The Seeds of Diversity Beget a President of Harvard

If you want to see the progress of diversity, look no further than the ascendence of Dr. Claudine Gay, the first Black president and the 30th president of Harvard University.

As a BIPOC alumn, all I can say is what took so long -- 386 years?  That’s apparently how long it takes for diversity to work it’s magic at what is considered, if not the top institution of higher learning, then certainly the oldest.

Surely, it’s one of the slowest in higher ed to finally get with the program.Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

But history has a way of catching up and exposing sins of the past, and then there is no good excuse. Not for buildings named after racists and colonizers, nor for curricula that covers up  truth.  You get to a point where it’s time to break with tradition, stop doing things the way things have always been done, and join the modern world.

When it was time to name a leader for now and the future, Harvard realized it’s not 1636 anymore.

When I was an undergrad, Harvard had its scholars, lecturers, and teachers of various ethnicities. I was there when Afro American Studies was still in its infancy. Ewart Guinier, a Jamaican American educator, was the founding chairman of the department now known as the Department of African and African American Studies. It was the only department on campus where a brown Asian American Filipino like me felt really welcome. I took just one class, but I could see the divide. I could learn the white history in the traditional History department. I could get past the colonial truth and express myself in an AAS class. 

Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a BIPOC university president back then?

But I figure the faculty of color were only relatively more comfortable than the undergraduates.  A former classmate of mine who never left and stayed to become a distinguished tenured professor, and endowed chair, once told me that Harvard was like an elephant that moves very slowly.

Sure, but one big step every 386 years?

 In my undergrad years, the university president was like the phantom. You never saw him. It was always a “him” back then. He was the embodiment of the institution,  essentially a live version of John Harvard’s statue that sat immobile on the west side of University Hall.

The statue was the face of the university. A statue of color, bronze.  But not a person of color.

That is why it is such a BFD to hear the announcement of Dr. Claudine Gay, a Black woman, daughter of Haitian immigrants, who has had all the advantages of diversity to assure that her intellectual qualities could be developed, and not overlooked.

You can’t tell from her resume what color she is. New England prep school. Stanford undergrad. Harvard PhD. Excellence all the way. Then a return to Harvard as a professor in government, and her switch into leadership. She has survived the politics of the academy.

Qualified inside and now out, there was no excuse for her to be passed over.  All things being equal, how do you go traditional and say no to a Claudine Gay? This was no affirmative action hire. Not like Senator Ben Sasse being named to the presidency of the University of Florida. Not like a certain unqualified television celebrity being elected to the presidency of a nation.

Dr. Claudine Gay is almost embarrassingly qualified. But the seeds of diversity planted through the last 40 years developed a path for her. She walked down that path and shined. She had to be chosen.

That’s how diversity should work everywhere. But as we know, it rarely does so well.

It did this time. And BIPOC academics should cheer loudly because this is the proof that efforts to diversify the ivory tower are working. It’s not all ivory.

So we cheer and look forward to Claudine Gay’s presidency. When it comes to race, Harvard has issues. It always has.

But now it’s dropped the answers that may have worked in 1636.

With diversity brings hope.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator, who writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can reach him at www.amok.com.