At Harvard as you walk along the halls, you notice several portraits of former deans and in some institutions, they stretch back decades. All the deans have similar poses and most of them are white: most are also males. This has been a characteristic that has been the culture of the school for decades; however, things are set to change come August 15th. For the first time Harvard will have four of its schools led by African-American women.
Professor Claudine Gay is set to be the latest history-maker in the list, as she takes over as the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences – which is a Harvard flagship faculty. Her appointment is historic as she will be the first woman and also the first African American to occupy that position.
In an interview she explained, that she likened her appointment to that of Harvard’s first female University president, Drew G. Faust. She also pointed out the understanding that her selection bestows on her with regard to inspiring other women and people of color. “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,” “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,” Gay said.
Some two years back, Harvard had no black woman at the helm in all its 14 schools. But in 2016, history was made when Michelle A. William was appointed the first black woman to oversee the Longwood-based School of Public Health. In the process, she also became the first black person to head a faculty in Harvard.
Other women who have made history in the University’s history are Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Bridget Terry-Long – who are both the first female African-American to become deans at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Graduate School of Education.
Senior adviser and strategist on Harvard’s president on diversity and inclusion initiatives, John S. Wilson, said that their appointments were “obviously significant.”
“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.
African and African American Studies Department Chair Lawrence D. Bobo wrote in an emailed statement, “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.”
By Victor Ochieng