Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Harvard University President Claudine Gay watches a video being played during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 5.KEN CEDENO/Reuters

The resignation of Harvard president Claudine Gay Tuesday was an earthquake that is sending aftershocks throughout universities not only in the United States but around the globe.

That is because – in perhaps the only plausible comparison of the Cambridge, Mass., institution with the fleshpots, casinos and, tellingly, divorce venues of Las Vegas – what happens at Harvard never stays at Harvard.

Founded a century before George Washington was born, Harvard has educated eight American presidents. It was the site for inventions ranging from baking powder (1859) to Facebook (2004) all the way to the development, last year, of a sizeless sneaker created by artificial intelligence. And it remains a highly selective university, with an undergraduate acceptance rate of only 3.4 per cent of applicants last year.

But what happened there this week underlined the manifold lessons of the Gay episode: Don’t hide behind freedom of speech when testifying on Capitol Hill about intolerance. Don’t descend into talking points provided by a Washington law firm and replete with complex nuance, especially when being interrogated by a congresswoman with a degree from your own institution but with demonstrated animus toward it. Don’t, when representing a university that in 1643 adopted the motto “Veritas,” present academic research with sloppy attribution.

But also this lesson: Being a college president in the third decade of the 21st century is no longer like being a college president when, for a 54-year period beginning in 1916, Dartmouth College, a fellow Ivy League institution, had only two presidents. It also is not like being a campus leader when, as Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California from 1958 to 1967, said that the job could be summarized as providing “sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.”

“It is a huge challenge to be a college or university president today,” said Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the former president of Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. “You have to please a lot of people with a lot of agendas. In president Gay’s case, she was only at Harvard for six months and had no honeymoon. That is a lot to navigate.”

It is a lot harder to navigate in 2024 than it was only 15 years ago, when James Mullen Jr., became the president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. “Today as a college president you find yourself caught up in enormously significant issues without apparent answers,” said Dr. Mullen, who less than a month ago became interim president of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. “People want you to speak out and have answers to questions that are very complicated – and the issues that young people face today are more complicated than they were when I started out at Allegheny.”

But Dr. Gay, along with University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth issued tortured, legalistic responses when asked by Republican Representative Elise Stefanik of New York whether they considered student calls “for the genocide of Jewish people” antisemitism and harassment. Ms. Magill resigned last month, and Dr. Gay, initially supported by the Harvard Corporation, the university’s ordinarily secretive ruling body, faced growing calls for her dismissal as new evidence of careless academic attribution if not outright plagiarism mounted.

“We have codes of conduct on our campuses,” Dr. Mullen said, “and we have to honour them, too.”

Dr. Gay, the first Black president of Harvard, said in a statement that she was resigning “with a heavy heart but a deep love for Harvard,” but added that it was “distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor – two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am – and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.”

Dr. Gay’s resignation came 17 years after the resignation of another Harvard president, Lawrence Summers, a former secretary of the treasury in the Bill Clinton administration. He was forced to relinquish the Harvard president’s office in Massachusetts Hall because of his harsh personal governing style and remarks questioning whether women were genetically capable of excelling in the sciences.

“I looked at the extent of the rancour that had emerged in parts of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” Dr. Summers told reporters at the time, “and the extent to which for many I personally had become a large issue, and concluded very reluctantly that the agenda for the university that I cared about as well as my own satisfaction would be best served by stepping down.”

In both the Penn and Harvard cases, major donors and public officials called for the dismissal of the presidents. Their resignations came at a time of unusual ferment on campus and unusual worry among university leaders that the value of a college education is under question. A Gallup Poll released last year showed that Americans’ confidence in higher education, which was at 57 per cent in 2015, had fallen to 36 per cent.

For all those reasons, the resignations at the two Ivy League universities present new threats to higher education.

“This is an unfortunate and sad moment in the history of these institutions, higher education in general,” said Steve Stoute, president of Canisius University in Buffalo. “But there remains an important role for higher education in providing our students and society with paths to a better society. And in pursuit of that, we can’t be driven by elected officials, donors or others.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe