Harvard says president will keep job despite backlash over antisemitism comments

University argues Claudine Gay is best person to deal with ongoing societal issues, even after she tells Congress calls for genocide only violate campus rules in certain contexts

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, December 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
File: 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, December 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Harvard President Claudine Gay will remain leader of the prestigious Ivy League school following her comments last week at a congressional hearing on antisemitism, the university’s highest governing body announced Tuesday.

“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 said in a statement following its meeting Monday.

Only months into her leadership, Gay came under intense scrutiny following the hearing in which she and two of her peers struggled to answer questions about campus antisemitism. Their academic responses provoked a backlash from Republican opponents, along with alumni and donors who say the university leaders are failing to stand up for Jewish students on their campuses.

At issue was a line of questioning that asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate the universities’ code of conduct. At the hearing, Gay said it depended on the context, adding that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies.”

Some lawmakers and donors to the university had called for Gay to step down, following the resignation of Liz Magill as president of the University of Pennsylvania on Saturday.

The Harvard Crimson student newspaper first reported Tuesday that Gay, who became Harvard’s first Black president in July, would remain in office with the support of the Harvard Corporation following the conclusion of the board’s meeting. It cited an unnamed source familiar with the decision.

A petition signed by more than 600 faculty members had asked the school’s governing body to keep Gay in charge.

“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 corporation’s statement said. “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.”

In an interview with The Crimson last week, Gay said she got caught up in a heated exchange at the House committee hearing and failed to properly denounce threats of violence against Jewish students.

“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,” Gay said.

Testimony from Gay and Magill drew intense national backlash, as did similar responses from the president of MIT, who also testified before the Republican-led House Education and Workforce Committee.

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.”

US Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and a committee member who repeatedly asked the university presidents whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate the schools’ rules voiced her displeasure on X, the social media platform, about the decision supporting Gay.

“There have been absolutely no updates to [Harvard’s] code of conduct to condemn the calls for genocide of Jews and protect Jewish students on campus,” she said. “The only update to Harvard’s code of conduct is to allow plagiarists as president.”

The corporation addressed allegations of plagiarism against Gay, saying that Harvard became aware of them in late October regarding three articles she had written. It initiated an independent review at Gay’s request.

The corporation reviewed the results on Saturday, “which revealed a few instances of inadequate citation” and found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct, it said. Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications, the statement said.

Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a longtime defender of Israel and a professor at Harvard Law School, said Tuesday it was a mistake for the Harvard Corporation to support Gay, saying she championed a diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracy “that has become an incubator for antisemitism.”

He said he hoped that Gay would change her views on free speech to ensure everyone is treated the same.

“Right now she has been presiding over a dangerous double standard that permits free speech attacking some groups but not others. The school must decide on a policy, either free speech for all, equally, or limited restrictions, equally applied. She has not been the champion for that kind of equality and therefore she is the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong job,” he said.

A grassroots watchdog group called StopAntisemitism said on X that Harvard’s decision “serves only to greenlight more Jew-hatred on campus.” It said it continues to call for Gay’s resignation and urged the corporation to reconsider.

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