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Claudine Gay: Harvard president’s tumultuous months in the spotlight

By Eva Rothenberg, CNN

New York (CNN) — In the past two and half months, Harvard University President Claudine Gay has faced an onslaught of backlash from donors, politicians and business leaders over concerns of antisemitism at the nation’s oldest higher education institution.

Barely three months after her historic inauguration as Harvard’s first Black woman president, Gay helped mediate rising tensions on campus following the terror attacks by Hamas on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent strikes on Gaza. Gay addressed an amalgam of issues related to freedom of speech, hate speech and political debate.

After being called to testify on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Gay faced mounting pressure to resign because she equivocated about questions involving antisemitism on campus, even as alumni, faculty, and the school’s governing board came to her support.

If you’re just catching up, here’s everything you need to know about the flurry of criticism.

October 7: A coalition of student groups at Harvard released a statement placing blame for Hamas’ attack on Israel’s government shortly after Hamas leveled the biggest terrorist attack in Israel’s history — killing more than 1,400 people and taking more than 200 people hostage, according to Israeli authorities.

The letter drew sweeping condemnation from business leaders, who called for the students whose groups signed the statement to be blacklisted. A spokesperson for the coalition later wrote in a statement that the group “staunchly opposes violence against civilians — Palestinian, Israeli, or other.”

October 10: Gay released a statement condemning the “terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas” and affirming that “no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.” Some donors and alumni were still outraged by what they saw as Gay’s belated response to the controversy. Several major donors who support Israel cut ties with the university.

October 27: In a speech at Harvard’s Jewish student organization, Gay announced that she had assembled an advisory group of “faculty, staff, alumni, and religious leaders from the Jewish community” who “will help us to think expansively and concretely about all the ways that antisemitism shows up on our campus and in our campus culture.”

November 28: The Department of Education opened an investigation into Harvard “for discrimination involving shared ancestry,” an umbrella term that encompasses both antisemitism and Islamophobia. To date, Harvard is one of some 20 colleges and universities that the federal government has been investigating since the October attacks. A handful of other school districts across the county are also being investigated.

December 5: As tensions on campus simmered, Gay and the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were called to testify before Congress about disciplinary actions taken in the face of antisemitism and faculty hiring practices.

Gay, along with Penn’s Liz Magill and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth, failed to explicitly say that calling for the genocide of Jews would necessarily violate campus harassment and bullying codes. Instead, they said it would depend on the circumstances and conduct.

December 6: While her Capitol Hill testimony invigorated calls for her resignation, Gay clarified her stance in a statement on X, writing: “There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students. Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

December 7: Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Divinity School, announced his resignation from the university’s Antisemitism Advisory Group.

In his statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, Wolpe said that “both events on campus and the painfully inadequate testimony reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped,” but added that he believes Gay is “both a kind and thoughtful person.”

December 8: A bipartisan group of 72 lawmakers sent a letter to the governing boards of Harvard, Penn, and MIT urging them to remove their university leaders.

In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Gay apologized for her testimony. “I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” Gay told the student newspaper. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”

December 9: All eyes turned to Harvard, as Magill and Penn’s board chair Scott Bok announced their resignations.

December 11: Calls for Gay to step down were largely tempered by a surge of institutional support. In a letter to school officials, the Executive Committee of the Harvard Alumni Association declared it “unanimously and unequivocally supports” Gay.

Hundreds of Harvard faculty members signed a petition urging school officials to resist calls for Gay’s removal, while hundreds of Black alumni also signed a petition expressing their support.

The Harvard Corporation, the school’s highest governing body, convened for a meeting that evening.

December 12: The Harvard Corporation affirmed its unanimous support of Gay. The Harvard Crimson was first to report the news.

While Gay seemed to have escaped the hot seat, she has also been beset by allegations of plagiarism. In its statement, the Harvard Corporation said it had ordered an independent review of Gay’s writings, which revealed inadequate citations in a few instances but “no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.” The board said Gay will be requesting four corrections to amend those inadequacies.

Gay has stood by her scholarship. “Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards,” she said in a statement responding to the plagiarism allegations.

December 15: In an emailed statement, Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Swain confirmed Gay made corrections to two scholarly articles published in 2001 and 2017. The edits involved “quotations marks and citations,” correcting a reference to three articles.

CNN’s Matt Egan contributed to this reporting.

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