Tuesday, May 21, 2024

As universities across the country strained under pressure to take a public position on the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, few were as tormented as Harvard.

First school officials said nothing when a pro-Palestinian student group wrote an open letter saying that Israel was “entirely responsible” for the violence.
Harvard followed up with a letter to the university community acknowledging “feelings of fear, sadness, anger, and more.” After an outcry, Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, issued a more forceful statement condemning Hamas for “terrorist atrocities” while urging people to use words that “illuminate and not inflame.”

The difficult and divisive questions over how universities should respond when student demonstrations cross a line into threatening, disruptive and harmful behavior came to a head at Harvard over the last week, as Dr. Gay faced calls to resign after her widely criticized appearance before a congressional committee looking into antisemitism on campus. When asked a question about whether threatening Jewish people with genocide would violate the school’s code of conduct, she equivocated.

On Tuesday, Harvard’s governing body said it stood firmly behind Dr. Gay, offering her a unanimous show of support after several days of silence and intense public pressure. Under fire from some of the university’s major financial backers, prominent Jewish alumni and lawmakers, the board deliberated late into the night on Monday before issuing a statement of support.

“As members of the Harvard Corporation, we today reaffirm our support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard University,” said the statement, signed by the board members, aside from Dr. Gay. “Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”

The statement backing Dr. Gay also served to underscore that the university would have zero tolerance for student protests that disrupt class. Raucous demonstrations, including those targeting conservative speakers over the last few years, have become a growing focus of donors, alumni and politicians who say that elite colleges have become too inhospitable of ideological diversity.

“We champion open discourse and academic freedom,” the Harvard Corporation said in its statement. “And we are united in our strong belief that calls for violence against our students and disruptions of the classroom experience will not be tolerated.”

Last week’s congressional hearing focused the nation’s attention on how colleges are struggling to address the raw emotions and division on their campuses since the Oct. 7 assault. The legalistic and hedged responses to questions about antisemitism from three college presidents — Dr. Gay, M. Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — led to calls for all three to resign.

“We’ve got to stop taking it easy on students,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which focuses on free speech issues at universities. “This is serious.”

In interviews, Harvard alumni, students and faculty said they hoped that the board’s decision to spare Dr. Gay, the school’s first Black president, would allow the university community to move forward after a particularly convulsive time.

“I hope very much she can move the university forward and wish for her success,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, who resigned from Harvard’s advisory committee on antisemitism after Dr. Gay’s congressional testimony, which he called inadequate.

Several high-profile incidents of student protests lately have added to the tension on campus. The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reported on Monday that four students are facing disciplinary action over their involvement in pro-Palestinian demonstrations last month, including two who used bullhorns as they led students out of classrooms shouting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Many Jews find the phrase offensive, saying it implies that the state of Israel should be eliminated.

While the Harvard Corporation was unequivocal in its support of Dr. Gay, its statement also faulted her initial response to the Hamas attack, which many critics said was halfhearted and inadequate. Dr. Gay has faced criticism on other fronts, too. Harvard acknowledged on Tuesday that after accusations of plagiarism concerning three articles by Dr. Gay, the university had conducted a review and determined that she had not violated the university’s standards for “research misconduct.” But the Harvard Corporation said its investigation “revealed a few instances of inadequate citation,” adding that Dr. Gay would request “four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.”

Like many other elite universities, Harvard has struggled to strike a balance between allowing students the freedom to express their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and disciplining those who cross a line and threaten or intimidate anyone.

In the days since her widely criticized Dec. 5 appearance before the House committee, donors, alumni and students ratcheted up a pressure campaign to oust Dr. Gay, while supporters banded together to try to save her job. About 700 members of Harvard’s faculty, and hundreds more alumni, came to her defense in several open letters.

Assistant Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/us/harvard-claudine-gay-president.html

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