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Melissa L. Gilliam Becomes First Black Woman President of Boston University

Melissa L. Gilliam, Boston University’s 11th president, is the institution’s first black president. She joins Boston from Ohio State, where she made history as the university’s first black executive vice president and provost.

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Her late father was a pioneering abstract painter known for his continual experimentation and creativity, and her mother was a notable journalist and the Washington Post’s first black female reporter. Her parents instilled in her a strong sense of civic responsibility and public service.

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 selection of the 58-year-old comes to an end a year-long search that drew over 400 qualified applicants from around the world. Hundreds of students, instructors, staff, and alumni helped develop a presidential profile and supervised the work of the Presidential Search Committee, which consisted of 16 members.

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 integrating her skills for medical and social issues began as a child growing up in Washington, DC, in the 1970s, when she grew interested in matters such as war and incarceration levels.

She found herself at a crossroads in her early twenties, majoring in English at Yale while finishing her premedical course prerequisites. After earning graduate degrees in philosophy and politics, she decided on medical school. She described the situation as a “tug-of-war.”

She realized she didn’t have to give up one career to pursue another with her parents’ aid. After getting a degree in public health, she chose to pursue an academic medical career focused on healing not only people but society as a whole.

Her parents’ teachings have stuck with her and her sisters. Though she is no stranger to shattering glass ceilings, she is more aware of why there are still glass ceilings to break 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 an obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics professor, among other things. She got a Master of Arts in philosophy and politics from the University of Oxford after working in science and medicine before studying English literature at Yale.

BET reports that Gilliam will become Boston University’s 11th president on July 1, 2024. She promised to lead “by listening, cooperating, and empowering others.”

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