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‘Caving to a Mob,’ ‘Inevitable’: Harvard Faculty Express Disappointment, Relief As Gay Steps Down

Faculty emotions ran high following Claudine Gay's resignation from Harvard's presidency Tuesday.
Faculty emotions ran high following Claudine Gay's resignation from Harvard's presidency Tuesday. By Mairead B. Baker
By Joyce E. Kim, Tilly R. Robinson, and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Faculty emotions ran high Tuesday following Claudine Gay’s resignation from Harvard’s presidency, with some professors expressing disappointment that Gay’s tenure was coming to an end and others calling her decision inevitable after an onslaught of recent controversies.

Gay resigned as president of Harvard after just six months in office, marking the shortest ever presidential tenure in the University’s history.

Many faculty described Gay’s resignation as a capitulation by the University to conservative lawmakers and activists who had long demanded her resignation, which faculty members denounced in searing terms.

Government and African and African American Studies professor Jennifer L. Hochschild said she was “furious” at the figures who embarked on a “deliberate campaign to destroy her career and maybe destroy her personally.”

“This is a way of getting at Harvard,” Hochschild said. “It's a way of getting at broad concerns about diversity and inclusion.”

Ryan D. Enos, a Government professor, said that Gay’s resignation “represents an attack on the independence of universities.”

“I think it sends a message to the public that universities in the United States can be bullied and attacked for political reasons,” he said. “This was the university caving to a mob.”

Harvard Law School clinical instructor Alejandra L. Caraballo said Gay’s resignation sends a message that “academic institutions should cower in fear because they are one news cycle away from becoming embroiled in a controversy that will undermine the institution.”

Gay was thrust into the national spotlight on Dec. 5 when she testified before Congress about antisemitism on college campuses in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s response.

She came under fire following her noncommittal answer to a question from Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) asking if calls for the genocide of Jews violated Harvard policies — a response for which she later apologized. Still, the episode only fueled criticism from prominent donors and members of Congress over the University’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.

Concerns about Gay’s presidency grew as she faced a series of plagiarism allegations which came to light following her testimony. She has since requested corrections to two of her published papers and her 1997 Harvard doctoral dissertation.

The allegations were first publicized by conservative activist Christopher Rufo and journalist Christopher Brunet, who, like Stefanik, claimed her resignation as a victory on Tuesday.

Stephen F. Jones, the director of the Davis Center’s Program on Georgian Studies, called the attacks on Gay “political theater” and part of a larger right-wing effort to discredit universities.

“This is part of a broader campaign by certain people in Congress — most notably, members of the extreme wing of the Republican Party,” Jones said.

The Corporation stood by Gay in a Dec. 12 statement, writing they had “confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal.” But after Gay’s resignation Tuesday, some faculty said that Harvard’s leaders should have mounted a stronger defense of Gay’s presidency.

“For me, this recalls the worst days of McCarthyism,” Alfred Guzzetti ’64, a professor of Art, Film, and Visual Studies, wrote in an email. “Today I am ashamed of the University’s leadership and ashamed, as I never thought I would be, to be a member of the Harvard faculty.”

Government lecturer Daniel J. Epstein ’99 agreed, writing in an email that he “always felt that Harvard is a rock of stability amid political storms,” adding that Gay’s resignation “seems to symbolize a bowing of our institution” to “the current harsh gale.”

Other faculty cited concerns over the racialized nature of backlash against Gay, the first person of color and second woman to serve as Harvard’s president.

Richard P. Chait, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, noted a “troublesome implication” from the controversies surrounding Gay.

“Too many people are going to generalize from this one set of events — will generalize about African American leaders in higher education, both current and prospective leaders,” Chait said. “People who already have a bias will use this incident to reinforce that bias.”

Still, many faculty viewed Gay’s decision as the correct one.

Daniel J. Jacob, a professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, wrote in an email that he was “relieved” by Gay’s resignation because of her “lack of moral clarity about antisemitism at Harvard.”

“The evidence of repeated plagiarism in her scholarly work — plagiarism that I would not tolerate from my students and that my research colleagues would not tolerate from me — disqualified her as Harvard leader and made her resignation unavoidable,” he wrote.

“It’s sad, but it had to happen,” Computer Science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote in an email. “Gay had lost the moral authority needed for the president’s voice and decisions to be trusted, either inside or outside Harvard.”

Neither Gay nor a Harvard spokesperson immediately responded to a request for comment early Wednesday morning.

Other faculty saw Gay’s resignation as the best course of action for the University’s financial interests amid intense criticism of her presidency. Since the Oct. 7 attack, several major donors — including the Wexner Foundation and billionaire Leonard V. Blavatnik — announced they would cease donating to Harvard.

Astronomy professor Abraham “Avi” Loeb cited donors’ concerns as a factor that made Gay’s resignation “inevitable” in his view, especially if the University kicks off another capital campaign in the near future.

“If it’s difficult to initiate a new campaign or raise funds to Harvard, and difficult to engage with Washington, D.C., I think it would have been very difficult on a practical level for her to fulfill the duties of the president,” Loeb said.

But Chait, the HGSE professor, cautioned that conceding to donors’ political demands might undermine the purpose of their donations.

“What kind of university would you have if the University and the board of trustees consented to every suggestion or recommendation or even directive from donors?” Chait asked. “You would not have much of a university.”

Computer Science professor Boaz Barak said Gay’s resignation would allow Harvard to move on from the current media maelstrom engulfing it.

“Her resignation is proof that she cares first and foremost about the Harvard community, and didn’t want the personal focus on her to obstruct the healing and growth this campus needs,” Barak wrote in an email.

Gay was succeeded by Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, who is serving as interim president during the search for Gay’s successor. Several faculty members expressed confidence in Garber to assume leadership over the beleaguered University.

Jeffrey T. Schnapp, a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature, said he believes Garber’s experience and leadership will guide the University through the transition.

“Alan Garber is an experienced, highly respected academic leader who will be able to steer the university through the period of transition to a new president with a sure and steady hand,” Schnapp wrote in an email.

Still, some faculty lamented Gay’s resignation because it marked a loss of the potential they saw in her presidency.

“I am troubled to see all that she has worked toward and stood for at Harvard swept aside so quickly,” wrote Art, Film, and Visual Studies professor Sharon C. Harper in an email.

“I am deeply saddened by this tragic ending to a promising presidency,” History professor Lizabeth A. Cohen wrote in an email. “I hope the Corporation will remain bold in its vision for Harvard's future, as they were when they appointed Claudine Gay.”

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at joyce.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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