Mere hours after she was announced as BU’s next president, the first Black woman to take on the prestigious role, Melissa Gilliam sat on the eighth floor of 1 Silber Way, in an office that will soon become hers.
She spoke calmly, with an air of confidence befitting a woman of her qualifications. Five degrees. Award-winning research. Leadership positions in various institutions of higher education. It seems almost impossible.
But before Gilliam achieved all of that, before she became a doctor, a researcher or an administrator, she describes herself as “a young person living in a city” — a young person teeming with “a strong sense of human possibility.”
“I also came with a sense of, ‘anyone can do anything in the world, and you don’t have to be afraid,’” Gilliam said. “You had to figure out what you are passionate about.”
Gilliam is one of three daughters who called Washington D.C. home — more specifically, Mount Pleasant, a neighborhood in the northwest quadrant of the nation’s capital.
She described her upbringing rather fondly, an amalgamation of the unique qualities that defined D.C. at the time. For one, Gilliam’s hometown was leagues more racially, ethnically and economically diverse than the United States that surrounded it — a fact which seemed “super normal” to her at the time.
But her upbringing seems far from it.
For one, Gilliam’s father, Sam Gilliam, was a color field painter and abstract artist, credited as one of the “great innovators of postwar American painting,” according to Pace Gallery. He is said to have transformed the medium and the contexts in which it was viewed, creating art at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
“I really grew up surrounded by art and artists. People go and see their parents at work, and I would go see my dad at the studio,” Gilliam said. “That was always a really normal part of our lives.”
Gilliam’s mother, Dorothy Butler Gilliam, made history as the first Black female reporter at The Washington Post, hired at just 24 years old. She went on to become a style editor, and a trailblazer in the journalism industry.
“If you pursue a career in art or journalism, there are many places where people would say ‘don’t do that, you’ll never make a career,’” Gilliam said.
Gilliam’s parents helped instill the value of education in her, making it a guiding principle in her life.
“If I ever needed to make a change in something I was doing, I would just say, ‘oh, Mom, Dad I’m going back to school,’ and they’d say, ‘that’s great,’” she said.
Gilliam quite literally crossed an ocean in pursuit of education. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Yale University, she pursued her master’s degree in philosophy and politics from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, an experience she speaks about fondly.
“Once you’re across the Atlantic, you can just travel anywhere. So I traveled around the world,” Gilliam said, reminiscing about a month spent alone in India.
She said her academic U-turn — her decision to pursue a vast and seemingly disconnected set of degrees — came down to “a little bit of intention and a little bit of serendipity.”
“I am always interested in impact,” Gilliam said. “I don’t have some long-term vision, but I am interested in how do I use what opportunities I’ve had to make a difference in other people’s lives. And that’s how I ended up in medical school.”
After graduating medical school, Gilliam completed a residency in gynecology and obstetrics, while also pursuing research. Gilliam said she had the opportunity to sit down with young people and talk about their health.
She aims to translate her vast experience working with young people into a leadership style built upon communication with a young student body.
Through her research, Gilliam came to realize that medical professionals often made “assumptions about what young people wanted,” failing to understand their personal lives.
She became keenly aware of medicine’s lack of “tools for listening and for hearing.”
“You have to have a lot of humility and not assume that you’ve really heard somebody, just because you asked a question and they answered,” Gilliam said.
In 2012, Gilliam co-founded the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health at the University of Chicago, “an award-winning research center at the University of Chicago that takes an asset-based approach to understand and address the social and structural determinants of adolescent sexual and reproductive health,” according to the center’s website.
One of the center’s highly-regarded projects was the creation of “Bystander,” a video game intended to counteract sexual violence and teach young adults about their social responsibilities.
“Games allow safe risk taking. Teens expect to make mistakes in games and expect to lose. As a result, young people discover skills and abilities they did not know they had. We call this a high-tech, high-touch approach,” Gilliam told Chicago Magazine in 2015.
It seems that now, even as incoming president of BU, the ability to truly listen is one Gilliam still prides herself on.
Although she was hesitant to comment on the controversy over last spring’s commencement speaker, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery David Zaslav, she recalls a similar experience in which she challenged a speaker she took issue with during her own graduation.
“I think it’s absolutely fine for students to raise their voices,” Gilliam said. “We want to be a campus where people can talk about their opinions.”
Though returning to Boston serves as somewhat of a homecoming for Gilliam, who attended medical school at Harvard University, she admits she has yet to fully tune in with the BU community.
“How do you speak to students? Where are there opportunities to meet with students? How do we want to do that?” Gilliam recalled contemplating.
During the ceremony announcing BU’s 11th president, Chair of the Board of Trustees Ahmass Fakahany spoke of Gilliam as more than just an academic, but as a person of admirable moral integrity.
“What I want to share with you, is in addition to her keen intellect, is her heart and character,” Fakahany said. “Without heart, and that extra level of personal conviction and inner moral compass on what’s right, everything else becomes nearly transactional.”
In coming to BU, Gilliam leaves a senior leadership team at Ohio State which speaks highly of her “never-ending” energy, said Wendy Smooth, the senior vice provost for inclusive excellence at Ohio State.
“Her deep sense of thoughtfulness around decision-making is unparalleled,” Smooth said. “You’re very fortunate to have her.”
As for her plans for the future, Gilliam said an agenda can’t be made without listening to people “who actually have a lived experience.”
“Sometimes, it’s the students that have to set the agenda and let us know where you want us to work and where we can be impactful,” she said.
From issues of diversity, equity and inclusion to sustainability on campus, it’s safe to say that Gilliam will have a lot on her plate as she officially assumes the role of president on July 1, 2024.
Until then, it’s Gilliam’s dedication to making change that speaks louder than all of her achievements.
“I think with education, you change an individual’s life, and then you can change your family’s life,” she said. “That’s really how you change communities and societies.”