Harvard’s Governing Board Nears Resolution on President’s Future

Harvard’s governing board on Monday was nearing a resolution that would allow its president, Claudine Gay, to remain in her job, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions. But those discussions were ongoing as of late Monday night.

An announcement was expected on Tuesday. Harvard’s board has said nothing about Dr. Gay’s future or the festering controversy which began nearly a week ago over the way she equivocated when answering questions about antisemitism on campus in a congressional hearing.

Dr. Gay’s testimony plunged the Harvard community deeper into one of its biggest crises in years. The dilemma over the future of Dr. Gay — the university’s first Black president — is fraught, forcing the school to reckon with difficult questions of race, religion and tolerance.

On and off campus, the debate over whether Dr. Gay was fit to continue leading the university raged. Groups of donors, alumni and students ratcheted up a pressure campaign to oust Dr. Gay as her supporters banded together to try to save her job. About 700 members of Harvard’s faculty, in addition to hundreds more alumni, came to her defense in several open letters.

One, from Black faculty members, called the attacks on the president “specious and politically motivated.” The letter, which was drafted and signed by some of Harvard’s most prominent professors, said that Dr. Gay “should be given the chance to fulfill her term to demonstrate her vision for Harvard.”

Critics of Dr. Gay, too, pressed their case publicly. One of the most outspoken, William A. Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alumnus, said in an interview that she should resign for the good of the school. “I don’t see a scenario where she survives for the long term or even the intermediate term,” he said.

A letter expressing “no confidence” in Dr. Gay was also gaining support on Monday. Signed by Harvard students, staff and alumni, it urged her to resign or be relieved of her position. “It is not appropriate for Claudine Gay to serve as President of Harvard, as she does not represent our collective values or the Harvard that we have come to know,” that letter said.

Similar debates are playing out on college campuses across the country as school administrators face accusations that they have ignored or downplayed incidents of antisemitism following the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza.

Underpinning these debates is a tension between, on the one hand, some who say that academic freedom and free speech are being stifled, and on the other, those who complain that universities have become inhospitable to challenges to left-leaning ideas, in a way that has allowed some forms of intolerance to grow unchecked.

By late Monday, the dueling open letters and social media posts were the only public accounting of the dispute. The university’s governing board, which includes Dr. Gay, met behind closed doors starting at 8 a.m. An agenda for the meeting was not made available. A Harvard spokesman declined to comment on Monday about the board’s meeting.

Dr. Gay’s supporters hoped that she would avoid the fate of the president of the University of Pennsylvania, M. Elizabeth Magill, who resigned on Saturday under pressure for her remarks about antisemitism during the same congressional panel where Dr. Gay spoke.

Dr. Gay, Ms. Magill and the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sally Kornbluth, testified before Congress last week in a hearing that House Republicans convened to address issues of bias against Jewish students. The presidents’ responses — noncommittal, halting and legalistic — to questions about how their schools’ disciplinary policies would apply if students were to call for the genocide of Jews left many people outraged.

At several points, Dr. Gay was given the opportunity to affirm that calls for the genocide of Jews would be a violation of Harvard’s code of conduct. Each time, she demurred, falling back on a scripted answer about how the context of such a remark was important to consider.

Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York and a graduate of Harvard, led the most aggressive questioning of Dr. Gay. “So the answer is yes that call for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?” Ms. Stefanik said.

Dr. Gay answered, “Again, it depends on the context.”

Ms. Stefanik fumed, “It does not depend on the context. The answer is yes. And that is why you should resign.”

Congress has opened an investigation into the three universities, with Republicans threatening to subpoena school leaders.

Even before the congressional testimony last week, Harvard had erupted in recriminations over the way the university reacted to the Hamas assault on Israel and the subsequent political fallout. Critics initially accused Dr. Gay of offering an inadequate response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Dr. Gay has since apologized for her remarks to Congress, saying that her words had amplified distress and pain on campus.

One faculty letter of support for Dr. Gay that started to circulate over the weekend had gained nearly 700 signatures by the time its organizers submitted it to the Harvard Corporation on Monday morning, according to Melani Cammett, a professor of international relations and one of the leaders of the effort.

The signatories of the various letters supporting Dr. Gay included some of Harvard’s most prominent names: Henry Louis Gates Jr., a literary critic; Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law scholar; Randall Kennedy, a professor of law; Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian of early America; William Julius Wilson, a sociologist; and Jason Furman, an economist and a former adviser to former President Barack Obama.

The group of professors supporting Dr. Gay was diverse. In addition to Black faculty, it included Jewish professors and Arab American and Muslim faculty members, and spanned a broad range of schools and disciplines. Many of her supporters have expressed dismay that the pressure building on her to resign was part of a coordinated effort — led mostly but not exclusively by conservatives — to attack elite higher education institutions like Harvard.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Mr. Kennedy, who signed two letters from faculty, said Dr. Gay “did nothing and said nothing wrong” in her testimony to Congress, which he believed amounted to a strong defense of free speech rights, even when speech, he said, was “abhorrent.”

“I’m dismayed that these great universities could be upset so profoundly by a transparent, obviously tendentious attack on their autonomy,” he said. “I will be absolutely brokenhearted and dismayed if President Gay is ousted from her spot under these sorts of pressures. My esteem for Harvard University will drop precipitously.”

The faculty members supporting the president hold differing views on the Gaza war and campus protest, and include several who have previously publicly critiqued Dr. Gay’s performance, including Mr. Tribe.

Dr. Gay seemed to enjoy support from a considerable segment of the Harvard faculty, which includes roughly 2,300 people. But that support was not universal. Jody Dushay, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, said in an interview on Monday that she had urged Dr. Gay to resign in an email.

“You are an esteemed scholar but you are not a leader,” Dr. Dushay wrote. Dr. Gay did not respond, she said.

“It’s just a worse and worse look to constantly be apologizing. It’s not befitting of the president of the university,” Dr. Dushay said. “I just don’t have confidence in her.”

Jenna Russell and Maureen Farrell contributed reporting.

Source link