Pressure grows on Harvard President Claudine Gay after Penn’s Liz Magill resignation
Dec 11, 2023, 11:17 AM
New York (CNN) — Now that Liz Magill has stepped down as president of the University of Pennsylvania, the spotlight has turned to her counterpart from Harvard University, Claudine Gay.
“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 MIT President Sally 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 serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which called on Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth last Tuesday to testify about their responses to alleged incidents of antisemitism on their campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.
All three gave widely criticized testimony, in which they failed to condemn calls for the genocide of Jews as explicitly against campus harassment and bullying codes. On Friday, a bipartisan group of 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.
“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.
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, Penn’s 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.
The Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, the university’s governing organizations, are meeting on campus Sunday amid pressure on Gay to step down, a person close to the boards tells CNN. News of the meeting was previously reported by the Harvard Crimson.
A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment.
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 disastrous 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.”
On Sunday, more than 300 Harvard faculty members signed a petition urging officials to resist calls for Gay’s removal.
“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.”
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.
CNN’s Matt Egan contributed to this report.
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