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Pressure on Harvard President Claudine Gay mounts

“One down. Two to go.”

The ominous statement from Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from upstate New York, came moments after University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill announced her resignation on Saturday.

Read more: Penn Leaders Magill, Bok Out After Alumni Pressure

It had been just days since Stefanik had confronted the leaders of Penn, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology on whether calling for the genocide of Jews is against school policy — eliciting narrow legal responses that were slammed by the White House, Democratic and Republican lawmakers, business leaders, alumni and even lampooned on Saturday Night Live.

Since that made-for-social media moment on Dec. 5 in Washington, some of America’s most elite universities have been under unprecedented scrutiny, capping weeks of accusations that schools tolerate antisemitism while decrying other forms of racism and bias.

Protests on campuses against Israel have ignited debate over the limits of free speech and pitted donors and alumni against each other, faculty and students, as well as raising fundamental questions over university independence.

“This is as difficult a moment for elite higher education as any moment since the Vietnam War,” said Larry Summers, a former Harvard president who’s a paid contributor to Bloomberg TV. “Perhaps more difficult.”

With Magill’s resignation, the focus is now on Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first black president. The political scientist has rarely been far from the headlines after assuming the position in July, right after the Supreme Court handed Harvard a blow effectively barring race in admissions.

While Harvard alum Stefanik — and others — are also demanding the ouster of MIT President Sally Kornbluth, the university has said it stands by her. Alumni have been far less vocal and co-ordinated in demanding the biologist step down than their counterparts.

Harvard, whose board includes ex-Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and former American Express Co. head Ken Chenault, has issued no such supportive statement since the hearing, even as complaints intensify over Gay’s leadership and board members convened on campus this weekend for a regularly scheduled meeting.

When the board does take on Gay’s future, it will have to address more than just her testimony. Hanging in the balance is confidence in Gay’s ability to steer the institution through the morass, maintain a safe environment on campus, and continue to raise money from alumni and secure federal funding.

Harvard declined to comment on Gay and the board.

Read more: Harvard Crisis Grows After ‘Bizarrely Evasive’ Response

Gay told the Harvard Crimson on Thursday that she apologized for her words at the hearing.

“I am sorry,” she said. “Words matter,” she added. “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret.”

The performance drew widespread criticism, including from Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, who described Gay’s testimony as “bizarrely evasive.” Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, resigned from an antisemitism advisory committee, and the Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance wrote a scathing letter to the board demanding change.

“This week demonstrated that Harvard cares more about avoiding legal risk than it does about student life, the promotion of democratic and pluralistic values, or a commitment to eradicating bigotry from campus,” they wrote.

It only amplified the pressure Gay has been under since Oct. 7.

In the aftermath of reports that more than 1,200 people had been killed, more than 30 student groups laid the sole responsibility for the violence on Israel. The letter quickly went viral on social media, while Harvard remained silent about the attack from Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union.

Summers was furious and contrasted the position Harvard had taken to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and when Gay had written a personal statement about the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in 2020.

Gay has since condemned Hamas, spoken out repeatedly against antisemitism and visited Jewish groups on campus. Like other university leaders, she’s sought to balance free speech with protecting students but it’s become more difficult as protests have grown against Israel’s actions in the Gaza strip, where Hamas says more than 17,000 people have been killed.

Gay had been in a less precarious position than Magill, who was vulnerable for decisions that predated Oct. 7.

Marc Rowan, the head of Apollo Management Group Inc., was among donors dismayed that Magill allowed a Palestinian literary festival on campus in September even though he said some of the speakers had a history of antisemitic comments. Opposition to Magill was particularly strong among alumni from the Wharton business school, which has outsized influence on campus.

Thousands of Harvard grads have also expressed anger and several billionaire donors have pulled their support of the school.

Harvard alum Bill Ackman, who has almost 1 million followers on X, has used the platform to highlight antisemitism on campus while urging Gay be replaced. He’s broadened his criticism to Harvard’s diversity, equity and inclusion practices, which Gay has supported.

But even the Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance said while it “understands” the calls for Gay to step down, it’s “also concerned that the plight on campus would deepen in the prolongated process of searching for a new president.”

What’s more, some faculty are dismayed by the idea of external interference on its leadership, including from Stefanik, who was removed from the senior advisory committee of Harvard’s Institute of Politics after she claimed voter fraud in the last presidential election.

“I really hope we don’t let donors and politicians dictate who leads our school,” Harvard professor Jason Furman, and a former top economic advisor in the Obama administration, wrote on X.

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