Anemona Hartocollis, a New York Times reporter who covers higher education, was at a holiday party when she overheard revelers talking about Harvard University President Claudine Gay.
The people Ms. Hartokoulis writes about aren’t typically the subject of holiday party conversation. But Ms. Hartokoulis said in a recent interview that the Harvard controversy, “has dominated the conversation outside of academia.”
Dr. Gay, Harvard’s first black president and the second woman to lead the university, last week – less than six months into her tenure – faced allegations of plagiarism and a congressional hearing last month about anti-Semitism on college campuses. Resigned amid criticism over his testimony. It was the third time in less than a year that the president of a top US university resigned under pressure.
“People are disappointed,” said Ms. Hartokoulis, who has covered the unrest on campuses across the country since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
In an interview, Ms. Hartokoulis reflected on her reporting during this controversial moment, how her tone has changed over the years and how Harvard has “evolved” since she studied there in the 1970s. These are edited excerpts of the conversation.
How were the last few months?
It’s been tiring since the beginning of October. We have assembled a team of over a dozen journalists with diverse areas of expertise from business, politics, culture and education teams.
How much personal reporting have you had a chance to do?
I’ve been to Cambridge, Mass., twice. I went a week after the October 7 Hamas attack – when Dr. Gay was criticized for not reacting quickly enough to the attack or to statements made by pro-Palestinian students – to report on pro-Palestinian students who were sequestered was going. Photos of their faces were posted on trucks under the headline “Harvard’s Leading Anti-Semite.” I talked to the students whose faces were on the trucks, and it resulted in a story. I made connections with both pro-Palestinian and Jewish pro-Israel students.
I went again on December 11 when Dr. Gay’s job was in jeopardy and Harvard was considering whether to support him or let him go. I wanted to know what the Harvard Corporation, a governing body, was thinking. It was good to be there because the day after I arrived they announced that they were supporting him, and I was able to meet people and gather intelligence.
Have you talked to Dr. Gay?
I have not talked to him during this period; He has been heavily protected. When I was in Cambridge in December, I attended the Hanukkah menorah lighting, where I stood three feet away from her and her husband. I beat myself up later for not trying to talk to him, even though I don’t think I would have gotten very far. She disappeared when the ceremony was over.
Were you and the rest of the education desk surprised by his resignation?
No, we were ready; We saw it coming. We had one version of the story written one way – she resigns – and another with an alternative outcome – she stays. This is standard practice in the news business.
Do you think this decision will affect Harvard’s reputation in the long term?
That is the question; I do not know the answer. That’s what Harvard has to worry about.
Only one small piece A large portion of the US population will ever attend a specific educational institution. Then why are people so emotional about the events happening to them?
Not just Harvard, all universities are a reflection of the state of our society; They are incubators of ideas that then spread out into the world. This particular story deals with many contemporary issues, such as the Israel-Hamas war, the influence of big money on universities and race and its impact on our lives. I think people entered through multiple doors.
You were a Harvard student in the 1970s – how has it changed in the decades since?
What impressed me is how similar it is; It has developed in a consistent direction. Many of the debates are similar.
You have been covering education for The Times from time to time for almost three decades. How did your previous reporting prepare you for covering this moment?
Whether the story is big or small, the principles of reporting are the same. Maybe it’s more akin to political reporting than other types of reporting I do, but it’s not much different from running after a fire or crime – you gather information, find out where. Know who to talk to (and hope they’ll talk) and try to be there when something happens.
What has been the most challenging part of your reporting?
Many people are ready to talk only off the record. This is a sensitive story. It has been a story where people have been reluctant to speak openly about what they are thinking.
What big-picture questions should people ask as this story develops?
What do we expect from the president of Harvard, the leader of perhaps the most prestigious university in the country? Did caste play a role in his selection and how much should it be for any academic or administrative post? Should university presidents make statements on world affairs? What, if any, are appropriate limits on speech for students? Should a college president be judged by the same standards as students, or perhaps even higher standards? What is plagiarism?
Higher education suffers from many problems: opaque admission policies, unnecessary tuition costs, grade inflation,Cancel culture. How do we fix it? Can we do it?
There is no dispute that tuition costs are out of reach for most people. Questions are growing about whether college can provide a good return on investment. So the experience of going to college is one that many people can identify with and want to read about. Can those problems be solved? They look quite daunting.
Any final thoughts?
This is an important story, I urge people to follow it. And despite the wish of many involved that it would just go away, it will remain a story for some time.