|But within two weeks, the once strong support had begun to dissolve, according to interviews with a dozen people with knowledge of the discussions, including those who had spoken directly with Dr. Gay, Ms. Pritzker and other board members or were briefed on their thinking and actions. They requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about the deliberations publicly. As the board members flew to ski towns and beaches for the holidays, they had a dramatic change of heart about their president.
A handful of the 12 members of the board, which included Dr. Gay, came from great American fortunes built on name brands. Others were self-made financiers, philanthropists or retired academics. All but one attended Harvard. Accustomed to a certain level of success, they had hoped that their Dec. 12 statement would signal a new beginning and show their commitment to righting the ship.
The corporation told Dr. Gay that its members wanted to actively help her heal the campus, which had been racked with protests that disrupted classes and left Jewish students feeling unsafe.
Along with the public declaration of support they offered on Dec. 12, the board members privately asked Dr. Gay to help come up with a plan to turn things around, two people with knowledge of the discussions said. Over the next week or so, Dr. Gay and her staff created a plan they called a “spring reset,” one of the people said. Come the new year, she would appear all over campus, hold office hours and express her empathy. There would be task forces to address antisemitism and Islamophobia.
But before Dr. Gay could send the board additional details, more trouble erupted. On Dec. 19, new allegations of more than 40 examples of plagiarism in Dr. Gay’s academic work emerged, first reported in conservative media outlets. When she sent her latest plan to the board the next day, some members told her they liked it, but to others, it showed that she didn’t understand the urgency of the expanding crisis, according to people with knowledge of board members’ thinking.
Dr. Gay has stood by the overall integrity of her work. Harvard has said she didn’t commit “research misconduct,” though she did offer to make minor changes to some of her prior writings in the wake of the allegations.
Cracks in the board’s support were starting to show. Especially concerned was Timothy R. Barakett, Harvard’s treasurer and a relatively new member of the corporation. From early on, he didn’t think keeping Dr. Gay was tenable. He told his fellow board members that Dr. Gay’s poor leadership and academic conduct might disqualify her from the presidency, those who spoke with him said.
Mr. Barakett didn’t think Dr. Gay’s apologies got it right and argued that she was failing to take full responsibility for her plagiarism, according to donors, professors and others who spoke with board members.
At first, Mr. Barakett was an outlier in the group. But his arguments slowly won supporters on the board. One was Paul J. Finnegan, a co-founder of Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm. In mid-December, he caught word of a recent closed-door session at the Harvard Club of New York City where Flynn Cratty, a prominent Harvard academic, pointedly criticized Dr. Gay’s and the university’s commitment to academic freedom.
A week later, Mr. Finnegan and Tracy Palandjian, another board member, listened to Dr. Cratty and other professors air their concerns about Harvard’s leadership at a dinner in Cambridge, Mass.
Mr. Finnegan came away from these events with his confidence in Dr. Gay shaken, and he soon joined Mr. Barakett’s camp, according to people briefed on these events.
From the beginning of the crisis, Dr. Gay had been barraged not just with criticism and bad press but with death threats and racist messages and phone calls. As December went on, that grew more intense. Dr. Gay had moved into the Harvard president’s official residence only the month before, after renovations. The phone kept ringing, and when she picked it up she’d hear racial slurs before callers hung up. The police were monitoring the house 24 hours a day.