88 Days: The Unraveling of Claudine Gay’s Harvard Presidency


{shortcode-8c0dd475ea3269f67b1a4d37d27db5cc232a1fc2}hile Claudine Gay visited Rome for Christmas, controversy burned at Harvard over allegations of plagiarism in the embattled president’s academic work.

Gay escaped to Italy over the holiday week for a brief vacation with her husband and son, before she hoped to reset her presidency after a disastrous first semester in office.

But her time as Harvard’s 30th president was over before she even got back to Cambridge.

On Dec. 27, Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 called for a conversation that made clear Gay had lost the board’s confidence to lead the University. Gay told Pritzker she would resign, according to a person with knowledge of her decision.


Pritzker’s phone call came after days of conversations among the Corporation’s 11 members, including multiple phone calls between board members and Gay, as they questioned whether Gay could stay in her job.

Six days later, at 1:18 p.m. on Jan. 2, Gay made it official in a University-wide email, capitulating to a cascade of criticism that began in the days after her administration’s awkward silence after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, escalated following her disastrous congressional testimony about antisemitism at Harvard, and ultimately came to a calamitous crescendo during the holidays over allegations of plagiarism in her academic work.

Gay’s resignation, which she said was “in the best interests of Harvard,” marked a stunning turnabout from just 21 days earlier, when the Harvard Corporation reiterated its unanimous support for Gay and said she was “the right leader to help our community heal” during the University’s most tumultuous period in decades.


In her resignation letter, Gay did not describe a specific conversation or incident that led her to step down, nor did she offer much insight into her personal deliberations.

The next day, Gay published an 870-word op-ed in the New York Times in which she offered her most pointed mea culpa yet, but also portrayed herself as the victim of a larger assault on Harvard and American higher education by conservative forces, including activist Christopher F. Rufo, billionaire hedge fund manager William A. Ackman ’88, and Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking House Republican.

As Harvard’s first Black president, she also described vicious racism, saying that she faced death threats and had been called “the N-word more times than I care to count.”

This account of how Claudine Gay became the shortest serving president in Harvard’s 388-year history — with a tenure of just 185 days — is based on interviews with Harvard officials, people close to the governing boards, individuals with knowledge of Gay’s decision-making in the days prior to her resignation, and a close review of the former president’s public statements — including her testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Beginning of the End

The unraveling of Gay’s presidency started on Oct. 7 — just eight days after her inauguration — when Hamas attackers killed roughly 1,200 people in Israel.

It was not any action, but rather inaction — a failure by a novice university president to recognize the need to speak up and address events largely unfolding far beyond Cambridge — which sparked the start of a national controversy that plunged Harvard into its worst leadership crisis in more than half a century.

That Saturday, hours after the start of the Hamas attack, the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee released a statement signed by more than 30 student groups holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

The PSC statement immediately went viral and drew fierce criticism from Harvard affiliates on campus as well as national lawmakers.

But as hours passed with silence from the University, critics of the PSC statement redirected their ire at Gay and her administration. A petition slamming Harvard for not publicly condemning the statement began to amass signatures by the hundreds.

On Monday, Oct. 9, shortly before 1 p.m., former University President Lawrence H. Summers fired off a seven-post thread on X.


“Harvard is being defined by the morally unconscionable statement apparently coming from two dozen student groups blaming all the violence on Israel,” Summers wrote in a devastating public rebuke of Gay, which violated a tacit understanding among former Harvard presidents not to publicly criticize the incumbent.

“I am sickened,” Summers added. “I cannot fathom the Administration’s failure to disassociate the University and condemn this statement.”

When the University finally broke its silence Monday night, about 48 hours after publication of the PSC statement, it only made things worse.

Harvard’s initial statement on the Israel-Hamas war, signed by Gay and 17 other top administrators, did not address the controversial student statement or directly condemn Hamas. The backlash, initially aimed largely at the student statement, now focused squarely on Gay.

As the criticism intensified overnight, Gay tried again. The next morning, Oct. 10, she directly condemned Hamas and distanced the University from the PSC statement.

But the administration’s botched first statement kept Harvard in national headlines. And, on an increasingly divided campus, things started to spiral.

On Oct. 11, a truck with a digital billboard appeared in Cambridge and began to circle Harvard’s campus flashing the names and faces of students who were allegedly associated with the groups that signed on the original PSC statement. Many of those students were also doxxed online and received death threats.


Meanwhile, some of Harvard’s top donors were livid at Gay over her initial lack of response to the attack.

By Oct. 16, two prominent donors — the Wexner Foundation and Israeli billionaires Idan and Batia Ofer — had publicly ended their relationships with the University.

Financial pressure continued through November. A few public statements from prominent donors gave way to a growing donor exodus behind the scenes, as some alumni privately suspended their philanthropic relationships with Harvard.

Internally, Harvard’s gift officers privately worried that certain longtime donors would stop giving because of the controversy.

On Nov. 28, as the pressure intensified in Cambridge, Gay accepted an invitation to testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce at a hearing about antisemitism on college campuses.

The Hearing

Gay arrived at the Capitol on Dec. 5 prepared to clash with some of her biggest critics in Congress as she sought to tell the nation what Harvard was doing to combat antisemitism on its campus.

Her testimony hardly could have gone worse.

Gay, along with University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill and MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth, faced nearly six hours of questioning. Gay’s testimony was widely criticized as too legalistic, but the hearing will be remembered for a three-minute, thirty-second exchange between the university presidents and Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.).

Stefanik asked each president if calling for the genocide of Jewish students would violate university policies, and each president, in turn, said the answer depended on context.

“This is why you should resign,” Stefanik responded, looking directly at Gay.


Condemnation of the made-for-television moment echoed from the White House to Harvard Yard, including from some of Harvard’s most liberal professors, Democratic alumni in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, and Jewish affiliates on campus.

Gay, they said, failed to articulate a moral principle which should have been obvious.

“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.

Laurence H. Tribe ’62, a prominent liberal legal scholar and professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, publicly criticized Gay.

“I’m no fan of @RepStefanik but I’m with her here,” Tribe wrote, posting on X. “Claudine Gay’s hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends.”

While Harvard had amassed a large external team of crisis communications advisers to help the University communicate about Israel-Palestine through October and November, the PR experts were sidelined ahead of the hearing by lawyers who led Gay’s preparation.

Instead, former Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 and a team of other WilmerHale lawyers prepared Gay for the questions she might face. They created a binder of recommended answers and led multiple mock prep sessions.

The lawyers’ influence showed as Gay’s exchange with Stefanik went viral. The PR firms shut out of the prep work were left to do damage control in the aftermath.

The Corporation’s Week of Silence

Almost immediately, Gay began scrambling to contain the fallout from her testimony. Pritzker and the Harvard Corporation tried to stay out of the fray.

On Dec. 6, less than 24 hours after the hearing ended, the University released a statement on social media to clarify Gay’s response, but that did little to stop calls for Gay’s resignation from growing louder.

The following day, Gay apologized for her testimony in an interview with The Crimson, a rare direct concession of wrongdoing from a president.

“I am sorry,” Gay said. “Words matter.”

Once again, the effort to stem the damage failed.

Rabbi David J. Wolpe resigned from an antisemitism advisory committee Gay had established and touted as a prominent part of her administration’s response to campus tensions. In Congress, House Republicans announced the launch of an investigation into antisemitism on Harvard’s campus.

That same day, MIT’s governing board issued a statement of unequivocal support for Kornbluth. She is now the only president who testified still in her job.

The Harvard Corporation said nothing.

On Dec 8, more than 70 members of Congress signed a letter demanding Gay’s resignation. The Harvard Corporation said nothing.

On Dec. 9, Magill, the UPenn president, resigned under pressure from her board and the school’s wealthiest donors. The Harvard Corporation said nothing.

On Dec. 10, Rufo — the conservative activist — and journalist Christopher Brunet accused Gay of plagiarizing parts of her dissertation. The Harvard Corporation met on campus for a regularly scheduled meeting but said nothing.

On Dec. 11, with anxiety running high after Magill’s resignation and amid the Corporation’s silence, more than 700 faculty members signed a letter urging against Gay’s removal. The Harvard Corporation still said nothing.

On Dec. 12, after a week of silent secrecy, the Corporation finally spoke, declaring its unanimous support for Gay in a statement that critiqued her initial statement about the Israel-Hamas war, denounced her congressional testimony, and acknowledged concerns about the plagiarism allegations against her — allegations of which the board had been aware of since late October.


While the Corporation’s unanimity was not surprising — the board makes decisions by consensus and does not hold formal votes — its statements are not usually qualified by their level of support among the group. The unusual decision to specify it was acting “unanimously” likely reflected a desire to end speculation about any internal division.

“Like many companies, discussion proceeds until a consensus is reached, and then that consensus becomes unanimous,” a person with direct knowledge of the Corporation’s deliberation process said.

But the Corporation’s statement, which the board said it made after “extensive deliberations,” did not put an end to calls for Gay’s resignation or reassure affiliates about Gay’s long-term future at the helm of the University.

While the Corporation knew about some allegations of plagiarism since late October, the claims became general public knowledge just two days before the board expressed its support for Gay.

The Corporation’s statement also made no mention of allegations of plagiarism in Gay’s dissertation, which were not reviewed by the board’s initial independent investigation.

While students were holed up in libraries studying for final exams, Gay’s future at Harvard remained in serious jeopardy. Still, it appeared she would get a chance to reset in the spring.

Gay’s Last Days

As campus emptied for winter break, new plagiarism allegations continued to emerge, seeming to put Gay’s presidency on life support.

On Dec. 20, the Harvard Corporation released a detailed summary of an independent review it conducted into Gay’s academic work and announced she would submit three corrections to her 1997 Ph.D. dissertation.

That same day, Congress widened its investigation into antisemitism at Harvard to also include the plagiarism allegations. The Committee requested a mountain of documents and extensive communications in its letter that, if made public, could keep Gay and the Corporation at the center of a protracted saga for weeks, if not months.


Two days later, on Dec. 22, reports emerged that Len Blavatnik, a Harvard megadonor, decided to cease donations to the University. He had given at least $270 million to Harvard, including a $200 million gift to Harvard Medical School – the largest donation in HMS history.

That same day, Gay left with her family for Rome.

As Gay arrived in Italy, the Corporation’s members started to discuss if there was a path forward for the 30th president, according to a person close to the board. Gay was also in frequent communication with Pritzker and other Corporation members.

One of the final blows came on Christmas Eve, when the Times published an article detailing a meeting between two members of the Corporation — Paul J. Finnegan ’75 and Tracy P. Palandjian ’93 — and faculty members of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. The article included a now-disputed assertion that during the dinner the Corporation members discussed dismissing Gay.

The dinner at Bar Enza in the Charles Hotel, between Finnegan, Palandjian and some of Gay’s most prominent critics on the Harvard faculty, spun into a major flashpoint.

While professors in attendance later said neither they nor Finnegan or Palandjian discussed firing Gay, media coverage of the dinner pushed the board further under a microscope and was viewed by some affiliates as evidence of waning support for Gay within the Corporation.

Meanwhile, the plagiarism charges kept Gay and Harvard in the headlines over Christmas. The situation was becoming untenable for everyone.

On Dec. 27, Pritkzer called Gay again.

A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment on whether Gay was ever directly asked to step down, but after nearly three months of nonstop controversy, such candor was unnecessary.

Gay told Pritzker she would resign.

The Resignation

On Jan. 2, the shortest presidency in University history came to an end with back-to-back University-wide emails from Gay and the Corporation.

The coordinated messages, released exactly three weeks after the Corporation’s statement in support of Gay’s presidency, sought to paint Gay and the Fellows — as Corporation members are formally known — as a cohesive group that came to a mutual consensus.

“After consultation with members of the Corporation, it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign,” Gay wrote.

The Corporation’s statement also described Gay’s resignation as the right step for Harvard as the University seeks to move forward.

“In the face of escalating controversy and conflict, President Gay and the Fellows have sought to be guided by the best interests of the institution whose future progress and well-being we are together committed to uphold,” the Corporation wrote.

The Fellows’ statement also stressed that Gay had decided to step down, and that they had “accepted her resignation.”

“We do so with sorrow,” they added.


The Corporation hoped the resignation and the appointment of longtime Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 as interim president would portray the board and the University as united, if not entirely unscathed.

But in an article published days after Gay’s resignation, the Times reported that two Corporation members — Harvard Treasurer Timothy R. Barakett ’87 and his predecessor, Finnegan — were among the first members of the board to call for Gay to step down. An article in the Wall Street Journal last week added Palandjian to that list.

The University, however, quickly disputed reports of divisions within the Corporation.

“Contrary to inaccurate media reports, there were no ‘camps’ among the Fellows during their deliberations in recent weeks,” Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in a statement to The Crimson.

“The way in which Tim Barakett, Paul Finnegan and Tracy Palandjian have been misrepresented and mischaracterized is deeply concerning to the Fellows,” he added.

A spokesperson for the New York Times wrote that the paper is “confident in the accuracy of our reporting and stand by our story.” The Wall Street Journal did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, most members of the Board of Overseers — Harvard’s second highest governing body — were left in the dark about all of the deliberations.

Some members said they understood the need for secrecy, especially as conflicting reports about conversations with Corporation members were surfacing, while others expressed frustration at the Corporation’s lack of transparency and about learning of Gay’s resignation from media reports.

“Most of us were first getting our information from The Crimson,” one Overseer said.

And things might still get worse for the governing boards before they get better.

Several outside candidates are running for election to the Board of Overseers on anti-establishment platforms. Pritzker and the Corporation must now embark upon a difficult presidential search, seeking to fill a position that, despite the prestige, has recently become a lot less appealing.

Garber, as Harvard’s interim president, will have to work overtime to woo back donors who suspended or ended their philanthropic relationships with Harvard out of frustration with an entire University — not a single leader.


He will also face formidable challenges on campus where protests and actions are not expected to dissipate anytime soon and tensions remain high.

“We have been through an extraordinarily painful and disorienting time for Harvard,” Garber wrote in his first University-wide email as interim president.

“Our task is difficult yet essential, and we have much work ahead of us,” he added. “Although I regret the circumstances that have me writing to you as your interim president, please know that I will serve with a dedication to the Harvard I know and cherish.”

It is unclear if the student body, which was largely ambivalent about Gay’s troubles, will grow more animated about the search for her replacement.

But for now, Harvard must prepare for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 22.

Students are headed back to the classroom — and so is professor Claudine Gay.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.