The future of Harvard University’s president, Claudine Gay, was on the line on Monday as the school’s governing body met amid calls for her removal following the widely criticized comments she made last week about antisemitism on campus.
As donors ratcheted up a pressure campaign to oust Dr. Gay, about 700 members of Harvard’s faculty came to her defense in several open letters. One, from Black faculty members, called the attacks on the president “specious and politically motivated.” The letter, which was drafted and signed by some of Harvard’s most prominent professors, said that Dr. Gay “should be given the chance to fulfill her term to demonstrate her vision for Harvard.”
Dr. Gay, who assumed the university’s top job in July, is Harvard’s first Black president.
Critics of Dr. Gay, too, pressed their case publicly. One of the most outspoken, William A. Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager, wrote on the social media site X on Sunday evening that “President Gay’s mishandling of October 7th and its aftermath on campus have led to the metastasis of antisemitism to other universities and institutions around the world.”
A letter expressing “no confidence” in Dr. Gay was also gaining support on Monday. Signed by Harvard students and alumni, it urged her to resign or be relieved of her position. “It is not appropriate for Claudine Gay to serve as President of Harvard, as she does not represent our collective values or the Harvard that we have come to know,” that letter said.
The Harvard community has been plunged into one of its deepest crises in years, forcing it to reckon with difficult questions of race, religion and tolerance. Similar debates are playing out on college campuses across the country as school administrators face accusations that they have ignored or downplayed incidents of antisemitism following the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza.
Underpinning these debates is a tension between, on the one hand, students and many professors who say their freedom of expression is being stifled, and on the other, alumni and politicians who complain that universities have allowed intolerance to grow unchecked.
By midday Monday, the dueling open letters and social media posts were the only public accounting of the dispute. The university’s governing board, the Harvard Corporation, which could have the final word on Dr. Gay’s future, was meeting behind closed doors. An agenda for the meeting was not made available. A Harvard spokesman declined to comment on Monday about the board’s meeting.
Dr. Gay’s supporters hoped that she would avoid the fate of the president of the University of Pennsylvania, M. Elizabeth Magill, who resigned on Saturday under pressure for her remarks about antisemitism.
Dr. Gay, Ms. Magill and the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sally Kornbluth, testified before Congress last week in a hearing that House Republicans convened to address issues of bias against Jewish students. Their responses — noncommittal, halting and legalistic — to questions about how their schools’ disciplinary policies would apply if students were to call for the genocide of Jews left many people outraged.
Congress has opened an investigation into the three universities, with Republicans threatening to subpoena school administrators.
Dr. Gay has since apologized for her remarks, saying that her words had amplified distress and pain on campus.
One faculty letter of support that started to circulate over the weekend had gained nearly 700 signatures by Monday morning, according to Melani Cammett, a professor of international relations and one of the lead organizers.
The signatories of the various letters included some of Harvard’s most prominent names: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a literary critic; Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law scholar; Randall Kennedy, a professor of law; Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian of early America; William Julius Wilson, a sociologist; and Jason Furman, an economist and a former adviser to former President Barack Obama.
Jenna Russell contributed reporting.