As delivered, Dec. 15, 2022
This is crazy right? I thought I was the only person on campus when they mentioned a reception.
Thank you, Penny. I am humbled by the confidence that the Governing Boards have placed in me. I am also incredibly humbled by the prospect of succeeding President Bacow in leading this remarkable institution. President Bacow, or Larry, as we all know you, working with you over the last few years has really been a master class. You have shown me that leadership isn’t about one person, it’s about all of us, moving forward together, and that’s a lesson I take with me into this next journey. So thank you for that.
And now, I’m excited to introduce myself to all of you. Hi. I’m Claudine Gay, and I am honored to stand before you as the next president of Harvard University. I have to admit that, as I say those words, I can’t help but think of a younger version of myself. A first-year graduate student, moving into Haskins Hall, lugging 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.
I was full of excitement, though not exactly sure where the Government Department was; very much at ‘step one’ in my Harvard journey. That Claudine, could not possibly have imagined that her path would lead here. But I carry forward both her excitement, and her belief in the infinite possibility of Harvard.
My parents are immigrants from Haiti. They came to the U.S. with very little and put themselves through college while raising our family: my mom became a registered nurse, and my dad, a civil engineer, and it was the City College of New York that made those careers possible.
College was always the expectation for me. My parents believed that education opens every door. But, of course that gave me three options – I can become an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer – which I’m sure that other kids of immigrant parents can relate to! Let’s just say that my becoming an academic was not what my parents had in mind. So, my decision to pursue a liberal arts and sciences education was a leap of faith – really for all of us. But thankfully, my parents supported my choice. And by virtue of that fact, my life’s path took shape.
Attending Stanford as an undergraduate ignited everything for me. That’s where I discovered the reach of my own curiosity, where I experienced firsthand the detective work that is research and learned for the first time that knowledge is actually created and not just passed on. And it’s where I found what I wanted to do, what I felt born to do.
When I was applying to graduate schools, I needed a place where, no matter what I chose to pursue, there was excellence there. That place was Harvard. So it was easy to say ‘yes’ when I had the opportunity first to come back as a professor, and then to serve as a Dean.
I love this place. Harvard is where I found my intellectual home. It has nurtured and inspired me since I first set foot in the Yard. I am deeply invested, not only in what Harvard is today, but also in what Harvard’s leadership means for the future.
With each leadership role I’ve taken on at Harvard, from the Dean of Social Science to the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, I’ve been connected to wider worlds, to new questions and new possibilities for how, through research, and through teaching, the world can be better than it is today.
Few things give me more joy, more energy than talking to a colleague working in a field that is entirely new to me, or hearing the questions that are on the minds of a new generation of students. It’s those conversations that let me see the world with fresh eyes and reveal things that were previously invisible to me – from quantum science and engineering, to ancient Greek theater, to the gut microbiome.
That is what our mission is all about. It calls us to take a leap into the unknown, to have the bravery, the drive, the unbridled curiosity to search for answers to questions that really matter. That’s Harvard to me.
Today, we are in a moment of remarkable and accelerating change – socially, politically, in the economy, and technologically – so many fundamental assumptions about how the world works and how we should relate to one another are being tested.
There’s less trust in institutions of all kinds, and a shift in how people view them. There’s endless access to information, but it’s getting harder to know what to believe. There are new ways for people to speak their truth, regardless of whether they hold positions of power. And there’s a restlessness in this new generation, to constantly push for something better, motivated by the belief that change is both necessary and possible, particularly when we take problems on together.
And Harvard has always found a way to meet the moment. We have a long history of rising to meet new challenges, of converting this energy into forces of renewal and reinvention.
With the strength of this extraordinary institution behind us, we enter a moment of possibility; one that calls for deeper collaboration across the university, across all of our remarkable schools. An urgency for Harvard to be engaged with the world. And a need to bring bold, brave, pioneering thinking to our greatest challenges.
When I imagine Harvard in the years ahead, I see a university that is even more connected to the world. Through our scholarship – the questions we pursue, partnerships we build to advance and share knowledge; through our educational programs – who’s in the classroom, whether that classroom is on campus or online, and what we’re teaching them; and through our public engagement – how we extend Harvard’s extraordinary teaching and research to have an impact on issues that matter.
The idea of the Ivory Tower that is the past, not the future, of academia. We don’t exist outside of society, but as part of it. Harvard has a duty to lean in and engage, and to be in service to the world. Our people, our collections, our research, how we use our convening power in business, in law, in public policy for all of that, our commitment must be to openness and engagement.
Together, we have accomplished so much in recent years. Opening the way for important new possibilities, from radically advancing our understanding of natural and artificial intelligence, to our collective commitment to issues of climate and sustainability, and our bold agenda for reckoning and repair inspired by the groundbreaking report on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery.
But our work is not done. There are new frontiers for us to explore. On the future of democracy, why it matters and how to sustain it; or how we bring the insight and imagination of literature, of philosophy, of the arts to a troubled world; the role business can play in advancing innovation and growth; or, in the life sciences, where we can bring together the extraordinary strengths of both Harvard and our region, across the spectrum from basic science to its most beneficial applications, to shape the future of human health.
For me, that’s what the role of president is about. Harnessing the power of ideas and supporting the people who pursue them. As I start my tenure, there’s so much more for me to discover about the institution that I love, and I’m looking forward to doing just that, with our whole community.
I am so grateful for the leaders who have come before and the powerful legacies they have left for Harvard. I will build on those legacies. And even as I say that, I’m reminded of Larry’s frequent adage, that leadership is a team sport. And here, we are fortunate. Our community is a large and diverse team. We are united by our commitment to academic excellence and to the values that ensure it. Embracing those values, especially academic freedom and open inquiry, is not only the path to excellence, it is how we marshal our breadth and diversity to build a legacy that will make all of us proud.
And, it’s our people who make that legacy possible. They set the standard for excellence in every field. Together they have created a culture that is ambitious, broad-gauged, and that recognizes that, in shaping the next generation of scholars and thinkers and teachers and leaders, our impact is magnified.
And so, as I prepare for this next step in my Harvard journey, I do so with the same boundless optimism in our potential to meet this moment of opportunity. I am grateful beyond words for your confidence in me to serve as Harvard’s 30th president. And, alongside all of you, I can’t wait to get to work.
Thank you. Thank you very much.