Claudine Gay Is Out as President. Where Does Harvard Go From Here?

Claudine Gay Is Out as President. Where Does Harvard Go From Here?
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Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday as president of Harvard University, after being dogged for weeks by allegations of plagiarism and charges that she didn’t respond with enough urgency to concerns about antisemitism on campus.

But her departure from the top spot is unlikely to move the school beyond the scandals of the past few months.

The governing board and interim leaders will first need to address concern from some faculty and alums that the school has drifted too far to the left, with a growing emphasis on ethnic studies and diversity, while also fielding complaints from others that it hasn’t gone far enough in addressing racial inequities on campus and in society at large.

Harvard’s leaders also will have to navigate a fraught and changing admissions landscape, six months removed from a Supreme Court ruling that bars Harvard and other colleges from considering race when deciding who gets a coveted spot on campus.

And they will need to do it all under scrutiny, as Harvard is considered by many the leading embodiment of everything wrong with American higher education.

Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who helped lead the charge for Gay’s removal, said Tuesday that he would continue pushing Harvard to make changes, including hiring more conservative professors, changing admissions policies and dismantling diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, which he said are “racially discriminatory and ideologically corrupt.”

His aim, he said, was to “put truth back as the guiding principle of Harvard University.”

Billionaire investor and Harvard alum Bill Ackman, one of the earliest critics of how Gay handled the university’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, took a victory lap Tuesday, reposting comments from Rufo and other conservatives and suggesting Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth, who testified alongside Gay at a House hearing last month, should be the next to resign.

A representative from Harvard didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

An MIT representative referred to recent statements made by the school’s board, faculty, alumni and top administrators expressing support for Kornbluth.

Applications for early admission to Harvard fell 17% this cycle, while other extremely selective colleges reported upticks, a sign of the potential reputational damage the school will likely now try to repair. Parents in some large college-related Facebook groups have voiced worry over whether their Jewish children would be safe on campus, pointing to Gay’s testimony at a House committee hearing last month and statements from student groups blaming Israel for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. The radiant glow of the storied university has dulled, they said.

The Harvard Corporation, which was created in 1650 and has fiduciary responsibility for the school, will oversee the process of finding a new president, likely with input from faculty, staff and student advisory committees.

Gay was named Harvard’s first Black president and second woman president in December 2022, after a five-month search. That was the shortest search in about 70 years, according to the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper.

“She has a bedrock commitment to free inquiry and expression, as well as a deep appreciation for the diverse voices and views that are the lifeblood of a university community,” Penny Pritzker, the commerce secretary under then-President Barack Obama and chair of the search committee, said at the time.

Tommie Shelby, a professor who served on the faculty advisory committee for the presidential search, said at Gay’s inauguration in September that she balanced respect for tradition with “looking to the future and to what we should, and must, become.”

He said he celebrated Gay’s appointment “because of what it says about Harvard and our place, the place of all who ever wondered if they belonged, within it.”

Harvard’s board hasn’t provided any details yet about how it will select the next president, but those involved will likely be acutely aware of how much focus they place on diversity—and whether they would be seen as backtracking if they pick a more traditional successor, such as a white man with decades of experience running another university.

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