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Former Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 and a team of lawyers from his firm, WilmerHale, played a major role in prepping University President Claudine Gay ahead of her disastrous congressional testimony, according to three people familiar with the situation.
In turning to Lee — whose role has not been previously reported — and other WilmerHale lawyers, Harvard sidelined their outside public relations consultants and crisis communications experts. The firm’s nearly singular involvement raises new questions about the leadup to the congressional hearing that went so poorly it nearly ended Gay’s presidency less than six months after it began.
WilmerHale lawyers spearheaded Gay’s preparation for the hearing, holding at least two mock prep sessions ahead of her Dec. 5 testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The law firm also drafted a binder with possible questions and suggested answers for Gay, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Public relations giant Edelman, crisis communications firm Risa Heller, and media strategy company A.H. Levy & Co were engaged by Harvard Public Affairs and Communications — the University’s public relations arm — to support the University amid backlash over its initial response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
But the firms were shut out of the congressional hearing preparation, according to two people familiar with the decision.
And while two senior staff from HPAC attended meetings prior to the hearing, a person familiar with the process said, they were overshadowed by the lawyers.
WilmerHale’s role in the hearing preparation suggests that a reliance on lawyerly advice contributed to the highly legalistic responses Gay and two other presidents offered when asked if calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their school’s policies on bullying and harrassment.
Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment for this article. Neither Lee nor WilmerHale responded to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Lee’s involvement in Gay’s preparation suggests that — since stepping down from the Corporation in June 2022 — he has continued to exert significant influence among Harvard’s top leadership, including senior administrators, members of the Corporation, and his successor Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81.
Lee’s dual role — acting simultaneously as lawyer and senior fellow, and his continuing legal work for the University — blurs lines in the relationship between counsel and client. His involvement in Gay’s preparation, alongside firm partner Felicia H. Ellsworth, was almost certainly due to Lee’s long-standing relationship with the University’s top governing board.
His role in the leadup to the congressional hearing also pushes the former leader of the Corporation to the center of Harvard’s most serious leadership crisis in nearly two decades.
Throughout the hearing, Gay offered legalistic responses to the Representatives’ lines of questioning. In particular, Gay came under fire for her answers during an exchange with Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.), which went viral online and was spoofed by “Saturday Night Live.”
Stefanik asked if calls for the genocide of Jewish people violate Harvard’s policies on bullying and harrassment. Gay — like the two university presidents sitting to her left — declined to give a yes or no answer, insisting that it depended on the context.
The blowback was swift.
University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill — who was also prepped by WilmerHale — quickly resigned in the aftermath of the hearing. Gay, too, came under heavy pressure following the testimony. The Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — deliberated for days before issuing a statement unanimously supporting Gay in the presidency.
The situation for Harvard’s embattled president only grew worse as she faced allegations of plagiarism that called into question the integrity of her academic work. A review of Gay’s scholarship by the Corporation revealed “a few instances of inadequate citation” that, the board said, did not amount to misconduct.
The testimony, combined with the plagiarism allegations, has left Gay an extraordinarily weakened president as she emerges from a tumultuous six months on the job. Her presidency kicked off with a high-profile legal loss when the Supreme Court ruled against Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies — a case in which the University was also represented by Lee and WilmerHale.
While WilmerHale lawyer Seth P. Waxman ’73 argued before the Supreme Court for Harvard, it was Lee who represented the University through the trial stages of the case while simultaneously acting as the Corporation’s senior fellow.
By trade, Lee is a trial lawyer who specializes in intellectual property litigation on behalf of technology companies including Apple, Intel, and Pfizer.
It is unclear how much WilmerHale might have profited from Harvard’s decision to retain the firm. And while WilmerHale is well known for preparing high-profile clients ahead of testimony in Congress — including Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, and former President Richard Nixon — Lee’s influence at the University raises the prospect that no other firms were even considered for the work.
But Lee’s lasting involvement as Harvard’s legal counsel will fuel further speculation about the Corporation’s role in Gay’s hearing preparation and the board’s responsibility for the aftermath. It could also help explain why the Corporation ultimately opted to maintain its support of Gay after she faced calls to resign over her testimony.
In an interview with The Crimson two days after the hearing, Gay acknowledged she made a mistake in her response to Stefanik’s line of questioning.
“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” Gay said.
That answer, along with others given by Gay on Dec. 5, was criticized as being legalistic to a fault. Though Harvard’s policies on bullying and harassment do not offer a clearcut answer to the specific situation Stefanik raised, Gay’s response was widely condemned for missing the moment.
After the hearing, Gay even faced criticism from Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe, one of the University’s most well-known liberal faculty members.
“Even the attempted ‘clarifications’ by these university presidents, opting for what they mistook for legal nuance over what should’ve been simply moral clarity, showed how easily a search for political correctness can triumph over wisdom and courage alike,” Tribe wrote in a Dec. 7 post on X.
Crisis communications expert Molly McPherson said the challenge was “preparing for anticipated questions and not addressing the broader implications of the statement as it related to the media and the dissemination of these talking points.”
“It’s an example that you can take the most educated person in the most loftiest of positions and even they can’t communicate it effectively if they’re only parroting words that are written to them by a law firm or by someone working with the law firm,” McPherson said.
But other experts said Gay’s answer — and the ensuing backlash — was unavoidable.
“This is a made for television event where they want to pin the witness against the wall,” said Stanley M. Brand, an attorney who has represented congressional witnesses for almost 50 years.
“As a president of a university that has a code of conduct and a disciplinary system where she may wind up being the final decision maker, I don’t know how she could answer any other way,” Brand said.
“This is the MO of these congressional committees,” he added. “And I’m sure I could come up with 50 examples of sound bites from witnesses’ testimonies that are equal to or worse than anything the president said.”
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