Harvard President Alan Garber’s Rocky Path Ahead

The tenure of interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 will likely be one of the most consequential for the University in recent history as he looks to heal a deeply divided campus. The longtime administrator has insisted that he is up for the challenge.
By Sami E. Turner
By Emma H. Haidar and Cam E. Kettles

The office of interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 looks like the workplace of someone who didn’t expect to be there.

The furniture in Massachusetts Hall’s corner office was hastily replaced, the desks bare — without personal items or framed photos — and the bright red walls that his predecessor Claudine Gay never even had the chance to repaint were turned a dull beige.

But Garber, the longtime provost charged with leading Harvard through its most tumultuous period in more than 50 years, has bigger things to worry about than interior design.

The University is facing investigations by Congress and the Department of Education and dealing with the fallout from a growing donor exodus, all while trying to urgently ease tensions on a campus deeply divided over the Israel-Hamas war.

Following Gay’s resignation early last month, Garber — who spent the last 12 years behind the scenes as a powerful but largely invisible senior administrator — was tapped to step into the spotlight and guide Harvard out of its current crisis.

He will now need to win back the support of faculty, alumni, and donors who remain angry with Harvard for what it did and did not do, said and did not say — all while trying to maintain calm on campus as the University continues to appear in national headlines on a nearly daily basis.

Meanwhile, Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 must lead a presidential search for Gay’s permanent successor — a job Garber has not denied interest in — even as the board itself has come under serious fire for its handling of plagiarism allegations against Gay.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment for this article.

Garber’s tenure will likely be one of the most consequential for the University in recent history. In his first interview with The Crimson as interim president, Garber insisted that he is up for the challenge.

“I am happy to be serving as interim president at a time when Harvard is facing a number of crises,” he said.

‘An Extraordinarily Painful and Disorienting Time’

In his first University-wide message as president, Garber acknowledged that he was assuming office at a “painful and disorienting time for Harvard.”

“Since I first arrived here as an undergraduate in 1973, I cannot recall a period of comparable tension on our campus and across our community,” he wrote. “That tension has been exacerbated by concerns about how we address and combat antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bias; safeguard free expression; and foster a climate of mutual understanding.”

After Harvard faced three months of nonstop campus protests and reports of students facing antisemitism and Islamophobia, Garber and other senior University administrators looked to implement a spring reset ahead of the new semester by combating hate, cracking down on campus protests, and creating a space for dialogue about the war in the Middle East.

Harvard administrators warned students against protests that violate University policy.
Harvard administrators warned students against protests that violate University policy. By Elyse C. Goncalves

The first step was forming twin presidential task forces to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia at Harvard.

“Reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic acts on our campus have grown, and the sense of belonging among these groups has been undermined,” he wrote in an email announcing the task forces. “We need to understand why and how that is happening — and what more we might do to prevent it.”

Garber, however, immediately faced backlash over his decision to appoint History professor Derek J. Penslar as co-chair of the antisemitism task force.

Many of the same critics who called on Gay to resign over her congressional testimony called on Garber to remove Penslar — the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies — over allegations that he downplayed the significance of antisemitism on campus.

Though Penslar reportedly considered stepping down from the task force, he received an outpouring of faculty support and has not relinquished his role. Garber also resisted pressure to remove Penslar from prominent affiliates like billionaire donor Bill A. Ackman ’88 and former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers.

It was Garber’s first controversy, and he emerged mostly unscathed.

Harvard faculty members also largely voiced support for Garber’s joint task forces, a departure from the criticism Gay faced for only forming an antisemitism advisory group last semester.

Paul Reville, a professor of education policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the faculty groups were just one step to “stabilize the University and to basically lead a new chapter.”

“It’s not a solution in and of itself,” he added. “It’s not a silver bullet.”

‘A Threat’

One day after announcing the task forces, Garber and all of Harvard’s top deans implemented the next step in the University’s plan: a “Guidance on Protest and Dissent,” endorsed by the Corporation — the University’s highest governing body.

The guidance, which limited protests to reserved event spaces or outdoors spaces that don’t restrict pedestrian or vehicular traffic, served as a warning to activists on campus that administrators will take a stricter approach to demonstrations on campus and the enforcement of disciplinary measures.

“I read that guidance as a threat,” said John K. Wilson, a former fellow at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. “Whether it’s an empty threat or a real threat, I guess we would find out depending on how they react.”

Last fall, unregistered student groups — which are technically prohibited from campus protests — frequently staged protests within Harvard’s buildings. The Harvard College Administrative Board opened disciplinary cases against several students for their participation in protests, including a 24-hour occupation of University Hall and a classroom walkout.

Pro-Palestine activists on campus were criticized last fall for chanting phrases like “globalize the intifada” and “from the river to the sea,” with Gay herself publicly condemning some language used in campus protests.

The approach Garber will take to handling controversial protest chants remains unclear.

In an interview last week, Garber initially left open the possibility of instituting speech codes in classrooms, before he clarified in a follow-up statement that he did not support the idea.

“What I have found the most disturbing of all are situations or experiences students describe where they have felt they could not speak in class because there are attacks on Israel or maybe Israelis,” Garber said. “They feel unsupported in contradicting them.”

While Garber said he “favors free speech,” he added that there should be “a discussion about what are the limits.”

Reville said it is difficult for universities to strike a balance between free speech and student wellbeing. At Harvard, he added, Garber is unlikely to find an immediate resolution.

“People support what they help create,” Reville said. “If you have a process in the community that engages the community — so they feel seen, heard and responded to — you have a much better chance of putting in place a policy that can be sustained over time.

Harvard’s first major protest of the spring semester took place on Thursday, nearly three weeks in — a sign that the new “Guidance on Protest and Dissent” deterred activists, at least initially.

According to a person with knowledge of the protesters’ plans, unrecognized campus activist groups intend to heed the new guidelines, but will continue to plan and attend protests.

The Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee — a recognized pro-Palestine group — plans to strictly adhere to the regulations, and will not partner with unrecognized organizations, according to the source.

‘All Kinds of Voices’

As Garber attempts to heal a wounded campus, he also continues to face pressure from Republican lawmakers in Washington who are threatening to cut Harvard’s federal funding and major donors who have suspended their philanthropic relationships with the University.

Instead of Gay’s resignation driving donors back to the University, the exodus has only continued.

On Jan. 31, less than one month into Garber’s tenure, billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 — who donated $300 million to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in April — pledged to suspend any future financial contributions.

“Until Harvard makes it very clear that they’re going to resume their role as educating young American men and women to be leaders, to be problem solvers, to take on difficult issues, I’m not interested in supporting the institution,” he said during a keynote talk at a conference hosted by the Managed Funds Association in Miami.

But Paul A. Buttenwieser ’60, a longtime Harvard donor and former member of the Board of Overseers, criticized the outsized power of external voices.

“One of the major obstacles is all the people who are not students, faculty, and staff at Harvard, who are insinuating themselves — often through withholding contributions or stopping contributions — and doing all sorts of public statements,” he said.

“I really think there are a lot of very bad actors who are intruding upon the University in a way that’s been very malignant,” added Buttenwieser, a former Crimson editor.

While Griffin was the most recent major donor to publicly slam Harvard, others — including billionaires Leonard V. Blavatnik and Leslie H. Wexner — withdrew their support late last year and have not publicly signaled a desire to change course.

Asked about the potential for donor influence in higher education, Garber said the University’s donors “believe in our mission and believe in the specific ways that we can make the world a better place. They have been aligned with us in terms of our goals as a university.”

“We listen to all kinds of voices that speak about Harvard University,” he added.

Some faculty, however, expressed concern that the financial pressure from donors could threaten the University’s policy against donations influencing academic freedom.

“That’s been a formal policy, but it’s been compromised,” said Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School. “Because the view has been encouraged that, ‘Of course, if you’re going to give half a billion dollars, we’re going to listen to you about policy judgments we make related to your money.’”

“This is not a design of your third vacation house in Colorado,” Lessig added. “This is a university that’s got an incredible tradition and lots of complicated balances that need to be drawn in order to make it the best it can be.”

Garber and Harvard are also engaged in a tense back-and-forth with the House Committee on Education and the Workforce over its request for a litany of internal documents related to its investigation into campus antisemitism, including internal communications from top administrators and members of the Corporation.

Committee Chairwoman Virigina Foxx (R-N.C.) issued Garber and Pritzker a final warning to comply with the request for documents — and threatened to subpoena the University if Harvard’s submission does not meet the committee’s standards.

Committee Chairwoman Virigina Foxx (R-N.C.) warned the University and threatened subpoena.
Committee Chairwoman Virigina Foxx (R-N.C.) warned the University and threatened subpoena. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

Harvard has made eight submissions to the Committee since the investigation started, Newton, the University spokesperson, wrote in a statement on Wednesday.

Stanley M. Brand, an attorney who has represented congressional witnesses for almost 50 years, said that while Congress might threaten Harvard with legal action, it would take “arduous, long and drawn out proceedings in court” to do so.

“They can huff and puff and say, ‘We're gonna hold you in contempt,’ but that takes months, if not years, to bring to fruition,” Brand said.

Still, some have called on Pritzker and the Corporation to do more to defend the University against political attacks.

Reville said the Corporation should set limits on requests that “border on harassment from Congress and other sources who clearly have an agenda to undermine universities like Harvard.”

“It can’t be left just to an interim president to — on his own — stand up for Harvard,” Reville added.

‘They Know’

The University’s precarious position has led Harvard’s biggest supporters and loudest critics to turn their ire to Pritzker and the Corporation.

The Harvard Corporation has come under heavy fire and scrutiny in recent months over its handling of the University's leadership crisis.
The Harvard Corporation has come under heavy fire and scrutiny in recent months over its handling of the University's leadership crisis. By Quinn G. Perini

Harvard’s critics, like Ackman and Foxx, alleged the Corporation failed to thoroughly investigate allegations of plagiarism against Gay.

Affiliates who are generally supportive of the Corporation, however, have also questioned why the board remained silent for one week after Gay’s congressional testimony even as she faced a relentless stream of bad press.

“Believe me, they know that they have brought harm to Harvard,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School.

“They’re being criticized very broadly,” Flier added. “And they need to show in some explicit way that they take that seriously.”

After Gay — once heralded by Pritzker as the leader to shepherd the University into the next decade — abruptly resigned following three months of nonstop campus turmoil, the Corporation had to return to the drawing board and embark on its second presidential search in as many years.

But some faculty members have said they’ve lost faith in the Corporation to make far-reaching decisions for the University, like selecting the next president.

“I and a lot of people that I talked to have very little confidence in the Harvard Corporation at this point to make such a decision,” said Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, a professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“I think we have to have a serious conversation about whether the existing Harvard Corporation is fit for purpose in terms of selecting the next president,” Jasanoff added.

Summers said that he hopes the search for Harvard’s 31st president will learn from “the failures of last semester.”

“I would hope that this Corporation search will be very different in process and outcome than what has taken place recently,” Summers said.

One of the Corporation’s main responsibilities for the upcoming semester is to establish a search committee which will vet potential candidates for the presidency. The committee is usually composed of the 12 Fellows of the Corporation and 3 members of the Board of Overseers.

Last weekend, the Corporation and the Board of Overseers laid the groundwork for appointing a presidential search committee at the boards’ most recent meetings.

The boards met for hours behind the closed doors of Loeb House and the Faculty Club before announcing the election of two new Fellows to fill vacancies on the Corporation, both of whom will presumably serve on the next presidential search committee.

Even as the Corporation looks toward a president to lead the University in the aftermath of the crisis, Pritzker and Garber will need to work together for the time being to find a path out of the turbulence.

But how long that partnership lasts could be up to Pritzker and the presidential search committee.

Garber said the presidency will be his last administrative role at Harvard, regardless of whether he is offered the role permanently.

“I am happy in my current position,” Garber said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at emma.haidar@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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