EDUCATION + SCHOOLS

Harvard President Claudine Gay’s fate hangs in the balance after university’s board meeting

Dec 11, 2023, 9:16 AM | Updated: 9:34 am

Harvard University President Claudine Gay attends a House Education and The Workforce Committee hea...

Harvard University President Claudine Gay attends a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on December 5. (Mandatory Credit: Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

(Mandatory Credit: Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

New York (CNN) — Harvard President Claudine Gay remains at the helm after the school’s board of directors met Sunday amid calls for her removal for failing to effectively denounce threats of violence against Jewish students on campus.

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Though the agenda of the meeting was not publicized, it is likely that Gay’s future was discussed given the contentious congressional testimony last week of three university presidents that led to the resignation of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill on Saturday.

The Sunday meeting was not an emergency meeting and had been scheduled long in advance, the source said. It remains unclear whether Gay has enough support to keep her job, though hundreds of faculty members have rushed to her defense in a letter to the administration.

Gay apologized last week for testimony before a House committee on December 5, in which she, Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth failed to explicitly say calls for genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ codes of conduct.

Harvard has encountered difficulty combating a rise in antisemitic incidents on campus, although recent claims of antisemitism at Penn were considered far worse. Still, a growing number of members of Congress, donors and other prominent leaders are still calling for Gay to step down.

‘One down. Two to go’

“One down. Two to go,” Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, with the “two” being a reference to Gay and Kornbluth. “In the case of @Harvard, President Gay was asked by me 17x whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s code of conduct. She spoke her truth 17x. And the world heard.”

Stefanik, along with a group of 71 bipartisan lawmakers, sent a letter to the governing boards of Harvard, Penn, and MIT urging them to remove their university leaders. Meanwhile, hundreds of faculty members have signed a petition in support of Gay.

Gay has since apologized for her remarks, “I am sorry,” she said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson on Thursday. “Words matter.”

“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” Gay told the student newspaper. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”

But some major donors remain unmoved, particularly Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund CEO, who has been among Gay’s most vocal critics.

“As a result of President Gay’s failure to enforce Harvard’s own rules, Jewish students, faculty and others are fearful for their own safety as even the physical abuse of students remains unpunished,” Ackman wrote in an open letter to Harvard’s governing board of Sunday. “Knowing what we know now, would Harvard consider Claudine Gay for the position? The answer is definitively “No.” With this simple thought experiment, the board’s decision on President Gay could not be more straightforward.”

Harvard is one of several academic institutions to come under fire in recent months over alleged antisemitism on campuses following the terror attacks by Hamas on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent strikes on Gaza. Harvard is also among 14 colleges under investigation by the Department of Education since the attacks “for discrimination involving shared ancestry” an umbrella term that covers both Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Although Penn’s Magill resigned, it’s not clear other presidents will. MIT is standing by its president: The Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation, MIT’s governing board, issued a statement last week saying President Sally Kornbluth has their “full and unreserved support.”

Gay’s approach

Gay, a political scientist whose work focuses on intersections of politics and race, was inaugurated as Harvard’s 30th president in July after serving as dean of the school’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Unlike Gay, Magill was under fire for months prior to her resignation. Donors had been calling for Magill’s resignation since September, when the university allowed speakers that Penn’s administration acknowledged had a history of making antisemitic remarks to participate in the “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” on campus. Those existing tensions were further inflamed once the current Israel-Hamas war began.

Gay has also been vocal in her acknowledgement of Jewish students’ concerns.

On October 7, a coalition of student groups released a statement placing the blame for Hamas’ attacks on Israel’s government. The letter drew sweeping condemnation from business leaders and alumni, who called for the students whose groups signed the statement to be blacklisted. A spokesperson for the coalition later wrote in a statement that the group “staunchly opposes violence against civilians — Palestinian, Israeli, or other.”

Three days after the coalition posted its letter, Gay released a statement condemning the “terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas” and affirming that “no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

In a speech at Harvard’s Jewish student organization in late October, Gay announced  that she had assembled an advisory group of “faculty, staff, alumni, and religious leaders from the Jewish community” who “will help us to think expansively and concretely about all the ways that antisemitism shows up on our campus and in our campus culture.”

That has not made Gay less susceptible to criticism, but her willingness to take accountability in the face of criticism may be the determining factor in whether she ultimately steps down.

Community backlash takes different forms

Business leaders and alumni have criticized Gay and her counterparts over their perceived inaction in combatting antisemitism on their campuses. Following Gay’s testimony before Congress, Ackman demanded that Gay, along with Magill and Kornbluth, “resign in disgrace,” citing disgust with their testimony.

Ackman, a Harvard graduate, has also questioned Gay’s academic integrity and values, posting on social media content that implies Gay, who is the first Black woman to lead Harvard, was hired to fulfill diversity metrics.

In his open letter Sunday, Ackman said Gay had done more damage to Harvard’s reputation than anyone in the university’s history.

“Because of her failure to condemn the most vile and barbaric terrorism the world has ever seen, for supporting rather than condemning 34 Harvard-branded student organizations who hold Israel ‘entirely responsible’ for Hamas’ barbaric acts, for failing to enforce Harvard’s own rules on student conduct, and for her other failures of leadership, President Gay catalyzed an explosion of antisemitism and hate on campus that is unprecedented in Harvard’s history,” Ackman wrote.

But criticism from Harvard’s community has largely framed discrimination on campus as a systemic issue, not a moral failing on Gay’s part. In the statement announcing his resignation from Harvard’s antisemitism advisory group last week following Gay’s testimony, Rabbi David Wolpe said that combatting the combination of ideologies at Harvard that frame Jews as oppressors while “belittling and denying the Jewish experience … is the work of more than a committee or a single university.”

“It is not going to be changed by hiring or firing a single person,” he wrote, after emphasizing that he believes Gay is “both a kind and thoughtful person.”

Alumni donors — more than 1,800 of whom signed an open letter to Gay and Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana — have called for concrete reforms to support Jews on campus and have warned that they would withdraw their donations if those steps were not taken.

Faculty pledge support for Gay

As of Monday morning, more than 600 Harvard faculty members signed a petition urging school officials to resist calls for Gay’s removal. According to the 2023 Harvard annual report, the university has 1,068 tenured faculty plus 403 tenure-track faculty.

“We, the undersigned faculty, urge you in the strongest possible terms to defend the independence of the university and to resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom, including calls for the removal of President Claudine Gay,” the petition said. “The critical work of defending a culture of free inquiry in our diverse community cannot proceed if we let its shape be dictated by outside forces.”

Individual faculty have also taken to social media in recent days to express their support for Gay.

“Anti-semitism at @harvard is real… but this issue is systemic, and calls on President Gay to resign are misguided,” said computer science professor Boaz Barak in a post on X.

“I really hope we don’t let donors & politicians dictate who leads our school,” wrote Jason Furman, an economic policy professor and former chair of the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, adding that Gay condemned calls for genocide before, during and after the congressional hearing.

Former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier said in a post on X: “I hope the appreciation by President Gay of the key issues will rise to a new level, and emerge as a coherent set of approaches to strengthen the @Harvard community as bastion for free speech, academic freedom and civil discourse.”

CNN’s Matt Egan contributed to this report.

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Harvard President Claudine Gay’s fate hangs in the balance after university’s board meeting