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Key Harvard oversight board offers silence as controversy engulfs Harvard president Claudine Gay

Harvard President Claudine Gay testified before a congressional committee last week.Kevin Dietsch/Getty

CAMBRIDGE — After meeting for hours Monday, the members of the Harvard Corporation adjourned without giving any public indication about their answer to a question that has exposed schisms in the Harvard community and drawn impassioned responses from both sides: Do you back university president Claudine Gay?

It was the seventh day of silence from the key board members since Gay, as well as the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered legalistic and equivocal answers at a congressional hearing to questions about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ rules, prompting an intense backlash from alumni, donors, and politicians.

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The UPenn president, Liz Magill, resigned on Saturday after facing a donor revolt and criticism from Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor.

The MIT president, Sally Kornbluth, received a vote of confidence last Thursday from the executive committee of the school’s governing board, which said Kornbluth had the committee’s “full and unreserved support.”

Late Monday, after an all-day meeting, the Harvard Corporation, one of the school’s two governing boards, had yet to issue a statement about Gay.

As Gay has faced some calls to resign, hundreds of Harvard faculty members have expressed support for her.

In a letter Monday, nearly 100 Black Harvard faculty members said that the suggestion that Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, “would not stand boldly against manifestations of antisemitism and any suggestion that her selection as president was the result of a process that elevated an unqualified person based on considerations of race and gender are specious and politically motivated.”

Hundreds of faculty members signed a different letter supporting Gay that rejected calls for her resignation on the basis of academic freedom and protection of the university’s independence. On Monday, the executive committee of the Harvard Alumni Association voiced its unanimous support for Gay.

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Perhaps the loudest calls for resignation have come from some alumni, including the hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, who has sharply criticized Gay over her testimony and the school’s handling of reports of rising antisemitism on campus.

Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who said Sunday he does not want the Corporation to fire Gay, said that “literally hundreds of emails” and multiple open letters are circulating within the Harvard community, “some calling on the Corporation to ask Claudine to resign, others calling on it to keep her.”

One letter, purportedly signed by “students, alumni, and members of the Harvard community” and expressing a vote of no confidence in Gay, had attracted more than 1,100 signatures Monday afternoon. Ackman distributed a form online where people could sign the letter; no proof of Harvard affiliation was required to sign.

Since last week’s congressional testimony, some of Gay’s opponents, seeking her ouster, have condemned what they describe as her support for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and have also criticized her record as an administrator and a scholar.

On Sunday night, Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist, said he and writer Christopher Brunet had “obtained documentation demonstrating that Harvard President Claudine Gay plagiarized multiple sections of her Ph.D. thesis, violating Harvard’s policies on academic integrity.” Then, on Monday evening, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, alleged that Gay had plagiarized passages in four of her scholarly publications, including the PhD thesis.

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In a statement to the Globe Monday morning, Gay said: “I stand by the integrity of my scholarship. Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards.”

In a widely circulated social media thread and online article, Rufo and Brunet alleged Sunday night that some of Gay’s paraphrases of other sources’ work in her 1997 Harvard political science dissertation hewed too closely to the original language and should have been set between quotation marks or reworded.

Professor Lawrence Bobo, Harvard College’s dean of social science, is among those whom Gay was accused of plagiarizing in the Sunday posts. Bobo said Monday, “I find myself unconcerned about these claims as our work was explicitly acknowledged.”

Professor Gary King, a leading Harvard political scientist and one of Gay’s dissertation advisers whom she was also accused of plagiarizing in the Sunday posts, called the allegations, “false and absurd.”

Katherine Tate, a Brown University professor of political science who was on Gay’s dissertation committee, said on Monday that she supports Gay and wants her to remain president of Harvard. But she said some of the passages highlighted in the Sunday night posts amounted to plagiarism.

”I think that it is an example of some plagiarism, yes,” Tate said. “But I think it’s a really minor example.” In the context of the dissertation, Tate said, it was obvious she was not stealing the ideas of other researchers, but rather referencing them.

The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Gay defied her parents’ wishes to pursue a career in academia. She quickly rose through the sharp-elbowed political ranks of higher education, first at Stanford and then at Harvard, earning a reputation as “a deeply thoughtful and unflappable leader,” a Globe profile said shortly before she assumed Harvard’s presidency last summer.

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Gay is “analytic and factually driven, not emotionally driven,” Jennifer Hochschild, a Harvard professor who has worked closely with Gay, told the Globe this spring.

In an interview Monday, Hochschild said that Gay, and the other presidents, had gotten tripped up in the hearing by a hypothetical question whose premise they should have challenged.

In the hearing’s most controversial exchange, Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, asked Gay, “[D]oes calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment, yes or no?”

“It can be, depending on the context,” Gay said, adding that such speech would violate rules if it were targeted at individuals.

Hochschild said Gay and the other presidents answered the question “as though they were in a court of law and they weren’t, so they should have understood the context in which they were speaking.”

Harvard, MIT, UPenn presidents grilled at congressional hearing over campus antisemitism
Representative Elise Stefanik questioned the university presidents at a fiery congressional hearing Tuesday. (House Committee on Education & the Workforce)

Last Friday, more than 70 members of Congress, almost all Republicans, called on the three presidents to resign over their testimony.

Students and recent graduates walking around Harvard’s campus Monday said the congressional hearing was conducted in “bad faith” and rejected calls for Gay’s resignation. Josh Caven, a Harvard senior, said calls for Gay’s resignation felt “like a way to silence the conversation the broader campus community is having” about controversial speech.

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A group calling itself Concerned Black Alumni and Allies collected hundreds of signatures for a letter to the Harvard Corporation in support of Gay on Monday. Last week, the Harvard Jewish Alumni Association sent a letter condemning Gay’s testimony, but stopping short of calling for her resignation.

In a social media post Saturday, after UPenn president Magill resigned, Stefanik wrote, “One down. Two to go.” She added: “This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions in America.”

Tuesday’s congressional hearing was convened by the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce. It focused primarily on reports of rising antisemitism on college campuses and free speech issues related to controversial slogans used by student protesters opposing Israel’s war in Gaza. Israeli strikes have killed more than 17,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel that killed around 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.

In another exchange, earlier in the hearing, Gay said that she found certain protest slogans, such as “Globalize the intifada,” to be “thoughtless, reckless, and hateful.” But she said that due to the school’s commitment to free expression, Harvard gives a wide berth to political speech even when it is “objectionable, offensive, hateful.”

In an interview published in the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, Friday, Gay apologized for her response to the genocide question.

“I am sorry,” Gay said. “Words matter.”

Deanna Pan and Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Daniel Kool contributed to this report.


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns. Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.