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As Harvard’s Governing Boards Meet, More than 700 Faculty Urge Against Gay’s Removal, Citing University Independence

Faculty urged the Harvard Corporation to resist calls for Claudine Gay's removal in a letter Sunday.
Faculty urged the Harvard Corporation to resist calls for Claudine Gay's removal in a letter Sunday. By Marina Qu
By Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writer

Updated: December 10, 2023, at 4:46 p.m.

More than 700 faculty as of Monday afternoon have signed a letter to the Harvard Corporation, which convened for a scheduled meeting that day, urging Harvard’s top governing body to resist calls to remove University President Claudine Gay from her post.

The Corporation and the Harvard Board of Overseers, the second-highest governing body at the school, met for a scheduled meeting amid mounting criticism and calls for Gay to step down following her testimony in a congressional hearing on antisemitism Tuesday. Following the hearing, more than 70 members of Congress — largely Republicans — called for her to resign.

Speculation over Gay’s future at the University grew after University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill, who testified along Gay, stepped down at a Board of Trustees meeting Saturday amid backlash over the hearing.

The Corporation is expected to decide whether to make a public statement in support of Gay, The Crimson reported Sunday.

But in the letter, which began circulating around 11 a.m. Sunday, the faculty members asked the Corporation to defend the principle of university independence in the face of what they described as politically motivated attacks on Harvard.

The letter was sent to the Corporation at 8 p.m. Sunday with 511 signatures, according to History professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, who helped organize the letter. An updated signature list was sent at 11 a.m. Monday with 686 faculty members’ names.

Addressing the Corporation, they wrote they “urge you in the strongest possible terms to defend the independence of the university and to resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom, including calls for the removal of President Claudine Gay.”

“The critical work of defending a culture of free inquiry in our diverse community cannot proceed if we let its shape be dictated by outside forces,” they added.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain did not offer comment on the letter.

History professor Derek J. Penslar, a member of an unofficial group of faculty who have spearheaded the letter, said the faculty members who organized and signed the letter held a wide range of views on Gay’s testimony and leadership, but were united in the view that decisions on University leadership should not be made by alumni or politicians.

“I don’t think that signing this letter is an exoneration of the University for its handling of issues involving antisemitism and Islamophobia over the last couple of months,” said Penslar, a professor specializing in Jewish history.

The ad hoc group of faculty also includes History professors Alison Frank Johnson and Jasanoff, Philosophy professor and co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard Edward J. Hall, and Harvard Divinity School professor Diana L. Eck.

Gay’s comments during the hearing, particularly in response to a heated line of questioning from Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) on whether calls for a genocide of Jews would constitute a violation of Harvard policies, intensified criticism from within and without the University — including a rebuke from the White House.

Gay later apologized for her remarks during the testimony in an interview with The Crimson.

Jasanoff said that the “soundbites” generated from the hearing obscured an important conversation about speech at the University.

“There is, as I’ve said, definitely room to explore the parameters and clarify the parameters of free speech, and free expression, and academic freedom, and so on on campuses,” Jasanoff said. “I don’t think that the people who were taking the lead in the congressional inquiries were doing so with good faith intentions.”

The signatories on the letter include a range of prominent professors, among them Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62, Economics professor and former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Jason Furman ’92, and Pulitzer Prize winner and University Professor Annette Gordon-Reed.

Roughly 10 members of the core faculty group wrote an additional letter to the Corporation this past week, asking them to publicly support Gay’s leadership, Government professor Ryan D. Enos said.

“We’re urging the Corporation to resist any outside pressure on how they handle leadership in the University,” Enos said. “We want them to state this publicly: that they support the leadership of President Gay and the ability of faculty and students to go about free inquiry.”

Swain did not offer comment on the prior letter.

Correction: December 10, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @eschisgall.

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