As Pressure on Harvard President Increases, University Board Feels the Squeeze

The Harvard Corporation is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere, according to its website.
The Harvard Corporation is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere, according to its website.

Summary

Critics of Harvard Corporation call for resignations and fault the board’s insularity for recent missteps.

In the wake of calls for the resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay, a growing number of faculty members are turning their focus to the other 11 members of the powerful governing board that runs the school.

Some faculty are calling for members of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s board, to resign or apologize and one professor has even floated to the governor of Massachusetts a new governance structure for the school that would give lawmakers the chance to appoint a board member to represent the public interest.

“They’re under pressure, that’s obvious," said former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier. “They are the fiduciary body and no one will deny that Harvard’s reputation has taken a very substantial hit in the world…It’s on their watch that it’s happening."

The Harvard Corporation is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere, according to its website. Its current members include a former U.S. commerce secretary, former CEO of American Express and the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Its stewardship over the centuries has led Harvard to become one of the world’s greatest and wealthiest research universities, with an endowment in excess of $50 billion.

Members serve a six-year renewable term, and current members select new ones. The board stood at seven people, including the president, from 1650 until 2010, when it adopted a series of reforms, and expanded to 13. (It currently has 12, with one vacancy.) There are few checks on their authority. One faculty member said the corporation answers only to God.

Kit Parker, professor of bioengineering and applied physics, said the school is at an inflection point and to change the trajectory members of the corporation need to step down. “The big question now is, how arrogant is Harvard? And when I say Harvard, I mean the Harvard Corporation. Do they think this is going to go away?"

One faculty member, citing a carve-out in the Massachusetts Constitution that reserves authority over Harvard to the state legislature, has urged Massachusetts lawmakers to install a government official on the board to provide more transparency and public accountability. A spokeswoman for Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey said the governor is aware of the proposal and looks forward to reviewing it.

Harvard Spokesman Jonathan Swain said in response to a request for comment about faculty criticism of the corporation: “I’ll refer you to the Corporation’s Dec. 12 statement of unanimous support for President Gay."

The university’s latest troubles started in June when the Supreme Court ruled the racial preferences Harvard had long used in its admission practices were unconstitutional.

In October, after the Hamas attacks on Israel left about 1,200 people dead, more than 30 Harvard student organizations laid blame for Hamas’s violence on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians over the decades. Former Harvard President Larry Summers and several high-profile corporate leaders blasted Gay’s initial statement, which contained no reference to the statement by the student organizations. She issued follow-up statements and clarifications in the subsequent days and weeks condemning Hamas and asking the community for rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame, but they didn’t quell the anger.

Earlier this month, Gay joined the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania to testify before a House committee about antisemitism on their campuses. The three drew immediate ire for not saying explicitly that calling for the genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment under their schools’ policies.

Pressure mounted for Gay to resign, including from more than 70 members of Congress, but more than 700 faculty members signed a petition backing her and calling for the Harvard Corporation to not bow to outside pressures by Washington or donors.

The Harvard Corporation issued a statement a week after the House hearing expressing its support for Gay. The statement also said that the corporation had reviewed allegations of plagiarism against Gay and that while it found a few instances of incorrect citations in academic papers, the issue didn’t rise to the level of research misconduct.

Then came a second round of allegations, and the corporation again cleared her of accusations of research misconduct and affirmed its faith in her.

“I think everybody just wants this to go away," said Jennifer Hochschild, a professor of government and African and African-American Studies, and longtime supporter of Gay. “But if something else comes up that’s more substantive, then I think the support would at least diminish, if not disappear."

Critics point to the fact that applications for early admission tumbled 17% this year as evidence of reputational damage.

Some faculty said Gay’s selection as president last December was the first in a series of avoidable errors by the governing board.

Gay got her Ph.D. at Harvard in 1998 and earned tenure at Stanford University. She returned to Harvard and rose rapidly through the ranks from government and African and African-American Studies professor to dean of social sciences, and then in 2018 became dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the core liberal arts part of the university.

Gay is 53 years old, younger than most previous presidents and relatively untested at the highest levels of leadership. Many of Gay’s predecessors held significant positions like U.S. Treasury secretary and Tufts University president before taking the helm.

“It’s a risky choice to elevate somebody who has not had years and years of experience in a presidential or presidential-like role," Hochschild said.

But she was also an appealing candidate because she knew the school intimately and had already run one of its largest parts, and was young enough to stay in the position for a long time, several faculty members said. Her appointment was broadly celebrated.

Gay’s role as Harvard’s first Black president complicates the corporation’s response to the recent furor. There is concern about the optics of so quickly removing the person selected for this pivotal role.

Both critics and supporters say that it isn’t clear Gay can maintain the confidence of other academics in light of the myriad plagiarism allegations, and that her fundraising ability—a core job of any president—may be diminished.

“There are many practices, particularly the repression of unpopular opinions, that contravene [Harvard’s] commitment to truth," said psychology professor Steven Pinker.

The Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, a group Pinker and Flier helped to found earlier this year to advocate for more diversity of thought on campus, has about 150 members.

When he was dean of the Harvard Medical School, Flier said, the Harvard Corporation summoned him once a year, for half an hour, to deliver a report. “I received little feedback from my presentations," he said.

So he was surprised last week when a member of the board invited him to meet and talk about the work he and colleagues were doing.

For three hours last week, he and three other members met off campus with two members of the board.

In the meeting, the faculty outlined their views on how Harvard should encourage a broader range of views on campus and consider potential consequences of its push for diversity.

Swain, the Harvard spokesman, described the conversation as “constructive and positive."

“They didn’t state that they agree explicitly with any of our points," Flier said. “But they said they would share them with their colleagues and they looked forward to further discussions."

Write to Douglas Belkin at Doug.Belkin@wsj.com and Melissa Korn at Melissa.Korn@wsj.com

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