Dr. Melissa Gilliam earned her degree from Harvard Medical School in 1993 before relocating to the Chicago area as an accomplished OBGYN, WBUR reports. The daughter of Dorothy and Sam Gilliam, the esteemed doctor said her passion for helping came at an early age, the byproduct of a house where service and excellence were always high on the values list. Gilliam’s mother was hired as the first Black woman reporter for the Washington Post in 1961, while her father Sam made a name for himself as an innovator in the abstract painting and art industry.
“We grew up with a very strong humanitarian focus. And a huge focus on the impact that one could have in the world,” Dr. Gilliam said.
It was that foundation that would shape the trajectory of her career, Gilliam working to understand human inequality and the impact of intergenerational poverty through her work. For 16 years she worked at the University of Chicago, serving as associate dean of diversity and inclusion for the biological division. She also led the University of Chicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health.
It wasn’t until later in her career that Gilliam said she realized she could serve as a humanitarian in education administration as well. Once she made the pivot, it all made sense. And from the University of Chicago, she headed to Ohio State University, where she has served as executive vice president and provost for the last two years.
“[Universities are] really about improving and addressing some of the major issues facing the world today. Universities produce knowledge, but they also produce knowledge in the service of others. And that idea of advancing the lives of young people and knowledge creation are core to what drives me,” Gilliam said.
Now she is moving on to the next stage of her career, recently appointed president of Boston University, making history as the first Black person and first woman to serve in the role.
“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 empowered and doing more than they think they’re capable of doing,” Gilliam said in a statement.
She will serve as 11th president of the University, taking over for former Boston University president Robert Brown, who stepped down after 18 years in the role. The university’s 16-member team, along with the board of trustees and university staff, have been working for more than a year to find a replacement. And everyone agreed that Gilliam was the best fit out of the 400 eligible candidates.
“We took this task with the utmost seriousness and with an eye toward the future of Boston University,” said search committee chair Antoinette “Tonie” Leatherberry.
Gilliam joins other Black women university presidents shaping the new educational landscape, including Harvard’s Claudine Gay, Simmons University’s Lynn Perry Wooten, and Wellesley’s Paula Johnson. In her new role, Gilliam plans to focus on creating a student-focused campus, addressing issues of diversity and inclusion, graduation rates, academic rigor, and career opportunities.
As president, she understands there are a lot of things to consider. But Giliam says it will all fall into place if they focus on the students.
“Metrics are nice, and we’ll find them and we’ll track them, but the process is really what matters to me,” added Gilliam.
Congratulatory messages have already been pouring in from old colleagues, university officials, and the BU community at large. Boston’s NAACP chapter said they are ecstatic to hear of her new appointment.
“I think she’ll be an important voice at this critical time in our nation and in our commonwealth where we’re really wrestling with what the future of higher education looks like,” said Tanisha Sullivan, President of the NAACP Boston branch.
Dr. Gilliam is set to step into her new role as president of Boston University on July 1, 2024.
Photo by Boston University