This is another one of my Spelman College bragging stories. In March, Harvard University announced the historic appointment of Dr. Evelynn M. Hammonds, a Spelman graduate, as the next dean of Harvard College, where she will oversee the academic curriculum, residential dormitories, and other key pieces of college life for Harvard University’s undergraduate students. Dr. Hammonds is the first Black and the first woman to hold this prestigious position. She is a wonderful role model, especially for young girls interested in science as she was.
Dr. Hammonds was born in Atlanta, where she grew up attending local public schools. She later remembered how difficult and confusing it could be growing up Black at a time when the peach-colored crayon in the crayon box was still named “flesh” and Black magazines were full of advertisements for skin lighteners. She was interested in science at a time when few girls and young women were pursuing science careers, but she didn’t let being Black or a girl slow her down in any way. In 1976 she received dual undergraduate degrees: a B.S. in physics from Spelman College and a B.E.E. in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech. She then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to earn a master’s degree in physics. While at MIT she realized she was one of only a handful of Black graduate students in the country studying physics and she never lost the passion to do something about that. Throughout her career she has worked on numerous committees and panels to encourage more minorities and women to pursue careers in science. She later became the founding director of MIT’s Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology and Medicine.
After earning her master’s from MIT, Dr. Hammonds worked as a software engineer for several years but missed being part of a university and went to Harvard to earn a Ph.D. in the history of science. After receiving her doctorate, she returned to MIT as a professor and then several years later went back to Harvard to teach. As a scholar in the history of science, Dr. Hammonds studies the history of scientific, medical and social ideas about race and gender, researching, for example, how gender and race have impacted the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Dr. Hammonds’s first book, Childhood’s Deadly Scourge, was about New York City’s efforts to control the spread of diphtheria between 1880 and 1930. Her latest book is on how scientists have defined race in America from Jefferson’s era to today.
Dr. Hammonds has always enjoyed working with students and has said she thinks it is especially important for minority students to have minority faculty available as role models: “It became clear to me that I would be doing this work [of inspiring my students] just by doing my own work. It reinforced my own sense that I could make a difference.” Before her historic appointment as dean of Harvard College, Dr. Hammonds was Harvard University’s Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity. She was the first person to hold this position after Harvard created it, and in it she supported the recruitment and promotion of minorities and women at the university. She saw this work in a much broader context, as she explained at a convocation of Harvard Divinity School students: “When I was growing up in Atlanta during the height of the civil rights movement, no one used the word diversity. We used words like justice and equity, and perhaps we should return to those words as we seek new ways to express a commitment to diversity and to excellence.”
Harvard made history last year by choosing its first woman president, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust. When Dr. Hammonds was appointed Dean of Harvard College, President Faust said, “I have come to know and greatly admire Evelynn Hammonds these past few years, as a fine scholar, as a strong institutional leader, and as someone who cares profoundly about the educational experience of our students in all its dimensions. This is an exciting moment of change for the College, and Evelynn’s academic values and leadership qualities promise to serve our undergraduates well.” Other administrators, professors and students from across the university expressed the same enthusiasm and excitement about Dr. Hammonds’ new role. I am so proud of my Spelman sister!