Claudine Gay marked her inauguration as Harvard’s 30th president with a call to action, sharing her vision of a vibrant, diverse community equal to the particular challenges of the world’s most daunting problems.
“The courage of this University — our resolve, against all odds — to question the world as it is and imagine and make a better one: It is what Harvard was made to do,” Gay said Friday. “By continually recommitting ourselves to our central purpose, with renewed vision and vigor, we advance the prospects of humankind.”
Courage also imbues the story of Harvard’s progress from a dark history of deep entanglements with slavery to a welcoming campus enriched by the collision of different backgrounds and beliefs, noted Gay, the first person of color and second woman to lead the University.
“Our stories — and the stories of the many trailblazers between us — are linked by this institution’s long history of exclusion and the long journey of resistance and resilience to overcome it,” she said. “And because of the collective courage of all those who walked that impossible distance, across centuries, and dared to create a different future, I stand before you on this stage — in this distinguished company and magnificent theater, and at this moment of challenge in our nation and in the world, with the weight and honor of being a ‘first’ — able to say, ‘I am Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University.’”
The ceremony at Tercentenary Theatre began with a procession in which 185 universities and institutions from around the world were represented. It includes invocations, musical performances, dance, and greetings from the Harvard community’s four pillars — students, faculty, staff, and alumni. The 30th president was welcomed formally by a representative of higher education, Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez of the City University of New York, which Gay’s parents attended, and a representative of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healey, who pledged partnership with Harvard.
Gay delivered her address to an audience sheltering from rain under a sea of umbrellas. The University’s differences were an important theme. She said that Harvard should celebrate diversity as a force that deepens and strengthens campus life.
“We embrace diversity — of backgrounds, lived experiences, and perspectives — as an institutional imperative,” she said. “When we do that, it’s not with a secret hope for calm or consensus. It’s because we believe in the value of dynamic engagement and the learning that happens when ideas and opinions collide.”
Among the many challenges Harvard must address is the public’s ebbing trust in higher education, she said. Nearly 40 percent of Americans say higher education has a negative effect on the country, a majority say that earning a four-year degree doesn’t guarantee success, and many believe that a college education simply doesn’t matter.