Beginning with the appointment of Henry Dunster in 1640, 30 individuals have served as president of Harvard. Since Dunster’s installation, the role of president of Harvard has evolved from one of institutional management – directly participating in admissions, discipline, instruction, personnel, and finances – to leading a highly complex and influential ecosystem of academic and research programs and allied cultural and educational centers across the globe. 

Of these 30 individuals, only two have been women – Drew Gilpin Faust, who served from 2007 to 2018, and Claudine Gay, who took office July 1, 2023; President Gay is the first person of color to be appointed to the office. Speaking of her appointment, Gay said, “we enter a moment of possibility, one that calls for deeper collaboration across the University, across all our remarkable Schools. There is an urgency for Harvard to be engaged with the world and to bring bold, brave, pioneering thinking to our greatest challenges.”  

This exhibition celebrates the 30 extraordinary individuals who have held the unique role of Harvard president and the distinctive ways each one – regardless of the length of their term – capitalized on the possibilities the position afforded them and left their mark on the nearly four centuries that make up Harvard’s history.   

The materials on display, which chronicle and characterize these presidential legacies, are drawn from the vast historical resources stewarded by the University Archives.  Although record-keeping by Harvard administrators and faculty began with the establishment of the College in 1636, the Harvard University Archives was formally established in 1851 and is believed to be the oldest institutional archives in the United States. During the early 1850s, under the direction of American historian and Harvard President Jared Sparks, these historical records were gathered and placed in the library for safekeeping and are available today for research.  

A Moment of Possibility: The Harvard Presidency from Henry Dunster to Claudine Gay was curated by Emily Atkins, Hannah Hack, Virginia Hunt, Juliana Kuipers, Sarah Martin, and Caroline Tanski of the Harvard University Archives. Exhibit design by Molly Regan, Logica Design.