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Harvard president gets to keep her job amid congressional hearing backlash: Board

Dr. Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Dec. 05, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — Embattled Harvard President Claudine Gay will keep her job after the university’s main governing board issued a statement unanimously affirming its support for her amid backlash over her response at a congressional hearing to questions about antisemitism on U.S. college campuses.

“As members of the Harvard Corporation, we today reaffirm our support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard University,” the Harvard Corporation said in a statement to the university community on Tuesday. “Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”

The board concluded, “In this tumultuous and difficult time, we unanimously stand in support of President Gay.”

The board was the final arbiter in the university’s decision keep or dismiss Gay. Prior to the Harvard Corporation issuing its statement Tuesday, Gay’s fate had been in limbo since her controversial remarks at the congressional hearing earlier this month.

In December 2022, Gay became the first person of color and the second woman hired as Harvard’s president. She had faced calls to resign after she and the leaders of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology engaged in four hours of tense testimony in front of the Republican-led House Education Committee on Dec. 5.

The Harvard president testified alongside MIT’s Sally Kornbluth and Liz Magill, who resigned from her role at the University of Pennsylvania following an onslaught of criticism over her testimony, including a donor threatening to withdraw a $100 million donation.

Last week’s hearing gave Republicans an opportunity to express frustration with the college presidents for not doing enough to aggressively condemn those on their campuses who the members said foster antisemitism. Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania are among the schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobic discrimination on campus.

Several members of the House have called for expulsions, firings and disciplinary action on campuses amid pro-Palestinian protests where students have used rhetoric that has been tied to antisemitism, as well as incidents such as vandalism on Hillel buildings and threatening emails to Jewish faculty.

Various lawmakers, including Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., asked for “action items,” not “lip service,” during the hearing and pushed for students to be expelled for antisemitic speech.

“Will the students who are intimidating Jewish students just because they’re Jewish be expelled?” she asked.

The university presidents tried to explain that there are processes in place to determine whether students have violated school policies and that they have strong commitments to respecting students’ different viewpoints on this complex issue.

“We do not sanction individuals for their political views or their speech. When that speech crosses into conduct that violates our behavior-based policies, bullying, harassment and intimidation, we take action,” Gay said.

Gay, citing privacy concerns, would not provide details on specific cases.

During the hearing, Harvard alumna Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., pressed Gay on phrases that students have used in protests on Harvard’s campus, pushing Gay to take more action to punish students.

At the time, Gay did not directly answer Stefanik’s specific questions on whether admissions offers would be rescinded or any disciplinary action would be taken against students or applicants who said “from the river to the sea” or “intifada” — both terms that have been identified as antisemitic rhetoric by Jewish advocacy groups.

Gay said generally that “actions have been taken” against students who have used those terms, but also defended Harvard’s free-speech policy.

Stefanik called for Gay’s resignation during their exchange. She later told ABC News that the presidents of the three universities should resign because it is “unfitting” for those leaders to “harbor and foster antisemitism.”

“I asked a very specific question: does calling for the genocide of Jews violate their schools’ bullying and harassment policies? Not a single University president could say yes,” Stefanik said.

At last week’s hearing, the three university presidents denounced antisemitism on their campuses and offered sympathy for the pain their Jewish students and community members have endured since Oct. 7 — as well as long before, citing the history of antisemitism.

Gay also acknowledged that Harvard was working to fight antisemitism while allowing for free speech.

“During these difficult days, I have felt the bonds of our community strain. In response, I’ve sought to confront hate while preserving free expression. This is difficult work. And I know that I have not always gotten it right,” Gay said at the time.

Gay apologized for her remarks at the Ccongressional hearing during an interview on Thursday with The Crimson, the university’s student newspaper.

“I am sorry,” Gay told The Crimson. “Words matter.”

“When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” Gay added.

In its statement Tuesday, the Harvard Corporation addressed Gay’s remarks at the hearing, writing, “So many people have suffered tremendous damage and pain because of Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack, and the University’s initial statement should have been an immediate, direct, and unequivocal condemnation.”

“Calls for genocide are despicable and contrary to fundamental human values,” the governing board wrote. “President Gay has apologized for how she handled her congressional testimony and has committed to redoubling the University’s fight against antisemitism.”

The board said Harvard “champions open discourse and academic freedom” and is “united in our strong belief that calls for violence against our students and disruptions of the classroom experience will not be tolerated.”

“Harvard’s mission is advancing knowledge, research, and discovery that will help address deep societal issues and promote constructive discourse, and we are confident that President Gay will lead Harvard forward toward accomplishing this vital work,” the Harvard Corporation statement said.

In a different matter, the board’s statement also addressed allegations of plagiarism raised in late October over Gay’s academic writings. The board initiated an independent review of three articles Gay published.

The board members said the results of the independent review, which it received on Dec. 9, “revealed a few instances of inadequate citations.”

“While the analysis found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct, President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications,” according to the Harvard Corporation statement.

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