Harvard Corporation Discusses Gay’s Testimony, Donor Revolt in FAS Town Hall


Updated May, 2, 2024, at 2:55 p.m.

{shortcode-69a9ed06c887cb075e6988b5c6d61980cc21c96c}embers of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing board, offered their most candid reflections yet on the school’s fall semester of controversy during a Tuesday town hall with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to their most extensive commentary to date on last semester’s missteps, Harvard’s top decision-makers also issued their first responses to growing calls for change. They appeared resistant to proposals for endowment disclosure and skeptical about a faculty senate.

In a striking admission of responsibility, former Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman — who joined the Corporation in 2016 — acknowledged that the board should have done more to support former Harvard President Claudine Gay ahead of her December congressional testimony.


During the hearing, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) slammed Gay over her administration’s handling of antisemitism on campus and asked whether calls for the genocide of Jews violated Harvard’s policies. Gay’s legalistic answers went viral and faced widespread condemnation.

“We prepared her for a deposition, we did not prepare her for a political event,” Tilghman said, per a transcript taken by an attendee. “We understand that we did not serve her well in her preparation for the testimony.”

The Corporation had previously criticized Gay’s testimony in a December statement, but did not take any responsibility for Gay’s performance.

During the meeting, held at the Graduate School of Education’s Longfellow Hall, Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 also appeared to acknowledge a recent series of anonymous plagiarism complaints filed against Black women at the University.

“We are also well aware of the pattern of attacks that have been leveled against women of color, leaders of colors, different individuals in leadership positions,” Pritzker said, according to the attendee’s notes. “That is not lost on us.”

Details of the meeting’s contents were relayed to The Crimson by four faculty members who attended. They spoke on the condition of anonymity as attendees were asked to keep the discussion confidential. Direct quotations come from a meeting transcript taken by an attendee and shared with The Crimson.

A Rare Face-to-Face

The town hall — a rare chance for faculty to meet with the University’s top brass — comes amid a crisis of legitimacy for Harvard’s governing boards. For years, many faculty — including former deans and big-name professors — have criticized the boards’ actions and lack of transparency.

After Oct. 7, those criticisms only grew louder. Over the last few months, faculty members have largely watched from the sidelines as the University endured controversy after controversy.


Tuesday’s meeting evoked a range of reactions among faculty members. Many were pleased that after years of governing from afar, the Corporation had heard their concerns and finally decided to meet with them.

“I thanked them for engaging with us,” Astronomy professor Abraham “Avi” Loeb said, calling it nice — after 30 years at the institution — to finally meet with “the people in charge.” He said the meeting felt “collegial” and like a step in the right direction.

Others felt their low expectations for the meeting — that they would receive mostly non-answers — were met. And a few voiced strong displeasure, saying they felt patronized by the panelists’ replies.

Professor Alison Frank Johnson, who chairs the department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, said “the meeting was an insult to [the faculty’s] collective and individual intelligence.”

A University spokesperson declined to comment on criticisms of the town hall.

At least five Corporation members — of the 12-member body — attended the meeting. Tilghman, Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81, and Kenneth C. Frazier sat on a panel with interim President Alan M. Garber ’76, while Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin and Paul J. Finnegan ’75 discreetly sat in the audience. FAS Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra moderated.

“We appreciated the opportunity to engage with faculty and have a thoughtful and substantive discussion on a wide range of topics,” Pritzker wrote in a statement after the event.

Disclosure and Divestment, Dismissed

The panel fielded a series of three faculty questions about disclosing Harvard’s investments.

One question framed the disclosure debate as a matter of open inquiry: If the University believes in transparency and debate, then why should its investment approach rely on secrecy?

In response, Garber said many of the University’s investments are made through outside managers whose contracts do not allow the Harvard Management Company, which oversees Harvard’s endowment, to reveal what exactly they are invested in.

Another attendee pressed further, asking why Harvard cannot sign contracts whose terms allow greater transparency. In response, Garber said the University’s current fund managers expect the highest returns.

Some attendees felt the panelists’ response did not engage with the underlying question: where to draw the line between fiduciary responsibilities and the University’s principles.

A third question asked whether panelists saw downsides to divesting from weapons manufacturers. Garber answered by saying there was not widespread agreement on campus about whether Harvard ought to divest from the defense industry.

Garber contrasted the current debate with Harvard’s decision to allow its fossil fuel investments to expire, a decision that he said was made as a consensus emerged on campus that the time was right to divest from fossil fuels.


And the panel’s responses to the most urgent confrontation facing the University right now — the pro-Palestine student protesters lodging demands from their encampment in Harvard Yard — did not spark controversy at the town hall.

Asked how Harvard planned to handle the encampment, Garber reiterated his prior statements to The Crimson, affirming students’ right to protest but stating that right must be balanced against the need to prevent disruptions and enforce University policy.

That reply, several faculty said, was largely accepted.

‘Complete Confidence’ in Garber

After Gay’s resignation, Harvard faces a search for her permanent successor — although the Corporation, whose members oversee the presidential search process, have indicated they are in no rush.

In her opening remarks, Pritzker praised Garber in glowing terms, saying his interim leadership helped bring stability to a campus rocked by the events of this winter.

“He has our complete confidence and he has the mandate from the Corporation to lead the University in all respects,” she said, according to the obtained notes.

But the panelists did not say whether they intended to make his presidency permanent.

Pritzker told attendees that the Corporation established a subcommittee to review and issue recommendations on the presidential search process before the new search is launched.

The search process itself has drawn criticism. After Gay — who was selected after a relatively swift presidential search — stepped down following the briefest presidential tenure in Harvard’s history, affiliates and observers questioned whether the search committee should have reviewed her scholarship more closely.


Meanwhile, faculty have complained that the search process is shrouded in secrecy, leaving most faculty without candidate names or a timeline as searches proceed.

With the search process review, the Corporation appears poised to address these criticisms.

Dealing with Donor Pressure

After several major donors publicly severed ties with the University over campus antisemitism, faculty questioned the level of influence Harvard’s benefactors hold over the institution.

And, over the winter, billionaire hedge fund managers William A. Ackman ’88 and Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 separately held calls with Pritzker — which, some faculty said, raised concerns about how much access top donors had to Harvard leadership.

In response, Garber discussed Harvard’s gift policy, which prohibits the University from taking gifts with certain conditions. The Corporation, he pointed out, has a gift policy subcommittee that reviews the terms of donations.

Garber noted that Harvard has previously turned down large gifts because prospective donors imposed unacceptable conditions, though they did not offer further details about these rejected gifts.

Pritzker also said she does not serve on the Corporation’s facilities committee because she has made major donations to support facilities construction, including renovations of the Science Center and the upcoming construction of a new Economics department building.

But, several attendees said they felt the panelists did not address the perception that major donors have used their wealth to exert influence over University policy — or explain how Harvard might push back.

Garber told attendees he thought it would be “counterproductive” to cave to the desires of unhappy donors.

“Let me just say that the approach I am taking is not to accede to demands or wishes in order to placate donors,” he said, according to the set of notes. He also said he thought an endowment tax would represent a greater threat than donor pressure to Harvard’s finances.

Nonetheless, while praising Garber’s fundraising efforts, Tilghman acknowledged the backlash Harvard has faced from parts of its donor base.

“He has been on the road and on the phone speaking to very angry donors and beginning to lower the temperature,” she said, per the meeting notes.

Pritzker described the situation in urgent terms.

“We are acutely aware of the fundraising challenges we are facing at this time,” she said per the notes, adding that Harvard’s fundraising experts are engaged in scenario planning. “We are not sitting around just hoping things are going to be OK.”

A More Transparent Corporation?

Attendees also pressed the Corporation on its own secrecy.

Corporation members on the panel acknowledged the widespread perception that the board lacks transparency and said they were making an effort to improve communication with faculty.


“We have heard loud and clear your desire to have more interaction with us,” Tilghman told the audience, according to the set of notes. She added that she speaks weekly with Hoekstra but that those conversations alone are not enough.

That admission comes after years of complaints. On The Crimson’s annual survey of FAS faculty, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they wanted more transparency from the Corporation.

Tilghman said the Corporation hopes to continue speaking with faculty through both formal and informal meetings and dinners. In a Monday statement, University spokesperson Jason A. Newton said the Corporation’s “engagement efforts will continue and increase in the time ahead.”

Several attendees said Tilghman’s remark called to mind a private December dinner between two Corporation members — Finnegan and Tracy P. Palandjian ’93 — and four Harvard faculty members at Bar Enza, a swanky Cambridge restaurant. The widely-reported dinner came as the Corporation navigated the last stormy weeks of Gay’s presidency, although The Crimson reported they did not discuss her removal.

Some faculty said they were concerned that such informal meetings did not represent a structured approach to communication with faculty. Instead, they said, they reflected an environment where the Corporation consults with an inner circle of friends — while the vast majority of faculty lack that kind of access.

Faculty Senate

The sense that Harvard’s central administration was making pivotal decisions, with faculty left in the dark, spurred some professors to action this spring.

In April, an informal working group began circulating a proposal to create a faculty senate, emailing a memorandum to top administrators and hundreds of faculty.

As Harvard currently has no effective mechanism for University-wide faculty governance, the proposal’s advocates say a faculty senate could open clearer lines of communication between the central administration and the full faculty. A senate could introduce new checks on the power of Massachusetts Hall and the governing boards.

Near the end of the town hall, the panel of Corporation members took a question on the potential creation of a faculty senate.

Garber invited interim Provost John F. Manning ’82 to the front of the room, where Manning detailed several possible objections to the enactment of a University-wide faculty governing body.


Manning, who served as Harvard Law School dean until he was appointed provost in March, suggested that FAS faculty should consider whether they want non-FAS faculty to have a voice in decisions that affect the FAS.

He also questioned whether the University Statutes, a set of governing documents, grant Harvard’s faculty the authority to delegate the power allotted to them under the Fourth Statute to a representative body, instead of exercising it directly.

Manning’s answers signaled that the effort to establish a faculty senate will likely face skepticism from the Corporation and Massachusetts Hall.

Attendees were also reminded that, at present, no formal proposal for a faculty senate has been submitted — only one to form a planning body.

As faculty streamed out the front doors of Longfellow Hall, the Corporation’s representatives departed through the back. They offered a positive assessment of the town hall.

“It was excellent, thank you,” Pritzker said as she descended the building’s granite steps. Martin said the conversation was productive, Garber described it as “good,” and the three other Corporation fellows — Finnegan, Tilghman, and Frazier — all declined to comment.

Then, without further formalities, the five Corporation members, Garber, and Manning were whisked away in three Ford SUVs, leaving behind a quiet Radcliffe Yard and — according to some attendees — a host of half-answered questions.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on X @neilhshah15.