Harvard president resigns amid controversy over anti-Semitisim hearing

Claudine Gay came under fire last month for her answers to a question on anti-Semitism on campus.

President of Harvard University
President of Harvard University and current Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

The president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, has resigned amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over a congressional hearing during which she was unable to say whether calls for the genocide of Jews on campus would violate the school’s conduct policy.

In a statement announcing her departure on Tuesday, Gay wrote, “It is with a heavy heart but a deep love for Harvard that I write to share that I will be stepping down as president.”

“It has been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor … and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus,” she added.

In July 2023, Gay became the first Black president of Harvard in 387 years.

But last month, Gay, along with the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, came under fire for their lawyerly responses to a line of questioning from New York Republican representative Elise Stefanik, who asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate the college’s code of conduct.

The three presidents had been called before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce to answer accusations that universities were failing to protect Jewish students in light of the rise in anti-Semitism following Israel’s assault on Gaza and the rising Palestinian death toll.

In response to the question, Gay said that it depended on the context and that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies”.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay
Harvard University President Claudine Gay watches a video being played during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing, December 5, 2023 [File: Ken Cedeno/Reuters]

But her answer met intense backlash from both Republicans and Democrats.

More than 70 lawmakers, including two Democrats, called for her resignation, while several high-profile Harvard alumni and donors called for her departure.

But, more than 700 Harvard faculty members signed a letter supporting Gay.

Gay later apologised to the Harvard Crimson for her comments and said that she was caught up in the heated exchange and failed to condemn threats of violence towards Jewish students properly.

“What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community – threats to our Jewish students – have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged,” said Gay.

But the incident marred Gay’s early tenure at Harvard and sowed discord on campus.

Last week, Rabbi David Wolpe resigned from an anti-Semitism committee created by Gay. He said on X that the “events on campus and the painfully inadequate testimony reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped”.

Following the congressional hearing, Gay’s academic career came under intense scrutiny by conservative activists who unearthed several instances of alleged plagiarism in her 1997 doctoral dissertation.

Harvard’s governing board initially rallied behind Gay, saying a review of her scholarly work turned up “a few instances of inadequate citation” but no evidence of research misconduct.

Days later, the Harvard Corporation revealed that it found two additional examples of “duplicative language without appropriate attribution.” The board said Gay would update her dissertation and request corrections.

The Harvard Corporation said the resignation came “with great sadness” and thanked Gay for her “deep and unwavering commitment to Harvard and to the pursuit of academic excellence.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies