fb-pixelClaudine Gay's Harvard fate should be decided by Harvard alone Skip to main content

Silence is not golden. If Harvard board supports Claudine Gay, it should say so.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, appeared before Congress with M. Elizabeth Magill, then-president of the University of Pennsylvania.Haiyun Jiang/Bloomberg

Should Harvard president Claudine Gay stay or go?

That decision should be up to the governing boards of Harvard — not politicians, powerful alumni, rich donors, or the peanut gallery on social media.

While we’ve heard from all corners on why Gay should resign over how she has handled growing antisemitism on campus, we haven’t heard from the one body that matters the most: the Harvard Corporation, the elite group that functions as a 12-member board of trustees that voted for Gay as president.

So does Gay have the Corporation’s unequivocal support or not? The silence is deafening. There was still no word as today’s business section went to press.

Advertisement



Gay was among the three women college presidents who endured a Salem-witch-trial-esque takedown masquerading as a congressional hearing last week. For five hours, the women were berated and bullied over their responses on how to protect Jewish students concerned about their safety as tensions escalate over the Israel-Hamas war.

Not lost on anyone was how the Republicans conspicuously chose — in a country full of male college presidents facing similar problems — to bring in three women presidents, each with less than 18 months in their jobs.

In addition to Gay — who in July became the first Black woman to lead Harvard — Congress hauled in University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth. Magill resigned under pressure on Saturday.

That wasn’t enough to assuage the mob mentality. “One down. Two to go,” wrote Elise Stefanik, the Republican congresswoman from New York, on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. It was the Harvard alumna’s interrogation of the presidents during the hearing that went viral .

Advertisement



After Stefanik asked them during the hearing whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate their campus codes of conduct, each president provided carefully coached answers that did not denounce genocide outright. Magill and Gay later apologized for their remarks.

With Magill’s resignation, the mob now seems focused on Gay. Some of the heat is off Kornbluth, who is Jewish, because the MIT board on Thursday issued a statement of unequivocal support.

“The MIT Corporation chose Sally to be our president for her excellent academic leadership, her judgment, her integrity, her moral compass, and her ability to unite our community around MIT’s core values,” wrote Mark Gorenberg, chair of the executive committee of the MIT Corporation. “She has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, all of which we reject utterly at MIT. She has our full and unreserved support.”

Now, is that so hard to do, Harvard?

A truck with a “Fire Gay” message drives through Harvard Square. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Perhaps it is, because wealthy donors and prominent alumni are muddying the waters, threatening to stop giving money and calling for Gay’s resignation. That’s what happened to Magill as major donations began to evaporate — notably a $100 million gift — after her congressional testimony.

Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman has been among the ringleaders. He posted on X a letter he sent to Harvard’s governing boards on Sunday alleging that Gay “has done more damage to the reputation of Harvard University than any individual” since its founding in 1636. He also alleged that he is “personally aware of more than a billion dollars of terminated donations from a small group of Harvard’s most generous Jewish and non-Jewish alumni.”

Advertisement



Has Gay made mistakes in her response to the Israel-Hamas war and her congressional testimony? Yes, she has. Are they fireable offenses? No, they weren’t.

If the ultimate goal is to protect Jewish students and others experiencing harassment in this tinderbox of times we are living in, Gay needs to surround herself with better advisers to steady the ship. She’s not the problem.

The Globe has reported that Harvard’s two governing boards were convening over the weekend and into Monday, as part of their regular meeting schedule. The Corporation is the university’s principal fiduciary board, while the other, which offers guidance, is the Board of Overseers. If these boards cave to rich donors and politicians, it will set a dangerous precedent that money and politics set the university’s agenda.

I have also wondered if Harvard faculty would take sides. Gay arrived at Harvard in 2006 as a professor of government and most recently served as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. On Sunday — finally — a petition of support of Gay began to circulate, and now has more than 700 professors imploring the Corporation “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.”

Advertisement



Among the signatories are some of Harvard’s most prominent faculty, including economist Jason Furman, African American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe.

Tribe has been critical of Gay’s congressional testimony, writing on X that her “hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends.” Still, Tribe told me in an email that he signed the petition because he does not believe she should be pressured to resign.

“I wanted to distance myself from what seemed to me the unwise and indeed dangerous calls for her resignation,” said Tribe.

Members of the Harvard Corporation — led by Hyatt Hotels scion Penny Pritzker, who served as US commerce secretary under President Obama — should be loud and clear about their support of Gay as president. They can’t pick her, celebrate her as the first Black woman to lead the institution, and then let her twist in the wind.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist and host of the Globe Opinion podcast “Say More with Shirley Leung.” Find the podcast on Apple, Spotify, and globe.com/saymore. Follow her on Threads @shirley02186


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.