The president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, faced escalating pressure on Sunday to resign as prominent alumni, donors and politicians called for her ouster. But a group of faculty members rallied to support her, arguing that she was being railroaded for a moment of poorly worded remarks about antisemitism.
The body that could ultimately decide Dr. Gay’s fate, the Harvard Corporation, is scheduled to meet on Monday.
As critics of Dr. Gay doubled down, an effort was underway to save her job. As of Sunday evening, more than 400 members of the Harvard faculty had signed a petition urging “in the strongest possible terms” to “resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom.” Harvard has about 2,300 faculty members.
Dr. Gay has apologized for her remarks before a congressional committee last Tuesday, which she acknowledged were inadequate.
“I am sorry,” Dr. Gay said in an interview that the campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, published on Friday. “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” she said. Dr. Gay is the first Black woman to lead Harvard and took on the role less than six months ago.
As her position grew increasingly tenuous, the fallout from last week’s hearing deepened. Late Saturday, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, M. Elizabeth Magill, resigned. And calls from donors for the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sally Kornbluth, to step aside also grew louder.
The eruption over Dr. Gay’s remarks came after she seemed to equivocate before Congress when she was asked whether university policies forbade calling for the genocide of Jewish people.
“One down. Two to go,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who led some of the most pointed questioning during the hearing, when all three presidents strained to answer how their universities would handle incidents of antisemitism. Ms. Stefanik, a graduate of Harvard, said on the social media site X that the resignation of Ms. Magill was “the bare minimum of what is required.”
Representatives for some of the most prominent Harvard Corporation members declined to comment. Dr. Gay declined to comment through a Harvard spokesman.
Within the last several days, Congressional Republicans have opened an investigation into the three institutions and major donors have threatened to rescind multimillion-dollar gifts — a rapid turn of events that has stunned academia and emboldened critics of elite universities who argue that campuses are not confronting antisemitic rhetoric in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza.
It was during the proceeding on Capitol Hill last week that Ms. Stefanik hammered the three presidents with questions that precipitated the current controversy.
“At Harvard,” Ms. Stefanik asked Dr. Gay, “does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?”
Dr. Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.” Pressed by Ms. Stefanik, Dr. Gay added a few moments later, “Antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.”
Ms. Stefanik tried again: “So, the answer is yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?”
Dr. Gay answered, “Again, it depends on the context.”
In interviews on Sunday, a half dozen faculty members across several Harvard schools and departments said there had been few calls on campus for Dr. Gay’s resignation or ouster.
On Sunday, a group of 13 faculty members began circulating a petition opposing Dr. Gay’s removal, which they planned to deliver to the Harvard corporation. It quickly garnered hundreds of signatures.
The petition is two sentences long. It urges the corporation to “resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom, including calls for the removal of President Claudine Gay.”
Melani Cammett, a leader in the effort and professor of international relations, said the short statement reflected the fact that signers held a broad range of views on the war in Gaza, campus protest and Dr. Gay’s statement to Congress — but were united in resisting political pressure on Harvard.
Among the signers was Laurence Tribe, the constitutional law scholar, who had previously called Dr. Gay’s congressional testimony on antisemitism “hesitant, formulaic and bizarrely evasive.”
In an email, he said he decided to sign the petition because, “Having publicly voiced my strong disapproval of, and extreme disappointment with how President Gay handled Rep. Stefanik’s questions, I wanted to distance myself from what seemed to me the unwise and indeed dangerous calls for her resignation.”
The congressional exchange appears to have generated far more intense reactions among donors and alumni than among current faculty and students, who are preparing for final exams, several people on campus said on Sunday.
People familiar with the closed-door debate over Dr. Gay’s future also said there was a tension between what some people on the board view as her mishandling of the questions and a desire not to allow Ms. Stefanik and other critics to force an ouster on the board.
They also noted an important difference with the situation at the University of Pennsylvania. There, they said, pressure had been mounting for weeks on Ms. Magill, including calls for her resignation. Until the congressional hearing, Dr. Gay was not facing similarly strong criticism.
The Harvard president’s future at the school is expected to be discussed during the Harvard Corporation’s meeting on Monday, people briefed on the meeting said. The meeting was long scheduled, but the topic of Dr. Gay’s fate became front and center after her congressional testimony on Tuesday.
Dr. Gay last week told The Crimson that she had the support of Penny Pritzker, leader of the 12-person Harvard Corporation, who is a former Obama administration official. Dr. Gay is also a member of the Harvard Corporation. Ms. Pritzker could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
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