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Harvard under heightened pressure after Penn leadership ousted

Janet Lorin and Amanda Gordon, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

“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.

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 coordinated 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.


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