Harvard has named Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed a University Professor, its highest faculty honor, administrators announced Tuesday.
A world-renowned historian and constitutional scholar, Gordon-Reed’s work centers on race and slavery in colonial America. Her research on the Hemings family — who Thomas Jefferson enslaved — reframed how many Americans view the third president.
Gordon-Reed won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for her work on the Hemingses. In 2010, former President Barack Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for the arts and humanities.
Gordon-Reed said University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 surprised her with the announcement at a Tuesday Law School faculty meeting.
“I thought I was coming to talk about the entry level hiring committee that I’m the chair of, and I’m sitting there with my notes, ready to go on,” she said. “It was a ruse for which they apologized after, but there was no need to apologize.”
She added that she could never have imagined taking over the University Professorship of her own former professor, Laurence H. Tribe ’62, who retired on June 30.
Tribe taught Gordon-Reed constitutional law. He said in an interview that he remembers her as a bright scholar.
“She is one of the most brilliant students that I’ve ever had, and it makes it especially a source of delight and pride for me that a former student of mine would hold this distinguished professorship going forward,” Tribe said.
Gordon-Reed’s scholarship has come into the spotlight in recent months during a nationwide reckoning on race, as many Americans question whether leaders like Jefferson should be commemorated with statues.
Bacow told the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication, that Gordon-Reed has “changed how people think about America.”
“Through her extraordinarily incisive scholarship, she carefully reveals truth and, in the process, urges all of us to confront our past and present so that we might imagine a better future,” he said. “Her voice has never been more important to our national conversation, and I am thrilled that she will join the ranks of the University’s most celebrated faculty members.”
Created in 1935 to honor faculty members who pursue groundbreaking interdisciplinary work, University Professorships allow a cohort of 25 prominent professors to conduct research at any of Harvard’s schools. Current honorees include former University Presidents Lawrence H. Summers and Drew G. Faust.
Though she will focus on a Law School course this fall, Gordon-Reed said she will teach undergraduate courses in future semesters. She is also currently working on her second volume about the Hemingses, which will chronicle two parts of the family — one that remained in the Black community and one that remained in the white community.
Gordon-Reed also serves on a University-wide faculty committee formed last year to address and further research Harvard’s ties to slavery.
Law School Professor Elizabeth P. Kamali ’97 described Gordon-Reed as an “inspiration,” crediting her work with changing the field of American legal history.
“She embodies the word ‘professor,’ in its original sense of one who openly declares her beliefs and principles, and Harvard is all the richer today in counting her among its cherished University Professors,” Kamali wrote in an email.
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