As universities across the country strained under pressure to take a public position on the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, few were as tormented as Harvard.
First school officials said nothing when a pro-Palestinian student group wrote an open letter saying that Israel was “entirely responsible” for the violence. Harvard followed up with a letter to the university community acknowledging “feelings of fear, sadness, anger, and more.” After an outcry, Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, issued a more forceful statement condemning Hamas for “terrorist atrocities” while urging people to use words that “illuminate and not inflame.”
The difficult and divisive questions over how universities should respond when student demonstrations cross a line into threatening, disruptive and harmful behavior came to a head at Harvard over the last week, as Dr. Gay faced calls to resign after her widely criticized appearance before a congressional committee looking into antisemitism on campus. When asked a question about whether threatening Jewish people with genocide would violate the school’s code of conduct, she equivocated.
On Tuesday, Harvard’s governing body said it stood firmly behind Dr. Gay, offering her a unanimous show of support after several days of silence and intense public pressure. Under fire from some of the university’s major financial backers, prominent Jewish alumni and lawmakers, the board deliberated late into the night on Monday before issuing a statement of support.
“As members of the Harvard Corporation, we today reaffirm our support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard University,” said the statement, signed by the board members, aside from Dr. Gay. “Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”
The statement backing Dr. Gay also served to underscore that the university would have zero tolerance for student protests that disrupt class. Raucous demonstrations, including those targeting conservative speakers over the last few years, have become a growing focus of donors, alumni and politicians who say that elite colleges have become too inhospitable of ideological diversity.
“We champion open discourse and academic freedom,” the Harvard Corporation said in its statement. “And we are united in our strong belief that calls for violence against our students and disruptions of the classroom experience will not be tolerated.”
Last week’s congressional hearing focused the nation’s attention on how colleges are struggling to address the raw emotions and division on their campuses since the Oct. 7 assault. The legalistic and hedged responses to questions about antisemitism from three college presidents — Dr. Gay, M. Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — led to calls for all three to resign.
Only Ms. Magill, who apologized for her testimony but faced intense pressure to quit, has stepped down. M.I.T. issued a statement of support for Dr. Kornbluth.
“It’s hard to say whether something good might have come out of that hearing,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which focuses on free speech issues at universities. “But I do think it brought home for people that something is really amiss on these campuses.”
He added, “I do think this might hopefully have been a wakeup call to make us think about what we want higher education to look like in the future.”
In interviews, Harvard alumni, students and faculty said they hoped that the board’s decision to spare Dr. Gay, the school’s first Black president, would allow the university community to move forward after a particularly convulsive time.
A representative for Harvard declined to answer questions about the board’s decision to retain Dr. Gay. A request for an interview with Dr. Gay went unanswered, and no members of the governing board responded to requests for comment.
Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard law professor emeritus, had criticized Dr. Gay’s performance at the congressional hearing as “hesitant, formulaic and bizarrely evasive.” Yet he joined hundreds of other members of the faculty in signing a petition calling for Dr. Gay to keep her job, saying it was dangerous for universities to be bullied into making decisions about whom to hire and fire.
“I do think that building bridges is preferable to exploding them,” Mr. Tribe said on Tuesday, after the board announced its decision to keep Dr. Gay as president.
“I hope very much she can move the university forward and wish for her success,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, who resigned from Harvard’s advisory committee on antisemitism after Dr. Gay’s congressional testimony, which he called inadequate.
Dr. Gay’s critics expressed their dissatisfaction with the board’s decision.
“This is a moral failure of Harvard’s leadership and higher education leadership at the highest levels,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who led the most aggressive questioning of Dr. Gay during the hearing on Capitol Hill last week.
Edo Berger, a professor of astronomy, said the board’s statement failed to make a case for why Dr. Gay should stay. “It may have been difficult to reach a decision due to external pressures,” he said. “But to me, that’s the sign of leadership.”
Dr. Berger added that he was unsure reconciliation was possible. “I don’t know that this closes the case,” he said. “The various pressures won’t go away.”
Several high-profile incidents of student protests lately have added to the tension on campus. The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reported on Monday that four students are facing disciplinary action over their involvement in pro-Palestinian demonstrations last month, including two who used bullhorns as they led students out of classrooms shouting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Many Jews find the phrase offensive, saying it implies that the state of Israel should be eliminated.
While the Harvard Corporation was unequivocal in its support of Dr. Gay, its statement also faulted her initial response to the Hamas attack, which many critics said was halfhearted and inadequate.
“So many people have suffered tremendous damage and pain because of Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack, and the University’s initial statement should have been an immediate, direct, and unequivocal condemnation,” the board’s statement said.
Dr. Gay has faced criticism on other fronts, too. Harvard acknowledged on Tuesday that after accusations of plagiarism concerning three articles by Dr. Gay, the university had conducted a review and determined that she had not violated the university’s standards for “research misconduct.” But the Harvard Corporation said its investigation “revealed a few instances of inadequate citation,” adding that Dr. Gay would request “four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.”
Like many other elite universities, Harvard has struggled to strike a balance between allowing students the freedom to express their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and disciplining those who cross a line and threaten or intimidate anyone.
In the days since her widely criticized Dec. 5 appearance before the House committee, donors, alumni and students ratcheted up a pressure campaign to oust Dr. Gay, while supporters banded together to try to save her job. About 700 members of Harvard’s faculty, and hundreds more alumni, came to her defense in several open letters.
One of the letters, from Black faculty members, called the attacks on the president “specious and politically motivated.” The letter, which was drafted and signed by some of Harvard’s most prominent professors, said that Dr. Gay “should be given the chance to fulfill her term to demonstrate her vision for Harvard.” A group of more than 1,000 Black alumni also defended her in an open letter, writing, “While the current issues at play are complex, her commitment to fighting antisemitism, Islamophobia, and racism has never wavered.”
One of the most outspoken critics of Dr. Gay, William A. Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alumnus, said in an interview earlier this week that she should resign for the good of the school. “I don’t see a scenario where she survives for the long term, or even the intermediate term,” he said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ackman declined to comment on the board’s decision to retain her.
Some faculty on campus praised the board’s decision, but said that deeper issues remained. “I think the statement needed to condemn Islamophobia and reject any notion that teaching about racism is akin to promoting antisemitism,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Over the last two months, Dr. Gay has made a point of addressing the concerns of Jews who found her initial response to the Hamas assault lacking.
On Oct. 27, at a Shabbat dinner at Harvard Hillel, she announced the formation of an advisory group to help her “develop a robust strategy for confronting antisemitism on campus.” And she condemned the phrase “from the river to the sea.”
“Our Jewish students have shared searing accounts of feeling isolated and targeted,” she said. “This shakes me to my core — as an educator, as a mother, as a human being. Harvard must be a place where everyone feels safe and seen. It is just the right thing to do.”
But despite these efforts, her appearance in Washington shook her presidency.
During the hearing, Ms. Stefanik pelted the presidents with questions that, on Saturday, led to Ms. Magill’s resignation from Penn.
“At Harvard,” Ms. Stefanik asked Dr. Gay, “does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?”
Dr. Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.” Pressed by Ms. Stefanik, Dr. Gay added a few moments later, “Antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.”
Ms. Stefanik tried again: “So, the answer is yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?”
Dr. Gay answered, “Again, it depends on the context.”
Dr. Gay moved to contain the fallout with an apology in an interview that was published on Friday in The Crimson.
Though one of Dr. Gay’s immediate concerns would be healing the wounds on campus, the controversy she became embroiled in has larger stakes.
Sujay Jaswa, a Harvard Business School graduate who co-founded technology holding company WndrCo said the situation at Harvard underlined broader concerns he had about higher education.
“I think that the testimony, basically, revealed to everybody that these universities are led by people who believe things that are very different than society at large,” he said. “And I think that’s why you’re seeing so much revulsion.”
Reporting was contributed by Alan Blinder, Mable Chan, Rob Copeland, Lauren Hirsch, Sarah Mervosh and Vimal Patel.