How Harvard’s Board of Trustees Broke With Claudine Gay

Claudine Gay was in Rome for a family vacation on Dec. 27 when Penny Pritzker, the chair of Harvard University’s board of trustees, called to ask: Did she think there was a way forward with her in as president of the school?

Ms. Pritzker looked tired and it was asked as an open-ended question, two people with knowledge of the conversation said. But Dr. Gay understood what that meant. His six-month term as head of Harvard was over. On January 2, she announced her resignation.

It marked the end of one of the most tumultuous periods in Harvard’s 387-year history, a controversy that propelled the school into public debate following Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 and the invasion subsequent detention of Gaza by Israel. Not only did the university president lose his job, but the secret workings of his board of trustees, the Harvard Corporation, were exposed.

For weeks, the board had stood by its embattled president as she faced harsh criticism over her rapid response to anti-Semitism on campus, her disastrous testimony before a House panel and the growing allegations of plagiarism in his academic work. Ms. Pritzker, who had led the selection of Dr. Gay as the school’s first black president, was a particularly ardent supporter.

On December 12, the company issue a statement in support of Dr. Gay, citing “our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and resolve the very serious societal issues we face.”

But within two weeks, the once-strong support had begun to dissolve, according to interviews with a dozen people familiar with the discussions, including those who had spoken directly with Dr. Gay, Ms. Pritzker and other members of the board of directors or had been informed of their situation. thought and actions. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the deliberations. As board members headed to ski resorts and beaches for vacation, they had a dramatic change of heart toward their president.

A handful of the 12 board members, including Dr. Gay, came from great American fortunes built on renowned brands. Others were self-made financiers, philanthropists, or retired academics. All but one attended Harvard. Accustomed to some success, they had hoped that their December 12 declaration would mark a new beginning and show their commitment to righting the ship.

The society told Dr. Gay that its members wanted to actively help heal the campus, which had been rocked by protests that disrupted classes and left Jewish students in danger.

Along with the public statement of support they offered on Dec. 12, board members privately asked Dr. Gay for help in developing a plan to turn the situation around, said two people with knowledge of the discussions. discussions. Over the next week, Dr. Gay and his team created a plan they called a “spring reset,” one of the people said. In the new year, she would appear all over campus, hold office hours, and express empathy. Working groups would be created to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

But before Dr. Gay could send additional details to the board, more problems arose. On December 19, new allegations of more than 40 instances of plagiarism in Dr. Gay’s academic works emerged, first reported in conservative media. When she sent her latest plan to the board the next day, some members told her they liked it, but to others it showed she didn’t understand the urgency of expanding the crisis, according to people familiar with board members’ thinking. .

Dr. Gay has remained true to the overall integrity of his work. Harvard said she did not commit “research misconduct,” although she offered to make minor changes to some of her previous writings following the allegations.

Cracks on the board’s support were beginning to appear. Timothy R. Barakett, Harvard’s treasurer and a relatively new member of the society, was particularly concerned. From the start, he didn’t think keeping Dr. Gay was tenable. He told fellow board members that Dr. Gay’s poor leadership and academic misconduct could disqualify her from the presidency, those who spoke to him said.

Mr. Barakett did not think Dr. Gay’s apology was fair and argued that she did not take full responsibility for her plagiarism, according to donors, professors and others who spoke with members of the board of directors.

At first, Mr. Barakett was an exception in the group. But his arguments slowly gained supporters on the board. One of them was Paul J. Finnegan, co-founder of Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm. In mid-December, he learned of a recent closed-door session at the Harvard Club in New York, in which Flynn Cratty, a prominent Harvard scholar, pointedly criticized Dr. Gay’s involvement and of the university in favor of academic freedom.

A week later, Mr. Finnegan and Tracy Palandjian, another board member, listened to Dr. Cratty and other professors express concerns about Harvard’s leadership at a dinner in Cambridge, Mass. .

Mr. Finnegan emerged from these events with shaken confidence in Dr. Gay, and he quickly joined Mr. Barakett’s camp, according to people briefed on these events.

From the start of the crisis, Dr. Gay was the target not only of criticism and bad press, but also of death threats, racist messages and phone calls. As December progressed, it became more and more intense. Dr. Gay had moved into the Harvard President’s official residence only a month earlier, after renovations. The phone kept ringing and when she picked it up, she heard racist slurs before the callers hung up. The police monitored the house 24 hours a day.

She was exhausted and scared. As the holidays approach, her husband and teenage son urge her to go on vacation to Rome, as planned for a long time. Desperate for a break, Dr. Gay and his family flew out on Friday, December 22.

Society members also dispersed to vacation homes and resorts around the world. Ms. Pritzker, a former commerce secretary and heiress to the Hyatt hotel fortune, spent time in Aspen, Colorado. Kenneth I. Chenault, former CEO of American Express, visited Miami. Mr. Barakett was also in Florida, while Karen Gordon Mills, a former head of the Small Business Administration and heiress to the Tootsie Roll fortune, was attending an economic conference in India.

Board members had received plenty of advice and criticism from others in their wealthy circles, Harvard alumni, and donors. But when they arrived at their vacation spot around Christmas, they were embraced by a new wave of friends and relatives. Some people told Ms. Pritzker that she might be forced to resign from the Harvard Corporation because she helped choose Dr. Gay and supported him.

More than one board member had children studying at Harvard. At least one of them worried that other students would harass him because of their parents’ roles on the board and bad press, according to two people who spoke with company members .

It was clear that the controversies were not going away. On Christmas Eve, William Ackman, a hedge fund manager and fierce opponent of Dr. Gay, posted on X that he had been asked to resign – which was not true at the time. He also revealed that she had hired outside lawyers – which was true. Newspaper articles about Dr. Gay and the board kept coming.

At this point, Dr. Gay was somewhat removed from the situation. She called Mr. Chenault from Rome around Christmas time, and he was friendly and supportive, said a person familiar with the conversation. She contacted Ms. Pritzker on Christmas Day.

By then, board action had shifted from formal meetings to a series of phone calls and email discussions among small groups of members, with Ms. Pritzker guiding many of the conversations.

The board had been crushed by new allegations of plagiarism, the noise of press reports, and the barrage of criticism and advice from influential strangers and relatives.

For weeks, board discussions had focused on finding a way to keep Dr. Gay and end the crisis on campus. But by Boxing Day, that had changed, people briefed on the events said. Board members agreed that they were grappling with a leadership crisis and that the best path forward for Harvard was without Dr. Gay as president. Everyone agreed it was time for Ms. Pritzker to call.

During that December 27 phone call, Dr. Gay announced that she would resign. Ms. Pritzker gave him the weekend to sort out his departure, three people with knowledge of the conversation said. In subsequent telephone calls, the two men began negotiating the terms of Dr. Gay’s departure, including what the Harvard Corporation and its statements should say and an agreement that she would remain on the Harvard faculty.

The rest of the details are left to the lawyers.