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Harvard’s Next Presidential Search Will Face New Challenges Amid Attacks on DEI

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{shortcode-3f3e57005be88db1897fbe0aab6a26f27b883007}y order of the United States Supreme Court, Harvard can’t consider race in its admissions process. Unfortunately for the Harvard Corporation, that ruling does not extend to presidential searches.

Like it or not, the selection of Harvard’s 31st president will inevitably be viewed by key stakeholders through the prism of identity politics — be it race, gender, or religion — with a strong likelihood, given the wide diversity of viewpoints and priorities, that more people will be disappointed than pleased.

“No matter what direction they go in, it’s going to say something about how Harvard is responding to this political moment,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

After Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, some Harvard affiliates believe that the next leader should focus on combating antisemitism and protecting Jewish students on campus — an imperative that some believe a Jewish president could execute best.

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After Claudine Gay’s tenure was cut short following unrelenting backlash over her handling of campus antisemitism and mounting allegations of plagiarism, others are still looking for a woman of color to get a full term at the helm of the University.

And after Harvard’s credibility as a premier institution of higher education faced scrutiny following the plagiarism allegations, there is a growing belief that a candidate with unimpeachable scholarship must be prioritized above all else.

Muhammad said that whatever choice the boards make “in terms of who that individual is and what racial and/or gender identity they bring to the role, it will send some signal one way or the other — whether they wanted to or not.”

‘A Strong Public Leader’

As Harvard’s governing boards consider candidates to permanently succeed Gay at the helm of the University, they will have to decide which attributes to prioritize in a president.

While faculty, students, and alumni are split on what direction they’d like to see the search process go, several higher education experts noted that whoever serves as Harvard’s next leader must be prepared to confront the same challenges that Gay faced during her presidency.

Paul Reville, a professor of education policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that the next president “can expect that there will be continuing assaults on the whole notion of DEI and the need to articulate the value proposition.”

Marianne Hirsch, a professor at the Institute for the Study of Sexuality and Gender at Columbia University, said that the fraught political moment will likely lead the boards to seek someone with experience leading institutions of higher education.

“We’re seeing presidents fail in very important, significant ways — or at least make mistakes, if not completely fail,” Hirsch said. “A lot of that has to do in several universities, including my own, with inexperience.”

In particular, the next president will face the challenge of healing a student body deeply divided over the war in Israel and Palestine. Interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 formed two dual presidential task forces in January to combat antisemitism and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias on campus, but members of both communities have said that more still needs to be done.

The next president will likely need to demonstrate to the governing boards that they have the experience and skill set to bridge those divides on campus.

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Harvard Hillel President Nathan B. Gershengorn ’26, wrote in a statement that he hopes the next University president will work to combat campus antisemitism.

“Whoever the next president is, Harvard Hillel looks forward to working closely with them to protect Jewish students, serve the needs of the Jewish community, and create a welcoming campus environment for all,” he wrote.

Reville said that the boards may also be incentivized to select the presidential candidate with the strongest academic bona fides after the plagiarism allegations against Gay, but that doing so would not take into account the broader challenges facing Harvard.

“The tradition in selecting University leadership has always been to highly prioritize top-level scholarship, and to make the assumption that the person best suited to lead the University is a first-class scholar.” Reville said.

Reville, however, said that in today’s world academic credentials alone are “not sufficient for the kind of leadership that Harvard will need in the future.”

He added that Harvard will need “a strong public leader for the University, and therefore being somebody with significant experience in public leadership.”

Diversity Under Attack

Some of Gay’s staunchest defenders argued that the criticisms levied against her just served to mask a right-wing effort to discredit institutions of higher education and force Harvard’s first Black leader 0ut of office.

Hirsch said it was important to pay attention to the group of university presidents that the House Committee on Education and the Workforce called to testify in a Dec. 5 hearing — Gay, former University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth M. Magill, and MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth.

“It’s not lost on me or on anybody else that they chose women presidents and mainly new presidents to call before Congress,” Hirsch said.

While a majority of questions from committee members were about campus antisemitism, some Republicans used their time to press the university presidents on other issues, like the political and ideological makeup of students and faculty, sources of foreign funding, and efforts to promote diversity across their institutions.

Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) and Bill A. Ackman ’88 led the charge to demand Gay’s resignation for months before the congressional hearing. While Gay’s critics latched onto criticisms of her response to antisemitism on Harvard’s campus and later the allegations of plagiarism in her academic work, many of those same critics also repeatedly used their platforms to denounce diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at the University.

On Dec. 7, two days after Gay’s testimony, Ackman claimed in a post on X that he learned from someone with first-hand knowledge of Harvard’s 2022 presidential search process that “the committee would not consider a candidate who did not meet the DEI office’s criteria.” (Ackman provided no evidence to back up his claim.)

“Shrinking the pool of candidates based on required race, gender, and/or sexual orientation criteria is not the right approach to identifying the best leaders for our most prestigious universities,” Ackman wrote on X. “And it is also not good for those awarded the office of president who find themselves in a role that they would likely not have obtained were it not for a fat finger on the scale.”

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Some of Gay’s defenders took Ackman’s post and other similar comments as evidence that criticisms of DEI were at the core of the attacks against Gay.

“All of the key players — from Virginia Foxx, to Elise Stefanik, to Bill Ackman — have all been very clear in their public statements that it was neither antisemitism nor plagiarism, but Claudine Gay’s commitment to DEI at Harvard, that compelled them to seek her being fired,” Muhammad said.

Gay wrote in a New York Times op-ed following her resignation that she believed her ouster was part of a campaign that was “about more than one university and one leader.”

“It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution,” Gay wrote.

A Position of Intense Scrutiny

One of the greatest challenges that the Corporation might face is not whether they will find the right fit for the University, but if that presidential candidate believes Harvard is the right fit for them.

Gay’s tenure demonstrated that the president of Harvard will be the recipient of personal attacks from a variety of actors across the political spectrum. Gay said that she was frequently the target of vicious racism.

“Those who had relentlessly campaigned to oust me since the fall often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned argument,” she wrote in the New York Times op-ed. “They recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament. They pushed a false narrative of indifference and incompetence.”

“I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count,” Gay wrote.

Susannah Heschel, chair of the department of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth University, acknowledged the sexism that every woman has to deal with, especially those in positions of power.

“I hope that whoever the next president is will be able to cope with not only the sexism if she’s a woman, the racism if she’s Black, the antisemitism if she’s Jewish — or he — and have the wherewithal to be able to handle it effectively,” Heschel added.

Muhammad said that Harvard must defend its own leadership and higher education against attacks on diversity and inclusion efforts in general, but especially during the next presidential search.

“If there isn’t a robust affirmation that the ‘E’ in DEI remains crucial to the work of Harvard, Harvard University will have essentially capitulated and surrendered to the false accusations of its critics,” Muhammad said.

—Staff writer Samantha D. Wu can be reached at samantha.wu@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Summer Z. Sun can be reached at summer.sun@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @summerzsun.

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