How Harvard’s board fell out with Claudine Gay.

How Harvard's board fell out with Claudine Gay.

Claudine Gay was in Rome on a family vacation on December 27 when Penny Pritzker, the leader of Harvard University’s governing board, called and asked: Did she think she had a path forward as president of the school?

Ms. Pritzker seemed tired and it was posed as an open-ended question, two people with knowledge of the conversation said. But Dr. Gay understood what it meant. His six-month term as Harvard president ended. On January 2, he announced his resignation.

It marked the end of one of the most tumultuous periods in Harvard’s 387-year history, a controversy that plunged the school into public debate following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza. Gave. Not only did the president of the university lose his job, but the secret workings of its board, the Harvard Corporation, were also exposed.

For several weeks the board stood by its embattled chair as she dealt with criticism of her slow response to anti-Semitism on campus, her disastrous testimony before a House panel and growing allegations of plagiarism in her academic work. Ms. Pritzker, who had led the selection of Dr. Gay as the school’s first black president, was a particularly enthusiastic supporter.

Corporation on 12th December issue a statement In support of Dr. Gay, “We believe President Gay is the right leader to help heal our community and address the serious social issues we face.”

But within two weeks, that once-strong support began to wane, according to interviews with a dozen people with knowledge of the discussions, including people who spoke directly to Dr. Gay, Ms. Pritzker and other board members. or was given information about them. Thinking and action. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the deliberations. As board members headed to ski towns and beaches for vacation, they had a dramatic change of heart about their chairman.

A handful of the 12 board members, including Dr. Gay, came from great American fortunes built on name brands. Others were self-made financiers, philanthropists or retired academics. All but one attended Harvard. Accustomed to a certain level of success, he hoped that his December 12 statement would signal a fresh start and show his commitment to righting the ship.

The corporation told Dr. Gay that its members wanted to actively help him fix the campus, which had been rife with protests that disrupted classes and left Jewish students feeling unsafe.

Along with the public announcement of support on Dec. 12, board members privately asked Dr. Gay to help come up with a plan to turn things around, said two people with knowledge of the discussions. Over the next week or so, Dr. Gay and his staff planned what they called a “spring reset,” one of the people said. In the new year, she will be visible across campus, holding office hours and expressing her sympathy. There will be task forces to tackle anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

But before Dr. Gay could send additional details to the board, more trouble arose. On December 19, new allegations surfaced of more than 40 instances of plagiarism in Dr. Gay’s academic work, first reported in conservative media outlets. When she sent her latest plan to the board the next day, some members told her they liked it, but to others, it showed that she was worried about the growing crisis, according to people with knowledge of board members’ thinking. Didn’t understand the urgency. ,

Dr. Gay stands by the overall integrity of his work. Harvard has said it has not committed “research misconduct”, although it has offered to make minor changes to some of its earlier articles in the wake of the allegations.

Cracks had started appearing in the support of the board. Harvard’s treasurer and relatively new member of the corporation was Timothy R. Barakat was particularly concerned. From the beginning, he did not think it was appropriate to hire Dr. Gay. He told his fellow board members that Dr. Gay’s poor leadership and academic conduct could disqualify him from the presidency, those who spoke to him said.

According to donors, professors and others who spoke to board members, Mr. Barakat did not think Dr. Gay’s apology was appropriate and argued that she had failed to take full responsibility for her plagiarism.

At first, Mr. Barakat was an outsider in the group. But his arguments gradually won supporters over the board. One was Paul J. Finnegan, who was co-founder of Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm. In mid-December, he learned of a recent closed-door session at the Harvard Club in New York City, where Flynn Crotty, a prominent Harvard academic, explicitly criticized Dr. Gay and the university’s commitment to academic freedom. Was done.

A week later, Mr. Finnegan and another board member, Tracy Palandjian, heard their concerns about Harvard’s leadership from Dr. Crotty and other professors at a dinner in Cambridge, Mass.

According to people briefed on the events, Mr. Finnegan came away from these events losing confidence in Dr. Gay and soon joined Mr. Barackett’s camp.

From the beginning of the crisis, Dr. Gay was bombarded not only with criticism and bad press, but also with death threats and racist messages and phone calls. As December went on, it became more intense. Dr. Gay had moved into the Harvard President’s official residence following renovations just a month earlier. The phone kept ringing, and when she answered the phone the callers shouted racist abuse at her before hanging up. The police was monitoring the house 24 hours.

She was tired and scared. As the holidays approached, her husband and teenage son pressured her to go on a long-planned vacation to Rome. Desperate for a sigh of relief, Dr. Gay and his family moved out on Friday, December 22.

The corporation’s members are also scattered across vacation homes and resorts around the world. Ms. Pritzker, the former commerce secretary and heiress to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, spent time in Aspen, Colo. Kenneth I. Chennault, former chief executive of American Express, went to Miami. Mr. Barakat was also in Florida while Karen Gordon Mills, the former leader of the Small Business Administration and heir to the Tootsie Roll fortune, was at an economic conference in India.

Board members received considerable advice and criticism from others in their wealthy circle, Harvard alumni, and donors. But when they reached their vacation spots around Christmas they were surrounded by a new wave of friends and relatives. Some told Ms. Pritzker that she might be forced to resign from the Harvard Corporation because she had helped elect Dr. Gay and stood by him.

More than one board member had children attending Harvard. According to two people who spoke to corporation members, at least one was worried that other students would harass him because of his parents’ role on the board and the bad press.

It is clear that the controversies are not ending. On Christmas Eve, hedge fund manager and Dr. Gay’s staunch rival William Ackman posted on Twitter that he had been asked to resign – which was not true at the time. He also revealed that he had hired outside lawyers – which was true. Newspaper articles continued to appear about Dr. Gay and the board.

At this point, Dr. Gay was somewhat removed from the situation. A person familiar with the conversation said he called Mr. Chennault from Rome around Christmas time and he was sympathetic and cooperative. She reached out to Ms. Pritzker on Christmas Day.

By then the board’s action had shifted from formal meetings to a flurry of phone calls and email discussions among small groups of members, with Ms. Pritzker guiding many of the conversations.

The board was shut down due to new allegations of plagiarism, drumbeats of news articles, and criticism and advice from influential strangers and loved ones.

For weeks, the focus of board conversations was on retaining Dr. Gay and finding a way to end the crisis on campus. But the situation had changed by the day after Christmas, with people reporting the incidents. Board members agreed that they were dealing with a leadership crisis and that the best path forward for Harvard was without Dr. Gay in the president’s chair. Everyone agreed that it was time for Ms. Pritzker to call her quits.

In that December 27 phone call, Dr. Gay said she would resign. Three people with knowledge of the conversations said Ms. Pritzker gave her the weekend to sort out her exit. In subsequent phone calls, the two began to discuss the terms of Dr. Gay’s departure, including what the Harvard Corporation and her statements should say and an agreement that she would remain on Harvard’s faculty.

He left the remaining details to the lawyers.

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