Melissa L. Gilliam, the 11th president of Boston University, has made history as the institution’s first black president. She comes to Boston from Ohio State, where she broke ground as the school’s first black executive vice president and provost.
Her late father was a trailblazing abstract painter noted for a career of constant experimentation and innovation, and her mother was a leading journalist and the Washington Post’s first black female reporter. Her parents instilled in her a strong sense of civic engagement and public duty.
She expressed her excitement with BU, “I’m really excited about how engaged Boston University is in the city and how engagement has been a hallmark of BU. I’m looking forward to hearing from people, learning, and listening. I lead by listening, collaborating, and empowering other people. That is the best way to run big organizations—to get everyone excited and engaged and doing more than they think they’re capable of doing. This philosophy is core to shared governance, an essential component of a thriving university.”
The 58-year-old’s selection brings to a close a year-long search that garnered over 400 viable candidates from around the world. Hundreds of students, teachers, staff, and alumni helped define a presidential profile and guided the work of the 16-person Presidential Search Committee.
Ahmass Fakahany (Questrom’79), chair of the BU Board of Trustees, said, “It is a testament to Boston University’s accomplishments and momentum that we were able to attract candidates who were so highly qualified and with such enormous capability. We are at an incredible juncture, and we’ve earned the right to dream big and to fulfill the potential of this university. Hiring Dr. Melissa Gilliam is a tremendous step in that direction.”
Kenneth Freeman, BU interim president, also said of the appointee, “Boston University is on an excellent trajectory, with exceptional faculty, staff, and students. That is certain to continue under Dr. Gilliam’s leadership.”
Gilliam’s interest in combining her talents for medical and social issues began as an adolescent growing up in Washington, DC, in the 1970s, when she became curious about topics such as war and incarceration levels.
In her early twenties, she found herself at a crossroads, majoring in English at Yale while completing her premedical course requirements. She selected medical school after completing graduate degrees in philosophy and politics. She referred to the time as a “tug-of-war.”
She understood she didn’t have to quit one career to pursue another with the help of her parents. She elected to pursue an academic medical career centered on mending not only people but society as a whole after earning a degree in public health.
Her parents’ lessons have lingered with her and her sisters. Though she is no stranger to breaking glass ceilings, she is more conscious of why there are still glass ceilings to shatter today.
“What is more frustrating to me is that, in this day and age, I am still doing things that are first,” she said. “That’s a bigger concern, that there’s any trailblazing aspect to what I do. There is so much talent and human potential, I figure in 2023 it should be commonplace. And it just isn’t.”
Gilliam is currently a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics, among other things. After starting a career in science and medicine before going on to study English literature at Yale, she earned a Master of Arts in philosophy and politics from the University of Oxford.
According to BET, Gilliam will take over as Boston University’s 11th president on July 1, 2024. She pledged to lead “by listening, collaborating, and empowering other people.”