Harvard faculty members urge university not to oust president Claudine Gay after congressional hearing

More than 700 members of Harvard University’s faculty have signed a letter urging administrators to resist calls to remove the school’s president amid an outcry over her testimony last week at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism.

“We, the undersigned faculty, 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 letter says.

“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,” the letter goes on to say. NBC News obtained the text of the letter from history professor Alison Frank Johnson, one of the faculty members leading the effort.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, at a House hearing on campus antisemitism on Dec. 5, 2023.
Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University, at a House hearing on campus antisemitism on Dec. 5. Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP

Frank Johnson said 723 people had signed the letter by Monday afternoon — more than a quarter of the school’s 2,452 faculty members. She declined to release the names of the signers but said in an email that she was “very, very pleased by how broad the base of support is!”

The letter was delivered to the Harvard Corporation, the governing body that could decide Gay’s fate less than six months after she assumed the role. Harvard’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

In a separate letter, the executive committee of the Harvard Alumni Association said it “unanimously and unequivocally” supported Gay. “We have full confidence in her leadership during this difficult time,” the committee members wrote.

The pressure on Gay mounted over the weekend after University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned. Gay, Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth have drawn fierce criticism after they appeared to dodge the question of whether students calling for the genocide of Jews should be punished.

In a contentious exchange at the five-hour hearing last Tuesday with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., Gay said “that type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me” and “at odds with the values of Harvard.”

Stefanik then pressed Gay: “Can you not say here that it is against the code of conduct at Harvard?”

Gay did not answer directly, saying in part: “We embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful — it’s when that speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies against bullying, harassment, intimidation.”

Magill responded to Stefanik in similar terms that critics described as lawyerly and evasive. Instead of directly replying to Stefanik’s yes-or-no question about the school’s code of conduct, Magill said the decision would be “context-dependent.”

Gay has apologized for her remarks. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson student newspaper published Friday, she said in part: “I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures.”

“I failed to convey what is my truth,” said Gay, the second woman and the first Black person to lead the Ivy League campus.

The university presidents’ testimony went viral on social media and drew furious criticism from the White House and political leaders in both parties, as well as Jewish community advocates, alumni and donors. The backlash has been driven in part by Stefanik and billionaire investor Bill Ackman.

One down. Two to go,” Stefanik, a graduate of Harvard, tweeted after Penn announced Magill’s resignation Saturday night.

Ackman said on X, “Now the focus turns to Presidents Gay and Kornbluth and the boards of @Harvard.”

Stefanik has said the House Education and Workforce Committee would launch an investigation with “the full force of subpoena power” into Harvard, MIT, Penn and other unspecified universities.

“We will use our full Congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage,” Stefanik said in a statement.

Laurence Tribe, the constitutional law scholar, confirmed that he was one of the faculty members who signed the letter. Five days ago, in a post on X, Tribe criticized Gay’s testimony as “hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive.”

In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Tribe said he believed his positions were “completely consistent.”

“I continue to believe that her answer was terrible. I think, in fact, her inability to respond in a meaningful way to Elise Stefanik was so bad that it cast doubt, in my mind, on the wisdom of the Harvard Corporation in having selected her to lead the university in the first place,” he said.

“But whether she was the right person for the job is a completely different question from whether Harvard should now buckle to pressure from the likes of Elise Stefanik, who has long been on a warpath against any form of liberalism on college campuses and elsewhere,” he added.

In a column published Monday in The Boston Globe, the Harvard professor and well-known linguist Steven Pinker criticized the social and political environment on the campus but wrote: “I don’t believe that firing Gay is the appropriate response to the fiasco.”

The war between Israel and Hamas has divided college campuses nationwide, sparking protests and confrontations between students. Jewish and Muslim students have described concerns about hate speech, harassment and threats.

The Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish advocacy organization, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim advocacy group, both reported rises in bias incidents after the war broke out.

In their testimony, the three college presidents repeatedly condemned both antisemitism and Islamophobia.