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Former Defense Department General Counsel Appointed Harvard’s Top Lawyer

Jennifer M. O’Connor ’87 was appointed Harvard's general counsel by interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76.
Jennifer M. O’Connor ’87 was appointed Harvard's general counsel by interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76. By Courtesy of Noah Willman
By Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writer

Updated July 12, 2024, at 9:24 a.m.

Former U.S. Department of Defense General Counsel Jennifer M. O’Connor ’87 will serve as Harvard’s next top lawyer, the University announced Wednesday morning.

Though O’Connor does not have experience in representing higher education institutions, she will be tasked with leading Harvard’s legal arm when she begins her role later this month as the University confronts a series of political threats from Washington, including an ongoing set of subpoenas from Congress.

O’Connor currently serves as vice president of technology and information law and policy at Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest multinational defense technology companies. Previously, she worked as a legal advisor to several government agencies and served in the White House Counsel’s Office.

“Jennifer has developed deep experience within large and complex organizations operating under scrutiny while managing both internal and external constituencies,” interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 announced in an email Wednesday morning.

The general counsel is also a key strategic advisor to the Harvard president, and O’Connor’s new role will mean providing strategic counsel on University-wide policies.

Harvard has been under investigation by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce since December over its response to antisemitism on campus. An initial report released by the committee in May showed a serious internal rift between former Harvard President Claudine Gay and her antisemitism advisory group. Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) has not outlined specific steps that Harvard must take to end the investigation and left open the possibility of calling Garber to testify.

The committee has repeatedly charged Harvard with obstructing the investigation over a series of requests for internal documentation from Garber and the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. It has been up to the University’s lawyers to make the case against submitting documents that are protected or should not be considered narrowly tailored to the committee’s legislative function — the standard for evaluating the legality of congressional subpoenas.

Harvard has submitted more than 42,000 documents to the committee since the investigation began, according to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton.

In April, the investigation expanded into a House-wide probe. Five additional committees later launched their own investigations into Harvard’s federal funding — totaling $676 million last year — which they say could be at risk over the University’s response to antisemitism on campus.

Harvard is under at least three investigations opened by the Department of Education since 2023 into antisemitism, anti-Palestinian discrimination, and donor and legacy admission preferences, and is facing multiple lawsuits alleging the University fosters a culture of antisemitism. As general counsel, O’Connor will be in charge of the response to those investigations and lawsuits, leading a team of more than a dozen attorneys and administrative staff.

“I look forward to working with her to continue to advance the University’s interests at a time when higher education faces many legal, regulatory, and political challenges,” Garber wrote.

Harvard has been searching for its next top lawyer since former General Counsel Diane E. Lopez announced her departure in November. Eileen Finan, who has worked as a lawyer at Harvard since 1997, has filled the role in an interim capacity since March 1.

And while interim presidents typically refrain from appointing permanent members of their senior staff such as deans and department heads, Harvard’s set of public-facing legal challenges — and the lack of movement on an official presidential search process — likely required a more immediate selection.

The University’s legal team itself has also been under serious scrutiny since December, when Harvard tasked WilmerHale lawyers and former Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 with preparing Gay before her fateful Dec. 5 testimony in Congress.

A second external law firm hired by the University came under fire weeks later for threatening legal action against the New York Post if it published allegations of plagiarism against Gay. The Corporation later found there was “duplicative language” in Gay’s scholarship.

A third external firm, King & Spalding, currently advises the University in its responses to Congress. As the head legal strategist, O’Connor will hire and manage external firms, likely taking a greater leadership role over the University’s engagement with Congress and government agencies.

“She brings with her an abiding commitment to Harvard and its mission,” Garber wrote of O’Connor. “I am confident that her unique combination of talent and experience will serve the University well at a pivotal moment for higher education.”

—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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