, recalled.

Another early dream: owning an ice cream parlor.

Her parents, Claudette and Sony, were practical, self-made people. They had put themselves through college and then built careers as a nurse and a civil engineer, respectively. Sony’s work — with the US Army Corps of Engineers — kept the family on the move; they lived, for a time, in Saudi Arabia, as well as New York, Georgia, and Colorado.

They taught their two children that education and hard work were the keys to making one’s way in the world.


Claudine Gay with her mother, father, and brother in a portrait. Harvard University

The message seemed to stick.

Claudine graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, where she won an award for the study of history.

She spent her freshman year of college at Princeton, but she didn’t like the campus culture there. “Everybody at Princeton was already middle-aged,” she told the Stanford student newspaper in 1989, after transferring to that university for sophomore year. “Princeton is cold, traditional, and austere. Stanford has a much more nurturing, humane environment.”

Gay was known, even in those early years of her academic career, for her poise and moderation.

“Claudine was the only one with any sense,” said Theodore Johnson, who met Gay while both were Stanford undergraduates working as resident assistants.

Gay attended parties like any student, he recalled. But unlike her peers, she didn’t see the need to stay out too late.

Her college years coincided with a period of tumult. The police beating of Rodney King in 1991 occurred during Gay’s junior year, prompting a march from campus to Palo Alto City Hall. Meanwhile, student protesters were demanding a broadening of Stanford’s academic horizons, with less focus on the European canon and more attention paid to ethnic studies.

Claudine Gay (third from right), in 1991, on a summer retreat for students who served as resident assistants in Kimball Hall, a Stanford University dormitory.John Rickford

Johnson, who is Black, said that Gay cared about matters of racial justice but said she tended to engage from a scholarly remove. “She is not a rally-in-the-streets kind of person,” he said. “Her temperament is more research, understand, and write.”

As a senior, she won the economics department’s award for best undergraduate thesis.

After Stanford, Gay enrolled in a PhD program at Harvard and arrived in Cambridge with “the things that seemed most essential to my success at the time: a futon, a Mac Classic II, and a cast iron skillet for frying plantains,” she said in the December speech.

She intended to study how race and identity impacted American politics. “What’s always fascinated me is really just the political beliefs and political behavior of ordinary people,” she said in remarks she delivered as part of a series of talks on racial equality hosted by Oxford University in 2021. “Why people choose to engage in politics, why is it that people who have so much at stake in politics and political outcomes participate so little.”

Her interest in political science represented a departure from her parents’ grand plan. “Courses of study that were not obviously linked to particular careers at best mystified them, and at worst worried them greatly,” she said in the Oxford talk. “It took a fair amount of work to move beyond that way of thinking and ... to pursue my love, which is the study of politics.”

Claudine Gay (center, sixth from left) outside Kimball Hall, a Stanford dormitory, before it opened for the 1991-92 school year. Professor John Rickford, who hired Gay to serve as a Kimball Hall resident assistant, described her "quiet strength."John Rickford

She began her PhD research as a revolution was sweeping through the field of political science, a turn toward stressing quantitative analysis, rather than more qualitative approaches, such as case studies, to answer the types of questions that fascinated Gay.

Mining data for cold, hard truths suited her. Using statistical tools, she investigated how race and identity have shaped voter behavior, and her work sometimes yielded surprising insights, colleagues said.

In a 2001 study of voting behavior in eight states, she debunked the theory that electing Black politicians to Congress was one of the best ways to increase Black voter participation. In fact, she found that the election of a Black lawmaker had little impact on the likelihood that Black constituents would vote in subsequent elections. It was white voters whose behavior changed. Once they were represented by a Black lawmaker, they tended to vote less.

In another paper, published in 2013, she examined an apparent contradiction in American politics: Despite being a “core Democratic constituency,” Black Americans held “views on social issues that put them in conflict with the party.” Analyzing national data on voter preferences, she found that the more politically knowledgeable Black voters were, the more their social views pulled them away from the Democratic Party.

Porsha Cropper, who earned a doctorate in political science at Harvard under Gay’s direction, said her former mentor was a master at bringing “clear, rigorous evidence to bear” on topics that had gotten “stuck in anecdotes.”

In 1998, Gay won the government department’s award for the year’s best PhD dissertation — for her study of the political significance of electing Black officials — and went on to publish articles based on that research in top journals. “She was a great academic,” said Gary King, a Harvard political scientist who taught Gay statistics.

And then she nearly gave it all up.

King recalled getting a call from her around the time Gay earned her doctorate.

“She said something like, ‘Gary, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to go into academia. I don’t want to teach. I don’t want to do this whole thing,’” he said.

So instead of taking a job as a professor — Gay had numerous options, King recalled — she went into management consulting. The move represented, perhaps, a return to the pragmatism instilled in her by her parents.

“Becoming an academic was not what my parents had in mind,” she said in the December speech.

Beginning in 1998, as a consultant with Strategic Decisions Group in Boston, she repurposed her quantitative skills to solve business problems for Fortune 500 companies. Her supervisor, William Leaf-Herrmann, recalled that in one of her assignments she mined data from car dealerships to help a major automotive manufacturer better understand its customers.

She was good at the work, Leaf-Herrmann said. But it wasn’t her calling.

She returned to academia after several years, joining Stanford as a government professor. Soon after she earned tenure there, in 2005, Harvard recruited her back to Cambridge. Her husband, Christopher Afendulis, a health care policy researcher, attended graduate school with Gay and then worked at Strategic Decisions Group and Stanford before returning, with Gay, to Harvard. They have one son together, born in 2006.

Claudine Gay with her husband, Christopher Afendulis, after being named Harvard's next president. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

She returned to Harvard as an academic star. Half a dozen elite universities had tried to recruit her away from Stanford. “We did everything we could to retain her,” said Terrence Moe, then the chair of Stanford’s government department.

But despite her blossoming academic celebrity, she was approachable and down-to-earth, students and fellow professors said. Also unpretentious in her look and bearing. A photo published with Harvard’s announcement of her hire in 2006 shows her appearing as if she had just wandered out of the stacks of a campus library, not as the center of attention she was.

“She’s very collegial, very generous in sharing her time to comment on other people’s work,” said Mary Brinton, a sociology professor.

Cropper, the former advisee, described Gay as uncommonly invested in her students’ work. “She pushes you to ask really good questions and design methods to answer those questions,” she said. “I’ve never had another professor put so much time and attention into my learning.”

Gay was also an especially important mentor for students of color, said Cropper, who is Black and studied with Gay at both Stanford and Harvard. “I think she recognized that at least in these spaces, there are not a lot of Black and brown professors,” she said.

There was a moment, soon after Gay returned to Harvard as a professor, when Carpenter, the government department chair, realized she was destined for leadership.

Gay was leading a search committee to hire a new professor and her fellow faculty members were divided into factions supporting different candidates.

In committee meetings, emotions ran hot, Carpenter recalled. Professors repeatedly interrupted Gay and argued over one another, he said.

It was a clash of ideas and egos familiar in the world of “high-powered academia,” Carpenter said, the kind of crossfire that can overwhelm some leaders or, worse, tempt them to join the fray. But Gay was unfazed. She listened and waited, Carpenter recalled. When she finally spoke, her tone was even and “dispassionate.”

“She doesn’t escalate, but she doesn’t give in, either,” Carpenter said. “That’s what ends up swaying a room.”

As she demonstrated in managing that search, she is by nature authoritative, but never imperious, colleagues said.

“She’s very consultative,” Hochschild said. “She casts her net widely to get many people involved, to get lots of opinions ... and then she makes decisions on her own.”

Brinton, the sociology professor, recalled that in 2018, Gay, who was then the dean of social science, walked to Brinton’s office with a small notebook in hand. She wanted to gauge Brinton’s interest in becoming the director of a Harvard institute focused on Japanese studies.

They talked at length, Brinton recalled, as Gay took notes. Then she was off again.

Brinton came away from the exchange doubly impressed.

First, she found it noteworthy that Gay, one of Harvard’s top administrators, held the meeting on Brinton’s turf. “Claudine came over,” she said. “I didn’t go to her office.” Second was Gay’s manner. “She was just so organized and completely present,” she said. “That’s the way she is.”

In 2018, Gay became dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, a position that made her effectively the chief executive of Harvard academics. She oversaw more than a thousand faculty members, as well as the entire undergraduate student body, and managed a budget of nearly $1.6 billion.

“And then, of course, COVID hit like a ton of bricks,” Hochschild said.

There had been no greater disruption to Harvard’s operations since World War II, when students were sent home and the campus was repurposed for military training. Now Gay, from her relatively new perch, took a leading role in the university’s response to a pandemic.

On March 4, 2020 — more than a week before President Donald Trump’s Oval Office address and the suspension of the NBA season — Gay told faculty and staff in an e-mail to begin “contingency planning.”

“For faculty who may have never used Zoom for teaching, this is a good time to try it out and to get training,” she wrote. Less than a week later, Harvard sent students home.

Gay’s leadership during the pandemic was, as ever, steady, Hochschild said.

“A lot of people, almost certainly including myself, got emotionally wrought up,” she said. “Maybe Claudine did, too, in her off time. But what we saw was a consistent focus on, What are we going to do? How are we going to solve this problem?

Overall, Hochschild described Gay’s response as: “Let’s think it through, rather than let’s emote.”

If there is one criticism of Gay’s selection as president it is that she has been, through her academic career, more of an administrator than a scholar.

Some Harvard professors have grumbled that her record of scholarly publications — a metric that often defines the academy’s pecking order — is comparatively slight. She has published just 11 peer-reviewed journal articles, according to her curriculum vitae, and has not written a book. Other current Ivy League presidents have published dozens or, in some cases, hundreds of articles, or written several books.

King, the professor who taught Gay statistics, said the criticism is overblown. No one has challenged the quality of Gay’s research. Gay, he said, has spent most of the past decade focused on university leadership, experience that is more relevant for the school’s next president.

Leading Harvard is “like running a gigantic corporation,” he said. “You really want somebody who understands how to do that.”

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed research.

Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns. Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.