Harvard University President Claudine Gay issued an apology Thursday, saying she didn’t choose her words carefully enough when she refused to give a yes-or-no answer when asked whether students calling for the “genocide of Jews” would be in violation of the school’s code of conduct.
Gay, who was called on to “resign in disgrace” this week by the school’s billionaire donor Bill Ackman, told the university’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, that she regrets how her exchange with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) played out.
“When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” she said, adding that “words matter.”
“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” Gay added. “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.”
“Substantively, I failed to convey what is my truth,” she noted.
The controversy stemmed from Gay’s testimony at a congressional hearing on Tuesday that was attended by presidents of Ivy League universities—a tense affair that spanned six hours.
In the latter half of the hearing, which was called in part to discuss rising antisemitism on college campuses, Stefanik pushed Gay to say definitively whether any calls for the genocide of Jews by students would be met with repercussions from the university.
“At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” Stefanik asked.
“It can be, depending on the context,” Gay answered.
Stefanik wasn’t satisfied with the answer. She pushed Gay to say yes or no, asking the question again, to which Gay responded similarly: “Antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation—that is actionable conduct and we do take action.”
Stefanik asked a third time, saying, “So the answer is yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?”
“Again, it depends on the context,” Gay said.
A peeved Stefanik shot back: “It does not depend on the context.”
“The answer is yes and this is why you should resign,” she said. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.”
Criticism of Gay followed immediately, and she sought to clarify her comments in a statement released on Tuesday night. In it, she highlighted efforts underway at Harvard to combat antisemitism—something that, like Islamophobia, has been on the rise on college campuses and elsewhere amid the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel.
“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” she wrote. “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”
That statement did little to quiet critics who called for Gay to resign, however, and Jewish students in Harvard Hillel said in a statement that “Gay’s failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students” on campus.
In her interview with the Crimson, Gay said she was saddened her words caused some of her students to feel that way.
“To contemplate that something I said amplified that pain—that’s really difficult,” she said. “It makes me sad.”
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