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Interim Harvard President Alan Garber Takes the Political Battle to Washington

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{shortcode-dd08abb0bb2b02bf4881baaa9fb305566107f8d4}he last time Alan M. Garber ’76 traveled to Washington as Harvard’s provost, he could only watch as former University President Claudine Gay faced a barrage of criticism from House Republicans over her efforts to combat campus antisemitism.

Garber returned to the nation’s capital on March 20, with a new mandate: to guide Harvard out of crisis and defend higher education from political attacks as the University’s interim president.

The visit marked the first of two trips to Washington by Garber during his first semester in office to meet with lawmakers and high-profile alumni in an effort to hear their concerns about campus antisemitism and strengthen the relationship between politicians and University leadership.

“The president of Harvard, even the interim president, does need to speak out about issues of general interest in higher ed,” Garber said in an April interview.

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“I believe that the attacks on Harvard for the most part are attacks on higher ed, particularly attacks on our peer institutions,” he added. “I think it's very important to defend the principles that our universities stand behind.”

Garber, however, declined to specify where those attacks were coming from.

But as the recipient of a congressional subpoena from a House committee led by Republicans who have once again coalesced around former U.S. President Donald Trump in a presidential election year, Garber had no need to be explicit.

‘Delicate Needle Threader’

Garber’s early tenure has been largely defined by the ongoing congressional investigation into Harvard, which has forced him to balance passionately defending higher education and avoiding provocations that the committee could use against him.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce subpoenaed the University’s top leadership, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle threatened to revoke federal funding and tax exemptions for Harvard, and the committee discovered that getting university presidents to testify was a particularly potent way to discredit institutions of higher education.

Garber must now convince Congress not to act on threats to make the University pay a greater financial and reputational price as it continues to navigate its most turbulent period in decades.

According to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton, Garber met with members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and House and Senate leaders from both parties during two separate trips to Washington. He also met with members of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.

The meetings were part of an extended tour of quiet diplomacy to reassure lawmakers that Garber and his administration were taking campus antisemitism seriously and on track to stabilize Harvard after its worst leadership crisis in decades.

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During an April trip to Washington, Garber also spoke at the local Harvard alumni club, where he addressed the current political scrutiny facing higher education in remarks to a crowd of 500 people.

Julia E. Cain ’11, who attended the event in Washington, said she believed Garber’s handling of the pro-Palestine encampment that occupied Harvard Yard for 20 days demonstrated that he was a “skillful, delicate needle threader.”

“It was warm and occasionally funny and I think he came off as a steady and thoughtful leader during a turbulent time,” she said.

Cain said Garber interpreted the scrutiny as part of a larger “discussion about the value of higher education in general.”

“Harvard is naturally a particular target,” Cain said. “When you think of rich or privileged elite colleges, Harvard is the one that people think of.”

While the committee has called several universities to testify for their responses to campus antisemitism amid ongoing protests and encampments, Garber is often seen as a spokesperson for all of higher education.

Still, Garber has also repeatedly said that he believed many members of Congress to be genuinely concerned about antisemitism on college campuses.

“Most of the people who I have heard from, including members of Congress that I have spoken with, really do care about antisemitism and expect us to do something about it,” Garber said in an April interview.

‘Saber Rattling’

For six months, the committee has been investigating Harvard’s response to antisemitism on campus, issuing threats to force the University to “get serious” about the issue. But the committee has not outlined any specific policies it wants Harvard to adopt and the investigation’s end date remains uncertain.

While multiple members of Congress have suggested Harvards’ federal funding and tax exempt status could be in jeopardy over campus antisemitism, calls to punish Harvard financially took on new meaning when the committee’s investigation into higher education expanded to include the entire House.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said multiple House committees have been explicitly instructed to investigate the universities’ federal funding at an April 30 press conference announcing the probe expansion. The Ways and Means Committee had already indicated it would review Harvard’s tax-exempt status for “failure to adequately protect Jewish students from discrimination and harassment.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who chairs the Committee on Education and the Workforce, declined to answer whether her committee plans to seriously consider proposing funding cuts.

Ways and Means Committee Chair Jason T. Smith (R-MO.) wrote in a March 21 letter to Garber that Harvard’s federal funding could be jeopardized if it does not “change course drastically” and address a “pervasive culture of antisemitism” on campus.

“Doing so is essential to justifying the generous tax-exempt status that the American people have provided institutions like yours for decades,” Smith added.

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Last year, Harvard received $676 million dollars in federal funding. And because Harvard and other private universities receive federal funding in the form of research grants and student loans, they are subject to federal regulations.

Kenneth K. Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University, called a 2017 bill which applied a 1.4 percent tax on large private university endowments a “defining moment” in the relationship between Congress and institutions of higher education.

Wong said Congress crossed the Rubicon with the endowment tax, which virtually ended its previous arrangement with universities that allowed them to operate without heavy interference from politicians.

“In the last few years, I think there seems to be some doubts being raised by some of the congressional leaders in terms of whether the universities have continued to live up to their promise in exchange for the tax exemption,” Wong said.

“Going forward, this tax exemption in exchange for Harvard’s contribution to the public good will continue to be part of the scrutiny,” he added.

Garber has repeatedly said in private meetings with alumni and faculty that an increase to the endowment tax is the one of the greatest risks to University finances.

“The threat that keeps me up at night is not what happens to philanthropy, it’s certain political configurations — things like an endowment tax,” he said at an April 30 faculty town hall, according to an attendee’s meeting notes.

“When we think about the election coming up, we are a favored target,” Garber added.

Harvard is also facing a new endowment tax bill from Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature, which would set a 2.5 percent tax on all assets under management from private universities with an endowment greater than $1 billion. While the bill is unlikely to become law, it shows that Republicans are not the only ones who are eager to tax Harvard’s endowment.

Harvard Chief Financial Officer Ritu Kalra said that the University spent a total of $930 million on research and financial aid in 2023.

“An increase in the endowment tax would divert those funds for other purposes, making college less affordable, not more,” Kalra said.

Despite growing support among House Republicans for stripping federal funding, former general counsel to the House of Representatives Stanley M. Brand wrote in a statement that such a bill would be “highly unlikely” to pass the Senate or be signed into law by Biden.

Brand wrote that proposals to revoke student financial aid could also run into legal challenges.

“It sounds to me like saber rattling that is designed to create leverage against Harvard and others,” Brand wrote.

‘Waiting to See’

While Harvard’s worst-case scenario of funding cuts is unlikely to materialize, the committee has proven itself capable of inflicting serious reputational harm to Harvard even without financial punishment.

The University has submitted more than 30,000 pages of documents to the committee in 17 different submissions, including providing the committee with governing board meeting minutes and email correspondence between top leadership and members of Gay’s antisemitism advisory group.

The committee, in turn, revealed that five members of the eight-person group threatened to resign in November 2023 if Gay did not promise to enact 14 policy recommendations, some within 48 hours.

The committee’s initial report alone prompted former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers to suggest that members of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body – should resign before they select the next University president.

And while Garber has remained largely unscathed, the committee itself does not know the full extent of confidential information it has received yet.

“If they don’t solve the problems at Harvard, I hope a lot of people will call for resignations of people there,” Foxx said. “I have not called for that at any point because I’m waiting to see what the results are.”

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Should the committee resort to legal action to enforce the subpoenas in their entirety, it remains unclear which demands would be considered narrowly tailored to the committee’s legislative function — the standard for evaluating the legality of congressional subpoenas.

Though the committee has repeatedly accused Harvard of obstructing the investigation by declining to submit unredacted meeting minutes and internal communications, they have not charged Harvard administrators with criminal contempt of Congress.

And it is Garber’s job to protect information that the University does not want public while also proving to the committee he is willing to cooperate and serious about addressing antisemitism.

Newton — the University spokesperson — said in a statement that “our community and campus are different today because of the actions we have taken, and continue to take, to combat hate and to promote and nurture civil dialogue and respectful engagement.”

“Harvard has and will continue to be unequivocal – in our words and actions – that antisemitism is not and will not be tolerated on our campus,” Newton wrote.

While the committee’s decision to issue subpoenas to Harvard administrators was unprecedented, previous Harvard presidents have also had to contend with managing a Congress skeptical of elite universities.

Former University President Neil L. Rudenstine, who served from 1991 to 2001, said he was seriously concerned about proposed cuts to federal funding during his tenure, but said it was far less contentious than the political climate that Garber now faces.

“There was a constant worry without actually anything coming to pass of the highly negative sorts,” Rudenstine said.

Beyond leading Harvard out of the investigation with its funding intact, the threat of a call to appear before the committee looms over Garber.

Even though Gay had faced growing public criticism for her response to Oct. 7 and campus protests, it was her testimony before the committee in December that pushed many more to call for her resignation.

Though Garber has said he would testify before Congress if invited, he would likely prefer to avoid a repeat of the spectacle that many higher education leaders have gone through in recent months.

The likelihood of Garber appearing as a witness at a congressional hearing may well depend on whether or not the committee believes he is successfully addressing campus antisemitism — a plan that is staked on a set of recommendations his task force on antisemitism has yet to release.

“We intend to act on recommendations from the task force,” Garber said in the April interview. “My impression is that both task forces are working hard and very, very thoughtfully. I expect that they will eventually present us with excellent recommendations that we will want to pursue.”

‘Uncharted Territory’

As congressional Republicans characterize Harvard and other elite universities as strongholds of radical activism — using pro-Palestine student protest chants as evidence of their claims — experts say it is part of a broader trend of politicized attacks on education.

While some university presidents, including Gay, faced criticism for being too legalistic in their responses to congressional questioning, others — like Columbia University President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik — were criticized for capitulating to right-wing politicians.

Rep. Mark A. Takano ’83 (D-CA.) said in an interview following Gay’s congressional testimony that he thought the Republicans on the committee were “not really interested in the topic of antisemitism and antisemitism on campuses.”

“My own sense is that the Republicans are spring-loaded to enact a narrative that universities are bastions of liberal progressives,” he said. “They wanted to present an opportunity for their members to portray universities in a certain way and to beat up on university advisers.”

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Higher education expert Mary L. Churchill said “it feels like an attack on knowledge writ large” and said political attacks started at the local, school board level in conservative states with book bans and library closures.

Churchill, a professor at Boston University, said she thought the high-profile hearings and threats from the committee were a ploy for voter approval.

“You're seeing different moves from the different mainstream political parties in their awareness of how education level corresponds to voter behavior,” Churchill said. “They’re aware of that and I think they’re acting accordingly.”

In more than two dozen interviews with The Crimson, alumni, donors, and faculty said they have confidence that Garber can successfully navigate the politics of the current moment.

Eduardo J. Dominguez ’01, an Harvard Alumni Association board member, said he believes Garber will be a good crisis president.

“I think among my cohort, there's probably a unanimous consensus that he's very well prepared,” Dominguez said. “He would be a great option to keep in that position because he served the University so well as provost.”

Former Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72, who also served as the lead counsel for Harvard’s affirmative action lawsuit until 2019, said “it’s not just a question of how Harvard responds to all of what’s going on today.

“It’s how higher education responds to all of what’s going on today,” Lee said.

“I think the manner in which Harvard and other institutions of higher education have to respond is by staying focused on the values that have made us important to society — free speech, free thought, open discourse,” he added.

In response to accusations that the congressional committee’s focus on elite universities is politically motivated, Foxx said “this is a defense of the safety of students on campuses.”

“Our goal since day one has been ensuring the safety of Jewish students on campus,” she added. “I’m not attacking higher education. I’m trying to make sure that students are safe and that these campuses do the right thing.”

It is unclear whether the committee will take further action, or whether the Republican House majority will last long enough for them to do so.

Still, Wong, the Brown professor, called the congressional scrutiny “new uncharted territories for a lot of university leaders.”

“It is a moment of institutional vulnerability,” Wong said.

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

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

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