Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, apologized to the university community for her testimony before Congress, where she gave evasive responses to questions about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate campus policies.
“I am sorry,” Gay said in an interview that the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, published Friday. “Words matter.
“When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” she said.
The interview came as Gay faced a storm of repercussions, including the abrupt resignation of a rabbi from Harvard’s antisemitism advisory committee, the start of a congressional inquiry and even suggestions from a prominent alumnus that she was unqualified for her post, which she assumed in July.
Gay said in the interview that she had become “caught up” in a volley of questions Tuesday from Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., and “should have had the presence of mind” during the exchange to “return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community – threats to our Jewish students – have no place at Harvard and will never go unchallenged.”
The exchanges involving Stefanik, Gay and two other university leaders, Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have thrown three of the country’s most influential colleges into turmoil. On Thursday, a House committee opened an investigation into “the learning environments” on all three campuses, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the three presidents should leave their posts.
Asked during Tuesday’s hearing whether urging the genocide of the Jewish people amounted to defying Harvard policies against bullying and harassment, Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.”
Magill has drawn some of the sharpest criticism for her testimony, with influential donors and alumni pressing for her ouster from Penn. One contributor has moved to rescind a gift worth roughly $100 million. But the uproar surrounding Gay has also been infused with debate over how universities handle racial issues.
Bill Ackman, a billionaire investor and Harvard alumnus, insisted on social media this week that the appointment of Gay was connected to the university’s goals for diversity, equity and inclusion.
“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 in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “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.”
Harvard said it had no comment on Ackman’s post. In her announcement last year about Gay’s elevation to the role of president, Penny Pritzker, who led the presidential search committee, said more than 600 people had been nominated to lead Harvard. When Pritzker opened the search last year, she said that Harvard was seeking a person with, among other qualities, “a commitment to embracing diversity along many dimensions as a source of strength.”
Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, argued Friday on X that it was “racist and sexist” to “assume superior White and male leaders earn their positions through merit, and inferior Black and woman leaders receive their positions due to identity.”
Kendi added, “These ideas show up in times of crisis: The Black and woman leader is assumed to be the problem.” He declined further comment.
Gay has offered no public signal that she is considering resigning, and there has been no indication that she is facing as grave a revolt as Magill is at Penn. The fallout from Gay’s testimony has nevertheless been conspicuous, including Rabbi David Wolpe’s resignation Thursday from the antisemitism advisory committee that Harvard formed after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
Wolpe said in an interview Friday that he had been uncomfortable being perceived as the “voice of the Jewish community” on the panel.
“I was left with a job that had a lot of accountability and no authority,” he said, noting that he felt he could still “be a force for good” by meeting with students in his capacity as a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School.
In a series of posts on X announcing his resignation, Wolpe had described Gay as a “kind and thoughtful person” but said he had concluded that combating Harvard’s troubles was “the work of more than a committee or a single university.”
Wolpe added, “It is not going to be changed by hiring or firing a single person, or posting on X, or yelling at people who don’t post as you wish when you wish, as though posting is the summation of one’s moral character. This is the task of educating a generation, and also a vast unlearning.”
Gay said in a statement that the rabbi had “deepened my and our community’s understanding of the unacceptable presence of antisemitism here at Harvard.” She added that she was “committed to ensuring no member of our Jewish community faces this hate in any form.”
But Wolpe said there had been immense damage to the credibility of some universities that had been pulled into intense debate since October. Parents, he said in the interview Friday, were calling and saying they no longer dreamed of sending their children to schools like Harvard and Penn.
“When I was growing up, such a thing was unthinkable,” Wolpe said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.