Meet Dr. Melissa L. Gilliam: The First Black Woman President of Boston University

Before being named president, the renowned scholar was executive vice president and provost at Ohio State University.

Dr. Melissa L. Gilliam made history Tuesday (Oct. 5) after being named the first Black and female president of the 184-year-old school. With an extensive background as a physician, professor, and executive, Gilliam brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her new post.

She is a graduate of Yale University with a Bachelor's degree in English literature from Yale University, a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and politics from the University of Oxford, a medical degree from Harvard University, and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Illinois Chicago.

.An accomplished pediatric, gynecologist, and scholar, Gilliam 58, was the first woman of color to serve as provost of Ohio State University. On July 1, 2024, Gilliam will begin her tenure as the 11th president of Boston University where she pledged to lead “by listening, collaborating, and empowering other people.” spoke with Gilliam about what excites her about Boston University, her unique career journey, and her advice for Black women in higher education. Your father Sam Gilliam was an acclaimed abstract painter and your mother Dorothy Butler Gilliam, was the first Black woman reporter for The Washington Post. How did growing up in that environment inform your perspective?

Dr. Melissa Gilliam-Thank you so much for that question. I think I developed an infinite curiosity. I would be at the dinner table talking to my father about everything to do with art and politics. So my parents taught me that you can be engaged in the world. My father was born in Mississippi, in the rural south, and my mother was born in Memphis, Tennessee. They met in Louisville, Ky., while pursuing their education.

They had these amazing careers. When you've seen that not only do you believe you can do it, but that there are probably people all over who can do that. So it made me decide to do the things that I wanted to do, which are seeing patients as a physician, research, and traveling. The other piece is that in my career I wanted to enable other people and their talents to be realized. It's a core value that I developed from being part of my family. I would say I've never felt that humans are limited. I just see so much talent, so much possibility. and again, that comes from the values my parents gave me.

Claudine Gay Becomes First Black President Of Harvard University From studying literature, philosophy, politics, and eventually entering the medical field, you’ve had such a diverse academic and career journey. Was this always your plan to pursue so many different interests?

Gilliam- When I experience something and I learn so much about a subject,  it can become a new pathway. I would be busy doing whatever I was involved in, giving it my all my heart and energy and someone would tap me on the shoulder and ask me if I wanted to do this other thing. That just kept happening. I was working as a scholar and someone asked me if I wanted a leadership role at Ohio State University.

Then I was asked if I wanted a leadership role within the medical center, Then I was asked if I wanted a leadership role within the university. Each time, I would just say to myself, “Well, what can I learn? Am I going to grow and can I help to benefit others? If I could answer that question, if I felt that I could add value and have an impact then I would say, “Yes, I'm happy to try to do that.” So that's kind of how it happened. I wasn’t seeking new education or leadership experiences, but I was curious and trying to do my very best. I made lots of mistakes on the way, but I tried to learn from those mistakes, be resilient, and keep going. With all of your experiences as an academic, a scholar, and a practitioner, what piqued your interest in Boston University?

Gilliam: I think you get to a point in your career where you should care about other people's success more than your own. There are times when these positions are hard when people are mad at you, and they don't agree with your decision. If you can be in a leadership role, and you still have more energy, I think it's our responsibility. I mean, only 11 people ever got to do this job. I think if the door opens, it's your responsibility to walk through it.

When I was contacted about Boston University, and I started hearing about its history, its commitment to the city of Boston, and how the board of trustees had developed a very sharp vision about what it wants to do, we saw eye to eye on it. When you have that type of alignment, it sets you up for success. So I found that Boston University had great students, great ambition, great research, and it's in a great city. There's still a lot that the University wants to do. Those things drew my heart and soul to Boston. Coming back to Boston is almost like a homecoming for you as a graduate of Harvard Medical School. How does this full-circle moment feel?

Gilliam: Yes it is. Also, my son is a third-year student at Harvard so that's a plus. Knowing that I’ll be able to see him from time to time when he's not too busy. I'm really fortunate right now. When you begin your presidency, what are you most looking forward to working on?

Gilliam: In my experience, it is all about the people. If you have good people, you help good people understand what they are capable of. Then everything else follows. It always starts with centering the people. That's what I’m looking forward to and it's what makes this hard because I care so much about the people at Ohio State. I know that that'll be the thing that I care the most about at Boston University. With Dr. Claudine Gay recently inaugurated as president of Harvard, there will be two Black women leading two storied institutions. Without question, this is a special moment in history. What advice would you give to Black women in higher education?

Melissa Gilliam: First, I would say make friends and build a network. Make sure that you are supporting other people because it does come back to you. People are constantly scanning for talent and for people who have the talent and the right disposition. So get out there and get to get to know people. Also, try to do the very best job that you can.

Capable people are looking and scouting to provide opportunities so doors will open. I know that from my own life, I'm always looking, and I’m so happy to support the next generation. I think that we can help one another to be successful.

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for clarity and length.

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