Updated: October 17, 2023, at 5:42 p.m.
Now, as the public face of Harvard, that’s no longer possible.
As Gay marked her 100th day as president on Oct. 9, tensions flared on campus after 34 student groups signed onto a statement calling Israel “entirely responsible” for a deadly attack by Hamas.
Gay’s administration drew intense criticism — including from former University President Lawrence H. Summers — over its slow response to the violence in Israel while allowing the student groups’ statement to grab national headlines.
The messaging stumble on Israel was just part of a 100-day trial by fire: the Supreme Court’s ruling against Harvard on affirmative action, the increased political pressure on the University to abolish legacy admissions preferences, and the need to fill several high-level dean positions.
Since assuming office on July 1, Gay has sought to focus on the at-home aspects of her new job, but external events — like political distractions in Washington — have made that difficult.
Gay largely avoided criticism from Harvard affiliates during her first 100 days in office — a honeymoon that ended last Monday.
Slightly more than one week after Summers sat onstage during Gay’s inauguration, he slammed Gay on X over the University’s silence on the violence in Israel and Gaza and the controversial student groups’ statement.
“Harvard is being defined by the morally unconscionable statement apparently coming from two dozen student groups blaming all the violence on Israel,” Summers wrote. “I am sickened. I cannot fathom the Administration’s failure to disassociate the University and condemn this statement.”
Summers’ posts shocked current University officials as they violated a tacit understanding among former Harvard presidents to avoid public criticisms of the incumbent president and their administration.
Kelly Friendly, a spokesperson for Summers, wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday that the remarks should not have been surprising.
“Well before his statements, Professor Summers alerted university officials to his concerns and intention to speak publicly if the university did not separate itself from the PSC statement,” Friendly wrote.
Things were no better behind the scenes.
After the University finally issued a statement, Theda R. Skocpol, a professor of Government and Sociology and former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, privately criticized Harvard’s response in an email addressed to Gay and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76.
“Can’t you do better than psychobabble mush?” Skocpol wrote.
“You do not have to directly condemn the awful 31 student group statement,” she added. “All you have to do is say something about the real world.”
Gay continued to face a barrage of criticism from Harvard faculty members, major donors, and members of Congress. Many took issue with the statement’s failure to explicitly condemn Hamas or renounce the student groups’ statement.
By the end of the week, the University’s handling of the situation even prompted U.S. Representative Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking House Republican, to call for Gay to resign.
“@Harvard continues to disgrace itself on the global stage,” Stefanik wrote on X. “Claudine Gay should resign.”
In an Oct. 10 follow-up statement, Gay explicitly condemned Hamas and distanced the University from the student organizations — but the damage was done, and getting worse.
Students who were allegedly linked to the organizations that originally signed onto the student statement faced several doxxing attacks.
While Gay later rejected calls to punish members of the organizations that signed onto the student statement, the palpable tension on campus lingered.
The tense environment contrasted starkly with the joyous atmosphere in Harvard Yard only days earlier for Gay’s inauguration.
After former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow assumed office in 2018, he quickly went on trips to Washington and Michigan as he sought to combat the hostile political climate facing higher education across the country.
Gay, however, has taken a very different approach. Despite inheriting leadership of the University in a no less contentious moment for higher education, she has mostly remained in Cambridge over the summer.
Just two days before Gay took office, the Supreme Court ruled Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies unconstitutional. But 13 days after the ruling, Gay was talking with students at ice cream socials across campus.
The socials were the first in a series of appearances Gay made during the early days of her presidency as she sought to make herself a familiar presence on campus.
On day 25 of Gay’s presidency, Harvard was back in the news after the Department of Education launched an investigation into whether the University’s use of legacy and donor admissions preferences violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But even amid the political strife, Gay continued to find opportunities to meet with students — sometimes in unexpected locations.
On day 32 of her presidency, Gay attended Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour concert at Gillette Stadium where she ran into Carter G. Demaray ’25, who took a photo with Gay and posted it on Sidechat, an app popular with undergraduate students at schools across the country.
The post went viral, furthering an image of Gay as a president who enjoys connecting with students.
Ahead of the fall semester, Gay continued to find ways to be present in various corners of the University. She helped freshmen and their families carry boxes in Harvard Yard during move-in, sat in on a class at the Law School, and delivered a speech at the Divinity School’s convocation.
University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote in a Thursday statement to The Crimson that Gay “gave up one very difficult job for another” when she became president.
“She has managed that transition extraordinarily well, learning quickly about the rest of the University and calmly handling situations that could overwhelm even an experienced leader, such as the repercussions of the Supreme Court’s admissions decision and the terrorist attack and war in Israel and Gaza,” Garber wrote.
As Gay tried to ease tensions over the University’s response to the situation in Israel, she returned to her earlier efforts to connect with the student body.
On Friday, Gay attended Shabbat 1000, an event billed as Harvard’s largest Shabbat celebration.
In a speech at the event, Gay said that she “learned a lot over the course of this week.”
“I can’t imagine any other space I’d want to be in, in a week like this,” Gay said.
“What I want to say is that Harvard has your back,” she added. “We know the difference between right and wrong.”
The fallout from the University’s response to the fighting in Israel also buried the news of one of Gay’s most important leadership selections of her early tenure — the appointment of Andrea A. Baccarelli as the next Harvard School of Public Health dean.
But throughout her first three months in office, Gay has been forced to juggle political blowback against Harvard while filling administrative holes.
With Baccarelli’s selection, Gay has now filled the four dean vacancies she inherited as president-elect. She is also in the early stages of searching for a fifth dean, the successor to outgoing Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf.
Gay’s picks have all come from within the University’s ranks — in one way or another. Gay opted for internal candidates to lead the FAS and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. But even her two external selections to lead the Harvard Divinity School and the School of Public Health have 16 and six years of teaching experience at the University, respectively.
The four dean appointments suggest Gay is seeking to establish trust with Harvard’s faculty members by opting to fill her leadership team with familiar faces. The moves also indicate that Gay cares about building a closer relationship with faculty across the University, in addition to the students.
There will be at least one more opportunity for Gay to elevate a professor with strong connections with the faculty to a key leadership post when she names a successor to outgoing Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf.
In addition, the two vacancies Gay will need to fill on the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing board — will also allow her to curry favor among powerful alumni and donors.
The departure of billionaire philanthropist David M. Rubenstein left the board down one member, and former University Treasurer Paul J. Finnegan ’75 will also be stepping down in June at the conclusion of his term.
Until both Corporation seats and the HKS deanship are filled, Gay’s first year in office will continue to heavily feature candidate interviews and meetings with search committees.
“I feel like my life at this point is just a collection of searches,” Gay said in an interview with The Crimson earlier this month.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @claireyuan33.