Harvard affirms President Claudine Gay will not step down over antisemitism testimony

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The governing board of Harvard University says that President Claudine Gay will remain in office, rejecting calls that she be removed after her congressional testimony on antisemitism sparked outrage among lawmakers, alumni and donors.

“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 board, known as the Harvard Corporation, said on Tuesday.

Calls for Gay’s removal erupted after she was asked by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., at a hearing of the House Committee on Education last week whether calling for the “genocide of Jews” violated Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment. Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.”

When asked to clarify, Gay said, “Antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct and we do take action.”

The decision by Harvard’s governing board follows the announcement on Saturday by Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, that she is resigning following backlash to her testimony before the House.

Magill, Gay and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were each called to testify about antisemitism on college campuses, and in sometimes heated testimony faced criticism for a lack of moral clarity for responses that were seen as overly legalistic. While Kornbluth has received support from MIT’s board, she still faces some calls to step down from lawmakers in response to her testimony.

Critics said the Harvard president’s answers fell short and cast doubt on whether Gay was equipped to protect the university’s Jewish students at a moment of rising antisemitism stemming from the war in Gaza. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson two days after the hearing, Gay apologized for her remarks.

“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” she said to the Crimson. “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.”

In a separate statement on social media, Gay said, “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard.”

Despite the apology, criticism over her leadership continued to mount in the days after the congressional hearing. On Friday, over 70 members of Congress called for her departure, as well as the removal of UPenn’s Magill and MIT’s Kornbluth. Those concerns were echoed by some Harvard faculty members, students and alumni, including billionaire investor Bill Ackman, who on Sunday sent a scathing letter to his alma mater’s governing boards, accusing Gay of damaging the university’s reputation.

“Knowing what we know now, would Harvard consider Claudine Gay for the position? The answer is definitively ‘No,'” he wrote, adding that the decision of whether to fire Gay “could not be more straightforward.”

Despite the backlash, Gay has also received widespread support from students and faculty members. By Monday, more than 700 faculty members had signed a letter to Harvard’s top governing body, urging it to keep Gay as president. The letter warned that such political pressure for Gay’s removal is “at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom.”

“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,” the letter said, according to Alison Frank Johnson, a history professor at Harvard who co-authored it.

Gay made history this past summer as the first person of color and second woman ever to become president of Harvard.

As it affirmed her continued tenure, the board stated, “In this tumultuous and difficult time, we unanimously stand in support of President Gay.”

Her congressional testimony was not the first time Gay became embroiled in controversy since the Israel-Hamas war broke out. In October, Gay was criticized for not condemning Hamas more quickly or in strong enough terms, as well as not swiftly reprimanding students who in a letter accused Israel of being “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

Following the outrage, Gay said in a video that she wholeheartedly condemned the “barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.” She also emphasized grace and freedom of speech.

Gay was also rebuked by pro-Palestinian faculty members after she condemned the chant “from the river to the sea,” which has been evoked by militant groups like Hamas to call for the erasure of Israel.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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