Hundreds of Harvard faculty back president criticized for remarks on antisemitism

University’s top governing body set to decide whether to support Claudine Gay, after she apologizes for getting caught up in ‘extended, combative exchange’ in congressional hearing

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)
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)

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of Harvard faculty members are urging the Ivy League university to keep its president, Dr. Claudine Gay, in command as she faces calls from some lawmakers and donors to step down over comments at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on campuses amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Gay was one of three Ivy League university presidents to speak before Congress last week alongside counterparts Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT, and Liza Magill, the now-former president of the University of Pennsylvania. They each face fierce backlash for their evasive responses to Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s questioning in which the three presidents refused to explicitly say that calls for genocide of Jewish people violate campus rules on harassment.

The exchange focused particularly on a line of questioning from Stefanik, who repeatedly asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate the schools’ rules.

“If the speech turns into conduct it can be harassment, yes,” Magill said. Pressed further, Magill told Stefanik, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”

Gay gave a similar response, saying that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies.”

Kornbluch also gave similar answers.

Gay has since apologized saying she “got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures.”

“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.

Magill issued a video clarifying her comments but then stepped down as president following a meeting of the school’s board of trustees over the weekend. On Thursday, MIT’s governing body issued a statement declaring “full and unreserved support” for Kornbluth, whose testimony also drew scathing criticism.

On Monday, Harvard’s highest governing body was scheduled to meet. It had not issued a public statement since the hearing.

A petition this week signed by more than 600 faculty members asks the school’s governing body to resist political pressures “that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom” and to allow Gay to lead the school.

Gay, a scholar of politics and African American studies who became Harvard’s first Black president in July, has come under intense scrutiny only months into her leadership following the hearing. She and her peers’ academic responses to the questions 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.

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/Mark Schiefelbein)

In a letter to Harvard’s governing body, more than 70 mostly Republican members of Congress called for Gay’s resignation. Billionaire alumnus Bill Ackman also called for her ouster, saying Gay has done more damage to Harvard’s reputation than anyone in its history.

Following Magill’s resignation, Stefanik saw it as the first domino: “One down. Two to go,” she said on X, formerly Twitter.

Universities across the US have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza following Hamas’s October 7 shock attack on southern Israel in which 1,200 were killed, 1,000 of them civilians slaughtered in their homes, communities and at a music festival amid brutal atrocities, and about 240 were taken hostage. In response to the Hamas massacres, Israel launched a massive aerial and ground operation aimed at destroying Hamas’s governance and terror capabilities and has faced heightened criticism for the mounting Palestinian civilian death toll.

Since October 7, the conflict has ignited unprecedented tensions on many American college campuses and in world capitals, with protests flaring.

Campus administrations have been accused of tolerating antisemitic harassment, intimidation, and hate speech against Jewish students.

Antisemitic incidents in the US have hit an unprecedented record. The Anti-Defamation League said Monday that it had recorded 2,031 incidents between October 7 and December 7, the highest ever two-month number since the ADL began tracking antisemitism in the country in 1979. It also represented a 337-percent increase from the same period in 2022.

Free expression, and pressure

Since the congressional hearing, free expression advocates said that the lack of strong condemnations could have unintended consequences, including the further erosion of public trust in higher education.

At Harvard, the faculty petition for Gay aims to parry what many of its signers see as a Republican attempt to wield influence over the elite institution. Harvard and the Ivy League have long been a favorite target of GOP lawmakers who see top universities as hubs of liberalism. The petition is seen not necessarily as a defense of Gay but an attempt to insulate the school from the intrusion of political pressure.

File: Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters gather at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

“We have lawmakers getting intimately involved in trying to dictate governance on campus, and this seems unacceptable,” said Melani Cammett, a professor of international affairs who helped organize the petition. Harvard needs to reckon with campus polarization, she added, but “that’s not something that should be controlled by external actors.”

Those backing the petition include some professors who have been critical of Gay. Among them is Laurence Tribe, a legal scholar who described Gay’s testimony as “hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive.” He endorsed the petition because “it’s dangerous for universities to be readily bullied into micromanaging their policies,” he said in an interview. But his view on Gay hasn’t changed.

“I think she now has a great deal to prove, and I’m not at all sure that she will be able to prove it,” he said. “I don’t think she is out of the woods by any means.”

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