Harvard’s board: We unanimously stand in support of President Gay

Dec 12, 2023, 7:28 AM | Updated: 4:35 pm

Claudine Gay testifies...

Embattled Harvard President Claudine Gay is expected to learn her fate December 12, and it might be a relief. (Credit: Graeme Sloan/SIPPL Sipa USA/AP)

(Credit: Graeme Sloan/SIPPL Sipa USA/AP)

New York (CNN) — Embattled Harvard President Claudine Gay has gained the unanimous support of the university’s board, Harvard’s highest governing body said in a statement Tuesday, giving Gay significant cover to remain in her position after a tumultuous week in which many donors and politicians have called for her ouster.

“As members of the Harvard Corporation, we today reaffirm our support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard University,” the statement from the Harvard Corporation said. “Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”

The Harvard Corporation, which includes the school’s board of overseers, announced the decision Tuesday morning following the conclusion of the board’s meeting on Monday. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, was first to report the news Tuesday morning.

“In this tumultuous and difficult time, we unanimously stand in support of President Gay,” the Corporation added in its statement.

But strong criticism of Gay remains, and the board’s statement of support may not be the final word on the matter. Gay has been on the hot seat ever since her widely criticized testimony on antisemitism at American universities before a House committee a week ago. Since then, UPenn President Liz Magill, who testified alongside Gay, resigned, and some high-profile donors and politicians called for Gay’s ouster.

Still, an outpouring of support for Gay Monday from hundreds of faculty and alumni could have tipped the board’s decision in her favor.

More than 700 Harvard faculty members have signed a petition backing Gay. According to the 2023 Harvard annual report, the university has 1,068 tenured faculty plus 403 tenure-track faculty.

The Executive Committee of Harvard University’s Alumni Association on Monday announced its unreserved support for Gay. And over 800 Black alumni have announced their “unequivocal support” for Gay and her efforts to “build a stronger, more inclusive community at our alma matter while balancing the critical principals of free thought and free speech.”

“I’m glad the Corporation made their own decision to keep Claudine Gay rather than outsourcing it to others,” said Harvard economic policy professor Jason Furman, who served as a top economic adviser to President Obama, in a statement Tuesday. “I also hope they are pressing Claudine Gay and schools to continue the process of fixing our mistakes and moving forward in a better way.”

A disastrous hearing

At the consequential December 5 hearing before a House committee, Gay struggled to answer questions about whether calls for genocide against Jews would violate Harvard’s code of conduct. She and other university presidents failed to explicitly say calls for genocide of Jewish people constituted bullying and harassment on campus. The exchanges went viral and prompted a flurry of business leaders, donors and politicians to demand Gay, Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth step down.

The three presidents soon after attempted to clarify their testimony, publicly saying that they were giving academic answers to questions of safety, and they believe calls for genocide would violate school rules.

MIT’s board quickly said it supported Kornbluth. Gay apologized last week in an interview with the Crimson. Magill, who resigned along with Penn board chair Scott Bok, still has not apologized.

In its statement, the Corporation said Gay should have been more firm in her response to the House committee’s questioning.

“So many people have suffered tremendous damage and pain because of Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack, and the University’s initial statement should have been an immediate, direct, and unequivocal condemnation,” it said in a statement. “Calls for genocide are despicable and contrary to fundamental human values. President Gay has apologized for how she handled her congressional testimony and has committed to redoubling the University’s fight against antisemitism.”

Harvard, like many other schools across the country, has encountered difficulty combating a rise in antisemitic incidents on campus 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.

New York Democratic Rep. Daniel Goldman told CNN Tuesday he’s disappointed by the decision and argued Harvard is failing to protect its students facing threats of violence.

“If they are unable to enforce their code of conduct, then they either need to get a new code of conduct or they need to get a new president,” Goldman said. “I hope there is a significant change at Harvard if Dr. Gay is going to stay.”

Critics seize on Gay’s testimony

Still, Gay faces a number of critics calling for her ouster.

“One down. Two to go,” Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York wrote on X, after Magill stepped down Saturday, with “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 last week urging them to remove their university leaders.

A conservative nonprofit plans to send four mobile billboard trucks to Harvard President Claudine Gay’s home on Tuesday and Wednesday, the group’s president told CNN. One of the trucks will feature a picture of the Harvard leader with the message: “Claudine Gay: the best friend Hamas ever had.” Another simply calls for Gay to resign.

Billionaire hedge fund CEO Bill Ackman, a Harvard graduate, has been among Gay’s most vocal critics. In an letter to Harvard’s board on Sunday Ackman wrote that Gay, who was inaugurated in July, “has done more damage to the reputation of Harvard University than any individual in our nearly 500-year history.”

Ackman 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 letter, he attacked Harvard’s diversity, equity and inclusion practices as a “major contributing source of discriminatory practices on campus.”

Ackman alleged Gay plagiarized elements of her academic writings, an accusation Gay denied.

“I stand by the integrity of my scholarship,” Gay responded to Ackman in a statement. “Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards.”

The Harvard Corporation Tuesday said it ordered an independent review of Gay’s writings, which revealed inadequate citations in a few instances but “no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.”

“President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications,” the Corporation said.

Related: Jon Huntsman cuts donations to alma mater over ‘silence’ on war in Israel


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Harvard’s board: We unanimously stand in support of President Gay