Claudine’s gay turmoil forces Harvard’s secret ‘corporation’ into the spotlight

On Tuesday, the day before Harvard acknowledged further problems with its president’s academic work, two members of its governing body sat in a private dining room at Bar Enza, a popular Cambridge restaurant, and faced a grilling.

It was an extremely rare opportunity for a small group of prominent academics to speak directly to the board members in charge of the school as it was going through a turbulent period. The campus was convulsed by demands for Harvard President Claudine Gay’s resignation following accusations of plagiarism and anger over her handling of anti-Semitism and threats to Jewish students, sparking a donor revolt.

The two board members, nonprofit founder Tracy Palandjian and private equity executive Paul Finnegan, were told directly that they needed to do more to address the ongoing maelstrom consuming the campus.

“We need to be more on the front lines of this,” Jeff Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, recalled telling them. “If people say the university is making mistakes, they’re talking about you!”

The secretive and powerful group that runs Harvard, known as the Harvard Corporation, has projected unity amid the unwavering turmoil surrounding Dr. Gay. The tables December 12th The announcement to support Dr. Gay, who is also a member, was followed by silence, even in the wake of growing demands for her ouster from powerful donors, alumni and media figures.

However, private conversations with donors, professors and others indicate that there are signs of tensions among board members. Some members have admitted they need to address the storms, people involved in those talks said. Critics and supporters who have tried to privately advise the board say members have shown little concrete push to change their approach.

At Bar Enza, members of the corporation did not have concrete responses to the teachers’ requests for action, according to people who were there. The professors did not ask for Dr. Gay’s resignation, but rather an explanation of the board’s plan to stabilize the school, said Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist sitting at the table. Board members offered silent apologies and promised follow-up.

Board members seemed aware of growing disapproval. One of them was carrying a folder of newspaper articles critical of the university, a Harvard spokesperson confirmed.

The overall message, Dr. Pinker conveyed, was that they “agreed with us” that the corporation had helped create some of the problems it now needed to solve.

Ms. Palandjian told the dinner group, leaders of a harvard council on academic freedom, that replacing the university president might not be enough to get Harvard back on track. Harvard needed a “generational change,” he said.

Palandjian did not respond to requests for comment, while Finnegan and other members of the corporation deferred to a Harvard spokesperson.

Spokesman Jonathan Swain described the dinner as a “constructive and positive conversation about the importance of academic freedom, civil discourse and intellectual diversity.”

He added that the “discussion of the ‘generational change’ occurred in that context; that addressing such a vital and complex social issue would not happen overnight, but would take time. He was not related to any individual at Harvard.”

It’s unclear what the board might do with the dinner comments, but such meetings suggest members are actively working to quell the unrest.

Much of the consternation over the board arises from the very nature and traditions of the Harvard Corporation itself, founded in 1650, to govern Harvard. It boasts on its website that it is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere. The site says little else about the group. beyond listing members and characterizing their duties as exercising “fiduciary responsibility with respect to the academic, financial, and physical resources and general well-being of the university.”

For centuries, the corporation ran the university behind closed doors and with minimal transparency, making decisions shielded from public scrutiny. Those traits have long frustrated teachers. But under the corporation’s leadership, Harvard has secured its status as a global academic power, with an endowment of $50 billion.

In 2010, the corporation announced plans to expand from seven to 13 members and, in doing so, said it would become more transparent and communicative to students and teachers.

The modern corporation, which currently has 12 members, is responsible for the financial health of the university and certain key decisions, but perhaps its most important role is the selection and success of Harvard’s president.

In 2022, after Lawrence S. Bacow, then president of Harvard, announced that he planned to resign, board member Penny Pritzker, billionaire businesswoman and heiress to the Hyatt hotel fortune, led the Harvard’s search for his successor. corporation.

Officials said they considered more than 600 nominations and announced Dr. Gay in December 2022. The five-month search was the fastest at Harvard in nearly 70 years. reported the Harvard Crimson student newspaper.

The board has declined to say which of the corporation’s members had been responsible for reviewing its work, or which outside academics they recruited to help.

Over the weekend when the corporation met to decide Dr. Gay’s future, she participated in some of those discussions and had the opportunity to review the corporation’s December 12 statement in her defense before it was released. made public, said two people involved in the process.

According to a person consulted by the corporation, the body discussed, but chose not to publish, a detailed independent public review along the lines of Stanford University, whose president resigned this summer.

Harvard’s board of trustees is chaired by Ms. Pritzker, who was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidency and later served as commerce secretary during his administration. Despite her leadership role, Pritzker, a supporter of Dr. Gay, has not spoken publicly since the controversy began, leaving the corporation to communicate through a single public statement.

The other 10 members, besides Dr. Gay, include relatively unknown financiers, donors, a former California Supreme Court justice, the former CEO of American Express and former presidents of Princeton University and Amherst University.

The board meets several times a year and members serve six-year terms that can be renewed once. How it identifies and chooses its members, who are known as companions, is a mystery. Outgoing members help select their own replacements.

Ms. Pritzker has been the main point of contact for major donors and others seeking to advise Harvard on the path forward.

The board seeks to assemble a well-rounded group of people who have complementary expertise to help govern the university, said Richard Chait, a Harvard professor emeritus who studied governance in higher education and was an adviser when the Harvard Corporation expanded in size more than a decade ago.

Even after expanding, the panel remains smaller than the boards of many other leading universities, according to Dr. Chait, who said the average private university has about 30 or more members on its boards.

Board members do not receive remuneration for their role. “Not only is it unpaid, but there is an expectation of reverse cash flow: all trustees have the expectation that the institution will be a philanthropic priority consistent with their means,” Dr. Chait said.

The corporation has intervened in key issues: for example, in 2016 it approved a change to the emblem of Harvard Law School. which was modeled on the crest of an 18th century enslaver.

In recent weeks, more faculty members, donors, alumni and outsiders have raised questions about the corporation’s apparent failure to vet Dr. Gay’s scholarship before promoting her to the presidency in July and for its subsequent silence on The last weeks.

“The corporation should have done its homework, and apparently it didn’t,” said Avi Loeb, a Harvard science professor who has publicly criticized the school’s response after the Hamas attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people.

“They don’t criticize like they should,” Loeb said of the corporation. “They don’t want people who disagree with them to talk to them.”

Two days after the Harvard Corporation released its Dec. 12 statement reaffirming its support for Dr. Gay, it met with law school professors and said it was seeking suggestions on how to move forward.

During the meeting, a professor asked why the details of the investigation into his plagiarism were not made public. Dr. Gay said it was the Harvard Corporation’s decision to keep the report private, according to one person who attended and another who was told about the meeting.

The corporation, he said, was working with the publications to which he had submitted his work to make corrections.

The professor then suggested that Dr. Gay consider publishing the report or details of the research herself. Dr. Gay said she would consider doing so.

Dr. Gay declined a request for comment. The Harvard spokesperson said Dr. Gay met this fall with “many alumni, supporters, and faculty in one-on-one conversations.”

The board’s secretive approach and opacity have upset even those who previously supported Dr. Gay. This is partly because the corporation did not disclose that it had been quietly investigating Dr. Gay’s academic work since October. when he was first contacted by a New York Post reporter about plagiarism accusations against him.

Professors and donors say board members, by refusing to be more open, have left important questions hanging about the school and Dr. Gay. Among the most persistent: Why didn’t they disclose the research sooner, and when, exactly, did the corporation (and Harvard’s top administrators) first learn of the plagiarism allegations against Dr. Gay? How is it possible that a small group of conservative activists seemed to know more about Dr. Gay’s scholarship than the governing body responsible for vetting her selection?

Asked Saturday whether the board would publicly reaffirm its support for Dr. Gay, the Harvard spokesperson said the corporation had nothing to add beyond the Dec. 12 statement in support of Dr. Gay, which preceded the latest wave of plagiarism accusations.

“It would be prudent to take steps that could rebuild trust,” said Omar Sultan Haque, a professor of global health at Harvard Medical School. “Admit mistakes, avoid shady statements, and open up the corporation’s adjudication and evidence process so everyone can understand any outcome, step by step, including timelines of what was known, when, and by whom.”

Dr. Pinker, the Harvard psychologist who attended the dinner with members of the corporation, and has been critical of Harvard, He said the board’s fiduciary duty “is to safeguard the university’s long-term reputation, and under his watch that has not happened.”

“There are deep problems,” he added, “and they are corporate problems.”

Sara Mervosh, Dana Goldstein and Jennifer Schuessler contributed reports.