Portraits of Harvard’s former deans line the halls they once walked — at some schools, stretching back decades. The features change, as do the poses and the visibility of brush strokes. But the subjects of the portraits bear certain resemblances: most are white, and most are male.
That will soon change. Come Aug. 15, for the first time in Harvard’s history, four of the University’s schools will be led by African-American women.
Professor Claudine Gay is the latest addition to the list, and colleagues said her appointment to the deanship of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — Harvard’s flagship faculty — last week marks a turning point at the University.
Gay will become the first woman and the first African American to occupy the post. In an interview last week, she said she recognized the potential of her selection to inspire other women and people of color, and likened the impact of her promotion to that of former University President Drew G. Faust when she became Harvard’s first female president.
“If my presence in this role affirms someone's sense of belonging and ownership, the same way Drew's appointment affirmed my own sense of belonging, then I think that's great,” Gay said. “And for people who are sort of beyond our gates, if this prompts them to look again and look anew at Harvard and imagine new possibilities for themselves, I think that's great as well.”
A little over two years ago, none of the University’s 14 schools had a black woman at the helm. After her appointment in 2016, Michelle A. Williams became the first black woman to lead the Longwood-based School of Public Health — and the first black person to head a faculty at Harvard.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Bridget Terry-Long have become the first female African-American deans at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Graduate School of Education. Faust appointed Brown-Nagin and Terry-Long in April and May, respectively.
Before Brown-Nagin, Terry-Long, and Williams, History of Science professor Evelynn M. Hammonds served as the first female and African-American dean of the College for five years until 2013.
John S. Wilson, a senior adviser and strategist on Harvard's president on diversity and inclusion initiatives, called the appointments of Brown-Nagin, Gay, and Terry-Long “obviously significant” in the University’s long history as a predominantly white institution.
“To now be moving into a phase of Harvard’s life where people who don’t meet that profile are now empowered to advance Harvard, it just signals that Harvard is getting ready for a new future for itself and for the country and for the world,” Wilson said.
The most recent signal — Gay’s appointment — sparked excitement outside University Hall last week. Hammonds described the selection as “absolutely great.”
African American Studies professor Elizabeth K. Hinton took to Twitter to celebrate the news, reflecting on the more prominent presence of black women among the University’s leadership ranks.
“What an inspiring, historic time to be a Black woman @Harvard w/ Gay as FAS Dean, @TBrownNagin as Radcliffe Dean, & @bterrylong as @hgse Dean,” Hinton wrote, also noting that African American Studies professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham had just begun her first term as department chair of History with the hashtag “#CiteBlackWomen.”
The tweet garnered over 500 likes and 130 retweets, including one from Government professor Danielle S. Allen, who had chaired the Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, a group that called for increased faculty diversification at the University in its final report released in March.
In an emailed statement Friday, Allen wrote that the recent appointments of three African-American women to deanships was “terrific.”
“It's great to see such wonderful, talented individuals in leadership posts and to see the University diversifying it's leadership ranks,” Allen wrote.
Like Gay, Brown-Nagin noted in an emailed statement that she is “thrilled whenever any organization recognizes talent in women and people of color, just the same of other groups.” She noted that at Radcliffe — a historically female institution — her experience is not “anomalous,” but that she has experienced her entire career in education often as the only woman of color or one of a handful in “elite spaces.”
“In all those contexts, I have managed to avoid being reduced to my ascribed race or gender. That said, I’ve been gratified by the congratulations that I’ve received from people from all walks of life, men and women, seasoned professionals and students,” Brown-Nagin wrote.
And, she added, she has been pleased to see women of color experience her appointment to dean of Radcliffe as a “validation of their own abilities.”
Gay’s appointment marks one of the first administrative decisions of University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s tenure, which some — like African and African American Studies Department Chair Lawrence D. Bobo — say indicates the new president’s commitment to inclusion and belonging at a high level.
“Claudine Gay’s appointment as the first African American Dean of FAS sends a strong signal about the reach of President Bacow’s and of Harvard University’s commitment to living into its values of diversity, inclusion, and belongingness; of being an institution where judgments about quality of mind and commitment to truth know no bounds of race or gender,” Bobo wrote in an emailed statement.
The diversification of the Harvard’s leadership ranks and faculty has sparked conversation across the University in recent months — particularly after the University-wide Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging called faculty diversification and growth across Harvard’s schools “frustratingly uneven.”
The group published a series of recommendations intended to bolster the recruitment of minority and female faculty. In the early stages of their report’s implementation, Faust pledged $10 million in presidential funds to new faculty hires and required deans and administrators to produce plans to advance inclusion and belonging in their schools or units.
It’s a commitment Bacow seems to share.
During his decade-long tenure as president of Tufts University, Bacow worked to diversify Tufts’s faculty and student body, appointing the school’s first Chief Diversity Officer to oversee inclusion work. At the Feb. 11 press conference announcing his selection as the 29th president of Harvard, Bacow spoke about his efforts to improve inclusion and belonging among traditionally underrepresented groups in his prior role.
“We need to look for the very best and during my time at Tufts I’m proud of the record of bringing women and minorities and people of color into the senior leadership, into the faculty, and also into the student body, and I hope to do the same thing here,” Bacow said during his remarks.
Bacow’s own selection as Harvard’s 29th president didn’t exactly break barriers; Bacow became the University's 28th white and male leader, following Faust’s tenure as Harvard’s first female president.
Students, faculty, and alumni who had called for a president from an underrepresented background said they were disappointed in the selection and expressed worry that another white president would not accurately reflect the changing demographics of Harvard’s campus.
But Wilson, who will take point on inclusion and belonging initiatives in the Bacow era, said Bacow has demonstrated a commitment to championing diversity and inclusion even before officially taking office in July.
“President Bacow, even before he officially started his role, made a commitment to maintain and enhance the momentum we have in this space,” Wilson said.
Wilson credited Faust for fostering a “trajectory for Harvard” through establishing the task force in May 2016 and following through with some of the group’s recommendations at the end of her tenure. Wilson said it is clear that Bacow is “quite serious” about continuing this course of action.
“I’m encouraged and excited,” Wilson said.
Asked about the three successive appointments of African-American women to deanships, Bacow noted each of the new deans’ accomplishments prior to their promotions in an emailed statement. He cited Terry-Long’s tenure as the academic dean of the Ed School, Gay’s current role as the FAS dean of Social Science, and Brown-Nagin’s leadership of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the Law School.
“Each of these exceptional individuals was selected because they enjoy reputations as distinguished scholars and educators, and because they are widely admired by their colleagues as extremely effective academic leaders,” Bacow wrote. “They were selected not because of their race or gender but because they each rose to the top of a rigorous search process. I could not be more pleased to have the opportunity to work with each of them.”
Wilson echoed Bacow’s praise of the accomplishments of each of the appointees, but added that the consecutive selections of three black women signals that Harvard is recognizing “intelligence and leadership and expertise come in a variety of shapes and forms.”
He added that the changing demographics of Harvard’s campus indicate that “it’s time to think beyond convention.”
Williams, who called Gay a “superb choice” and praised her work with the Inequality in America Initiative, wrote that she found it “gratifying” to witness the diversification of Harvard’s leadership.
“It is gratifying to see the complexion of Harvard’s academic leadership beginning to change in recognition of the invaluable contributions people of color make to the intellectual and cultural life of this great university,” Williams wrote in an emailed statement.
In reflecting on the historic nature of her appointment, Gay noted that those familiar with the changing demographics of Harvard’s campus may not necessarily find her appointment surprising.
“This is Harvard, this is who we are, this is what we look like,” Gay said.
Even with four African-American female deans, the leaders of Harvard's 14 schools are still predominantly male and white — as they have been for years.
The Medical School, for example, has seen neither a female nor a person or color in its top post.
Hammonds said Harvard’s traditions made her initially believe the appointment of an African-American dean to one Harvard’s schools was “an impossibility.”
“When I first came to Harvard as a graduate student in the 1980s, I think the idea of an African-American dean was really an impossibility,” Hammonds said. “And I think in the long tenure of President Faust, she has made that clear: she transformed that long tradition of absence into a very vital presence.”
In recent years, during Faust’s tenure as president, the University has seen the historic appointments of several women and people of color. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana became the first Asian American to assume the deanship in 2013, succeeding another person of color, Hammonds.
Likewise, Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, the runner-up in the most recent presidential search, became the first Asian-American to take the reins of the school after a long line of white, male predecessors.
At the Law School, there have been just two female deans: current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who served from 2003 to 2009 and, her successor, University Professor Martha L. Minow, who served until 2017. All of the Law School’s deans — including incumbent John F. Manning ’82 — have been white.
Similarly, Emma Dench, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, is the first woman to serve in her position. Her predecessor, Xiao-Li Meng, had been the first person of the color to lead GSAS.
Despite the numbers, the appointments of Brown-Nagin, Gay, and Terry-Long mark what Hammonds dubbed a “turning point” for Harvard.
“It sends a tremendous signal to both internally at Harvard and to higher education in general that Harvard is truly committed to appointing the best people to leadership positions,” Hammonds said. “And that fact that it turns out to be four women who are African-American is I think really, really important.”