A Trump Victory in November Could Impact Harvard’s Presidential Search. Here’s How.


{shortcode-429a20a43b31c14ee603587b9f7215faac9b0e1d}ormer U.S. President Donald J. Trump was eating dinner in late December at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, when he and his guests began to praise Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) and her grilling of former Harvard President Claudine Gay during the now-infamous Dec. 5 congressional hearing.

“She’s a killer,” Trump said.

Trump’s praise for Stefanik at the private dinner, which was first reported by NBC News, came during a conversation about potential running mates ahead of the 2024 election. It also served as a warning sign that a second Trump administration could be even more hostile to institutions of higher education.

A spokesperson for Trump’s reelection campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.


Stefanik’s questioning of Gay during the House Committee of Education and the Workforce’s hearing about antisemitism on college campuses ultimately led to her resignation less than one month later and plunged Harvard into its worst leadership crisis in decades.

As the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — embarks on a search for its 31st president, higher education experts and Harvard insiders said that the outcome of the U.S. presidential election will likely influence who is selected to lead the nation’s oldest academic institution.

Neil L. Rudenstine, who served as president of Harvard from 1991 to 2001, said that the congressional investigation launched by House Republicans represents a “very serious threat to not just Harvard, but to many institutions.”

“And if the former President Trump were reelected, that would only make that more serious,” Rudenstine added.

‘Someone Who Can Defend the Fundamentals’

Drew Gilpin Faust was in her ninth year as Harvard’s 28th president, when her job description changed almost overnight.

The president of Harvard is often considered to be higher education’s chief spokesperson, but Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory compelled Faust to also become its defender-in-chief.

Faust suddenly increased her lobbying trips to Washington and crisscrossed the country to rally opposition to a Republican bill in Congress to implement a 1.4 percent excise tax on the endowments of the nation’s wealthiest universities. But the changed political landscape for higher education also appeared to take its toll, and Faust announced in June 2017 that she would step down as president at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year.

Now, Harvard’s governing boards must determine who will throw their hat in the ring to succeed Gay after her resignation demonstrated that the University’s next president will continue to face attacks from Washington regardless of which political party controls the White House next year.

The prospect of a Trump presidency could further dwindle the limited pool of candidates who could succeed Gay and would raise the stakes for the governing boards to pick the right leader for Harvard.


Rudenstine said that having a next president who is committed to defending the research mission of the University is especially important in the face of threats from political actors.

“You have got to have someone who can defend the fundamentals of what the institution contributes to — not only this society, but the societies around the world,” he said.

Government professor Steven Levitsky speculated that the Corporation will submit to the politics of the current moment and select a “moderate to conservative white male, and — quite frankly, probably — Jewish president” to lead the University after it faced accusations of failing to combat antisemitism on campus.

Even as the next U.S. presidential administration will have an outsized impact on the tenure of the University’s next president, Harvard Kennedy School professor David R. Gergen — who served as a White House adviser to three Republican presidents — said that it would be a mistake to consider politics too much during the current presidential search.

“I don’t think Harvard ought to make decisions about who will be the next president based upon a relationship with Donald Trump,” Gergen said.

“The people on the Corporation, the people in the search areas at Harvard — they know one hell of a lot more than Donald Trump will ever know about higher education,” he added.

‘If Trump Wins’

Still, the possibility of Trump returning to the White House almost certainly keeps senior Harvard administrators up at night.

Stefanik has demonstrated to Trump and other leaders in the Republican Party that they can win support from their core conservative base by taking aim at elite colleges and universities.

Team Elise, Stefanik’s political operation, announced she raised more than $7.1 million in the first quarter of 2024, with a significant number of donations coming in response to her tough questioning of Gay and the other university presidents over their response to campus antisemitism — the same grilling that earned her praise from Trump.

“Notably, Congresswoman Stefanik raised not only from traditional Republican donors, but also from Democrat donors who feel the Democrat Party has failed to combat and condemn antisemitism,” said Alex DeGrasse, the executive director for Team Elise.

“She will continue to address the unacceptable rise of antisemitism at Harvard in addition to other higher ed institutions,” DeGrasse added.

Trump, himself, took direct aim at Harvard over its response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel last November in a post on Truth Social, Trump’s social media app.

“In recent weeks, Americans have been horrified to see students and faculty at Harvard and other once-respected universities expressing support for the savages and jihadists who attacked Israel,” Trump wrote.

Trump’s comments offer a window into how he might approach higher education — and Harvard, in particular — if he wins election in November.

In a video post on Truth Social, Trump said he wants to further tax “excessively large private university endowments” to establish a national university called the “American Academy.”


Higher education expert Thomas D. Parker said Trump’s proposal indicates that he does not just want to tax Harvard’s endowment, but use it to establish alternative institutions of higher education to promote right-wing policy agendas.

“It would be like a Liberty University, except nationally funded and supported,” Parker said.

Levitsky said he expects political attacks on higher education to intensify if Trump wins in 2024.

“We are being targeted by a couple of congressional investigations, and we will come under further assault if Trump wins the White House,” Levitsky said, comparing the current political assault on Harvard to how authoritarian governments attack institutions of higher education.

“As we see elsewhere — from Turkey, to Hungary, to other authoritarian regimes — universities are independent centers of power that, particularly, right-wing populist forces tend to target,” Levitsky added.

When House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) threatened Harvard with losing federal funding, Rudenstine said he was reminded of an effort to strip universities of federal funding by former President Ronald Reagan.

“After the Vietnam War protests of the late ’60s into the early ’70s, they tried to cut the federal budget for all kinds of grants and research initiatives, and so on,” Rudenstine said. “Fortunately, the Congress held out, and the cuts did not go through in spite of President Reagan’s efforts.”

“We’ve seen this before, and I think we’re very likely to see it again if Trump is elected,” Rudenstine added.

How Harvard Should Respond to External Threats

Efforts are currently underway at Harvard to protect the University from repeating the mistakes of last fall.

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 announced the formation of an “Institutional Voice Working Group” to explore when Harvard should speak out about public issues or if it should do so at all. The University has also engaged former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates to represent Harvard in the ongoing congressional investigation into campus antisemitism.

But while these efforts indicate the University is prepared to defend itself more forcefully from external attacks, Levitsky said the next president’s biggest challenge will be strengthening Harvard internally.

“It’s very important that institutions like Harvard not be bullied by outside forces — not by donors, not by powerful alums, not by people with big Twitter accounts, not by former presidents, and certainly not by right-wing politicians,” Levitsky added.


Regardless of what happens in the presidential election, Gergen said he is confident the University will persevere.

“Harvard is going to survive Trump,” Gergen added. “But it may well be damaged and it may be more difficult to run the institution and let things settle.”

“This is a University with 300 years behind it,” he added. “It’s not going to walk away easily.”

While Rudenstine said Harvard remains “fundamentally strong” despite the events of the last six months, he believes that the next president must defend free inquiry by reframing the role of universities through public statements and engagement with the press.

The next president must also be “very strong in defending freedom of inquiry, freedom of speech, and also the research budgets of NIH, NSF, and other sources,” he said.

Fundamentally, Levitsky said the University must protect itself and all of higher education from political attacks out of a responsibility to democracy at large.

“Harvard’s got to grow a pair and stand up for university independence,” he said.

—Staff writer Aisling A. McLaughlin can be reached on X at @aislingamcl and at

—Staff writer Madeline E. Proctor can be reached at