Harvard president will remain in office despite criticism of her response to antisemitism
Fall views of Harvard Yard and foliage at Harvard University.
(Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

By Andrew Lapin
December 12, 2023

(JTA) – Harvard University’s board of directors will keep Claudine Gay as the school’s president despite pressure to force her out after she declined to say outright that calls for the genocide of Jews violated campus rules. 

The Harvard Corporation, the school’s board, met behind closed doors for hours Monday night before formally announcing it would “reaffirm our support for President Gay.” The board said its decision was unanimous, and the statement was signed by all 11 members, including its senior fellow and former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who is Jewish.

The board’s decision stood in stark contrast to the resignation of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill on Saturday, along with that school’s board chair. Magill appeared alongside Gay last Tuesday at a congressional hearing, where both — along with the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology —  were asked whether “calls for the genocide of Jews” would violate their schools’ codes of conduct. All replied that it depended on context. 

MIT’s board has also issued a statement of support for its Jewish president Sally Kornbluth, who is also facing calls to step down.

Gay has been under fire since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which some Jewish and pro-Israel critics said she did not condemn forcefully enough. Harvard’s board also criticized Gay’s initial response to the attack, especially as a coalition of Harvard student groups asserted that the attacks were entirely Israel’s fault

“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,” the board’s statement read. “Calls for genocide are despicable and contrary to fundamental human values.”

Gay, who was appointed the first-ever Black president of Harvard in July, has condemned Hamas and reaffirmed support for the school’s Jewish community multiple times since Oct. 7, which the board noted. But her testimony during the Dec. 5 House hearing received widespread bipartisan condemnation.

Harvard alum and Jewish activist investor Bill Ackman, who has pushed Jewish Harvard donors to withhold donations in protest of Gay’s handling of campus antisemitism, had been among the more prominent voices calling for Gay’s ouster. Following the decision to keep Gay, Ackman claimed on the social network X that the board had been “concerned it would look like they were kowtowing to me.”

Ahead of the board’s decision, hundreds of Harvard faculty spoke up in support of Gay, including Black faculty, who said in a letter that attacks on her were “specious and politically motivated.”

Also under dispute in Gay’s appointment were accusations of plagiarism in a handful of academic papers, which came to light after she was criticized for her initial response to Hamas. The board said it had reviewed the allegations and determined that Gay had not violated Harvard’s academic code, but that she would be requesting corrections to the disputed articles.

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