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New England colleges open doors to diversity in new class of leadership

Several colleges and universities across the region are welcoming their first women or persons of color as president.

Claudine Gay, former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

As some New England colleges and universities prepare to welcome new presidents to their campuses, a number of them are making historic strides in hiring women and persons of color as their leaders.

Nine institutions of higher learning in the region, including Harvard University, UMass Amherst, and Mount Holyoke College, have hired new leaders who are women or persons of color.

The moves mirror national trends, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education.

Women accounted for 33 percent of college presidents last year, an increase from about 10 percent in 2006, the survey reported. Currently 72 percent of presidents across the United States are white, with 28 percent identifying with a non-white race/ethnicity.


Hironao Okahana, the assistant vice president at the American Council on Education and also executive director of the Education Futures Lab, said the council hopes the number of women and people of color in these leadership roles continues to rise.

“A number [of institutions] certainly made some progress,” he said in a phone interview. “But there is more room for us to continue to make the college presidency more inclusive and continue to be reflective of students the institutions serve as well as the communities and society that these institutions serve.”

Okahana noted that according to the institute’s data, 55 percent of college presidents nationwide say they plan to step down in the next five years, which will lead to more openings and inclusive searches.

Roderick McDavis, managing principal of AGB Search, a higher education search firm that works with colleges and universities to hire presidents, said he believes the trend toward more inclusive searches will continue.

“I think that’s the next generation of leaders in colleges and universities,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re going to see a more diverse pool of candidates that will be moving to the finals stage.”


McDavis, who was the first Black president of Ohio University from 2004 to 2017, had some advice for the incoming presidents.

“I think that when you’re the first, the first woman or the first person of color, you have an extra burden because you’re first,” he said. “Don’t focus so much on the burden part of it as much as the opportunity part of it.”

Here are some of the universities and colleges who are installing women and persons of color as their leaders this year.

Harvard University

Gay will be the university’s first Black president and second female president in its 387-year history. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Harvard University has elevated Claudine Gay, 52, former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, to become its next president. Gay will be the university’s first Black president and second female president in its 387-year history.

Before her stint as the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Gay was the university’s dean of social science and a professor of government. She joined Harvard in 2006 after a professorship at Stanford University, her alma mater. She will begin her tenure on July 1.

Tufts University

Sunil Kumar.Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Sunil Kumar, 55, who was born in India, comes to Tufts from Johns Hopkins University, where he served as the provost and senior vice president of academic affairs. He will start as president on July 1.

“I realize that being the first president of color in Tufts’ 170-year history is a great honor and responsibility, and I’m well aware that my appointment in part makes a statement about Tufts’ dedication to being a university where everyone can feel a sense of belonging, of being welcome,” Kumar said in a statement to the Globe on Wednesday.


UMass Amherst

Javier Reyes.UMass Amherst

Javier Reyes, 48, who was born in Mexico, will be the first Hispanic chancellor at UMass Amherst. Reyes most recently served as interim chancellor at the University of Illinois Chicago.

“My visit to campus and meetings with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community partners were truly inspiring,” he said when he was hired in February. He starts on July 1.

Bates College

Garry Jenkins.Caroline Yang for Bates College

Garry Jenkins will be the first Black and the first openly gay president at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, after serving as the dean and a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. He starts on July 1.

“I am overjoyed to join the Bates community as the college’s next president,” Jenkins said when he was hired in March. “Bates is a remarkable institution that is exceptionally well-positioned for the future.”

Bowdoin College

Safa Zaki.Bowdoin College

Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, has selected its first woman president, Egyptian-born cognitive scientist Safa Zaki.

Zaki, who was recently the dean of the faculty at Williams College, starts on July 1.

“I absolutely feel the significance of being the first woman to serve in [this] role, a fact recognized with enthusiasm by the students, alumni, faculty, and staff I’ve already met,” Zaki said in a statement to the Globe Wednesday.

Mount Holyoke College

Danielle Holley. Oscar Merrida IV/Howard University

Danielle Holley, current dean of the Howard University School of Law, will become the school’s first Black female president when she takes over from Beverly Daniel Tatum, the college’s interim president, who also is Black. Mount Holyoke, located in South Hadley, is an all-women’s college.


Holley, 49, who starts on July 1, said in a February interview with the Globe that she saw similarities between the purpose of women’s colleges and historically Black institutions.

“That ability for students to choose an educational environment in which they can say, this environment fully not only accepts me but my identity is a key part of what’s empowering me inside the college community,” she said.

Dartmouth College

Sian Leah Beilock.Dartmouth

After 250 years of male leadership, Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., will have its first female president, Sian Leah Beilock, 47.

“Some might argue that you shouldn’t focus on a president’s gender or background, but I see this differently,” she told the Globe in a statement Wednesday. “Research shows that having multiple identities can be a valuable leadership trait. I’m a president, but I’m also a teacher, a researcher, and a mother.”

She added, “I’m confident that my multiple identities — including as the first woman elected president of Dartmouth — will shape how I listen and lead.”

A college president’s responsibilities are familiar to Beilock, who was president of Barnard College from 2017 to 2023. She starts on July 1.

Smith College

Sarah Willie Lebreton.Shana Sureck

Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who most recently served as provost and dean of the faculty at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, will become Smith College’s second Black president. She begins her tenure at the college, located in Northampton, on July 1.


Willie-LeBreton, who will be the college’s 12th president, told the Globe in a previous interview that she was “really looking [forward] to strengthening what community means here and taking seriously diversity.”

Emmanuel College

Mary Boyd.Brant Sanderlin/Brant Sanderlin/Berry College

Mary Boyd, a chemist and former provost of Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga., started her position as Emmanuel College’s 13th president in the fall, the college said in a statement.

Boyd is replacing Janet Eisner, who has been at the helm of Emmanuel since 1979. Emmanuel College, which was formerly an all-women institution, has only had female presidents.

Her prior experience also includes serving as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Diego.

“The mission of Emmanuel strongly resonates with me, and I embrace the opportunity to steward the college’s Catholic educational mission into the future,” Boyd said in a statement last June.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Emmanuel College. It became a coeducational institution in 2001.

Elllie Wolfe can be reached at Follow her @elliew0lfe.