Hundreds of Harvard University faculty members signed a letter Sunday urging the school’s administration to resist calls to remove president Claudine Gay, following widespread criticism of her responses at a congressional hearing last week on campus antisemitism.
The letter came as the Harvard Corporation and the school’s Board of Overseers — the university’s governing bodies — convened over the weekend for regularly scheduled meetings that will continue into Monday, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Harvard’s president faced widespread criticism, alongside the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for offering legalistic and equivocal answers at the hearing on Tuesday to a question about whether calls for genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ policies. Penn’s president resigned on Saturday.
The Harvard faculty letter, addressed to the president and fellows of Harvard College, argues that external political calls to remove Gay are “at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom” and calls on administrators to “defend the independence of the university.”
“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,” continues the letter, which was obtained by the Globe.
The letter had more than 550 signatures Sunday night after circulating for several hours. The letter was signed by faculty from across the university’s departments and graduate schools.
Ryan Enos, a professor of government who was among the first to sign, said in a phone interview that: “There is agreement [among faculty] that it’s wrong to have politicians and alumni pressuring who should be the president of the university.”
“The reason for that is it could interfere with free inquiry, which is the bedrock of how universities run in a free country,” Enos said.
Enos said the letter was circulating Sunday with the understanding that the Harvard Corporation, which includes the president and fellows, is meeting Monday “under extreme pressure.”
Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, said there has been “intense discussion among Harvard faculty” about whether to call for Gay’s resignation.
He said he opposes her resignation, but he did not sign the letter.
“I don’t believe that retaining or firing a president, including taking into account the nation’s reaction to her statements, is a matter of academic freedom,” Pinker wrote in an email Sunday. “But I do think that many of the attacks on Gay are unfair and inaccurate, and that the problems with modern universities are deep and serious but should be addressed directly, not blamed on Gay herself.”
A truck with a billboard reading “Fire Gay” circled Harvard’s campus Sunday afternoon. Last week, a truck with the words “Fire Liz” was seen on Penn’s campus, CBS reported. On Saturday an airplane flew over Harvard’s campus while pulling a banner that read, “Harvard hates Jews,” a message denounced by a pro-Palestinian student group.
Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said “academic freedom and free expression should be at the core of Harvard’s mission.”
“After years of maintaining an abysmal track record on free speech, Harvard’s leaders must refocus on consistently supporting open dialogue and debate on campus for all views — and resist all political pressure to do otherwise,” Morey said in a statement Sunday.
The Harvard faculty letter followed a letter released Friday by Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican — signed by more than 70 mostly Republican members of Congress — that called for the removal of Gay, Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Liz Magill, who had been president of the University of Pennsylvania since March 2022.
The controversy over the hearing focused on a contentious three-minute exchange between Stefanik and the three presidents.
”Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate MIT’s code of conduct or rule regarding bullying or harassment, yes or no?” Stefanik asked Kornbluth. Stefanik then posed almost identical questions to Gay and Magill.
The presidents offered strikingly similar responses. Calls for the genocide of Jews would violate the rules if they were “targeted at individuals,” Kornbluth said, but not if they were mere “public statements.”
Whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate the rules “depends on the context,” Gay said. “When it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.”
In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, published Friday, Gay apologized for her testimony.
”I am sorry,” Gay told the Crimson on Thursday. “Words matter.”
”I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” she said. “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.”
Penn announced Magill’s resignation Saturday, as well as the resignation of Scott L. Bok, chairman of its board of trustees.
MIT’s governing board declared its “full and unreserved support” for Kornbluth in a statement Thursday. Kimberly Allen, an MIT spokesperson, referred a Sunday request for updates back to that statement.
Furor over the testimony comes at a time of rising concerns over campus antisemitism and heated debate over free expression on campus in light of the Israel-Hamas war.
Some Jewish students have said the activist fervor has spilled over into generalized animus against Jews. Many protests have featured controversial slogans that some view as calls for righteous resistance to Israeli oppression of Palestinians and that others say are calls for violence against Jews and Israeli civilians.
The Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, a student organization that has been embroiled in controversy this fall for initially blaming Israel for the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, said calls for Gay’s resignation are based on a mischaracterization of pro-Palestinian students’ positions on the war.
“The voices calling for her to resign are the same ones that supported the doxxing, targeting, and harassment of Palestinian, Black, brown, Arab, Muslim, and Jewish community members who speak up about the genocide in Gaza,” the committee said in a statement to the Globe.
At Harvard, several alumni — including Bill Ackman, a hedge fund billionaire who has been sharply critical of Gay since Oct. 7 — have called on Gay to resign.
The Harvard Jewish Alumni Association, which formed in October in response to concerns about campus antisemitism, sent a letter to the Harvard Corporation and top administrators condemning Gay’s Tuesday testimony but stopping short of calling for her resignation.
Rabbi David Wolpe announced Thursday that he would resign from an antisemitism advisory group recently convened at Harvard by Gay, citing the hearing as a catalyst.
“I wanted one of the presidents to just pound the table and say this antisemitism is not acceptable,” Wolpe told the Globe Saturday. “The testimony was, unfortunately, so sort of mild and equivocal that it did not reflect the feeling of crisis that I have seen among the students, and faculty, and alumni.”
Mike Damiano, Samantha J. Gross, and John Hilliard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.