GAZETTE: Are there specific qualities that you look for when you build a leadership team?
GAY: There are three things that I always look for. I look for a commitment to excellence, because that’s what it means to be at Harvard. I look for commitment to collaboration, because I believe that no one has a monopoly on insight — even if it’s in your area and you are an expert. And I look for commitment to the mission, because that’s why we’re all here.
I expect that from any member of a team that I lead and collaborate with. From there, we get to the unique requirements of a position and the unique contributions or assets that an individual might bring to the role.
GAZETTE: When your appointment was announced, you said, “We enter a moment of possibility.” What are the significant areas of possibility and opportunity for Harvard?
GAY: I talked about the opportunity for Harvard to be more connected to the world by centering the most pressing challenges that the world faces as University priorities. For me, those include democracy and all the ways in which democracy is faltering around the globe, the climate crisis, and inequality, to name a few. Harvard has a lot to bring to the table for society’s urgent priorities. There are also “frontier” opportunities that Harvard is uniquely positioned to exploit. Those exist particularly in the life sciences, by virtue of our core strengths in the FAS, at Longwood, at the Medical School, and the Chan School. In addition, we are embedded in an incredible ecosystem — without peer, I believe — in terms of its aggregation of life sciences expertise: at Harvard, at MIT, at the hospitals, in biotech — the list goes on. For the core challenges around human health, if the answers are going to emerge anywhere, my bet is that they’re going to emerge here.
GAZETTE: In talking about possibilities for the future, is there one you’re personally excited about?
GAY: Betraying my bias as a political scientist, I’m really excited about what we can do around democracy. We’re at a moment where it’s important for those of us who are champions of democracy to help the world understand how to make democracies work: How democratic governance and democratic practices can actually — if well done — solve crises and solve people’s problems.
We have rising inequality, a planet that’s warming — the list goes on. To the extent that we can provide a blueprint for how democratic governance can work more effectively, it would be a huge service to the world and to individual citizens who want to see their democratic governments actually solving their problems. I believe that a place like Harvard has a lot that we can bring to that conversation because we’ve got faculty and practitioners around the University who are engaged on this issue.
GAZETTE: With the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability entering its first full year, a study on teaching climate change in hand, and what appears to be a widespread commitment to address this global challenge head-on, what’s next for Harvard? Are we doing enough?
GAY: As long as climate change remains a problem that threatens the future of our society and our planet, nobody is doing enough. That said, Harvard has made strides in recent years to center climate change as a major theme throughout the institution, working to better match its prioritization at Harvard with the scale of the problem. The Salata Institute is a major part of that effort, as is the implementation of the recent report on teaching climate change at Harvard. But ultimately, Harvard’s impact on the problem will come down to the individual efforts of its talented and energized faculty and researchers — some of whom have been working on this problem for decades — and its students, who will inherit the problem and on whom a significant burden of its solution will fall.
GAZETTE: What about major institutional challenges facing the University?
GAY: The challenges, of course, are not unique to Harvard. At the top of the list, I’d put declining trust in higher education and fewer people understanding the value of higher education for both individuals and society. That’s an existential challenge for us as an institution. The silver lining is that there are many potential partners as we make the case for why what we do matters and how it contributes to making the world a better place and enables all of us to thrive.
Some of the other issues facing higher education — and Harvard — are derivative of that lack of trust in higher education, in our institutions, and in our mission. A lack of more robust funding for scientific research, for example, is derivative of the fact that public understanding of the value of higher education has eroded over time.
GAZETTE: Is this an outgrowth of this particular political moment or have we not done a good enough job selling ourselves?
GAY: The political polarization doesn’t help, but it is striking that the erosion in public trust is bipartisan. That should be telling us something, that there’s a broad-based questioning of the value of higher education. Yes, there are some elements that are being inflected by partisan politics, but this is pretty widespread.
GAZETTE: Harvard, at least, has taken some steps to address it, with financial aid rising, as well as student diversity.
GAY: Exactly, and part of it is that we need to get our story out there. There’s a lot of discourse around the challenge of college affordability, for example, but that happens to not be a challenge at Harvard because we make Harvard College a possibility for any talented student that we admit. But we’re still caught up in that unaffordability narrative, in part because what we do is not well known or understood. We are doing the work and we need to make that work more visible, but there are still choices we can make that we haven’t yet made. There are opportunities for us to expand our mission so that it is more responsive to what the world needs from Harvard right now.
The Daily Gazette
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