CNN has reached out to Harvard for comment.
New York (CNN) — Some key members of Harvard’s faculty and the university’s top governing body held an extraordinary meeting last week to address the unprecedented problems at one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.
Harvard faces many problems: rising antisemitism on campus and the university’s controversial response to it; President Claudine Gay’s ongoing plagiarism scandal; plunging applications and an Affirmative Action ruling from the Supreme Court that leaves the university with an uncertain future.
The meeting, first reported by the New York Times, included Jeff Flier, a former dean of Harvard Medical School, and Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, among two other faculty. They had a “very cordial and frank” discussion with nonprofit founder Tracy Palandjian and private-equity executive Paul Finnegan – both members of the Harvard Corporation – Flier told CNN. Finnegan also confirmed to CNN that the discussion over dinner took place last week.
“We were asked to discuss our views of the problems, and what might be done over time to address them,” Flier said. “We did that – they asked many questions and we tried to answer them.”
Flier said he urged the members of the university’s top governance board to address the copious problems facing Harvard in a more direct manner. The Harvard Corporation has put out few statements – either in support of Gay, regarding antisemitism on campus, or about Gay’s plagiarism.
“If people are saying the university is making mistakes — they are talking about you!” Flier said he told the Corporation members. He first provided the quote to the New York Times.
Flier said the Corporation responded to the faculty’s candid comments with interest and followed up with questions. They said they’d share the feedback with colleagues and get back to the staff.
CNN has reached out to Harvard for comment.
Controversies build up
Gay’s plagiarism scandal has captured much of the public conversation about Harvard in recent days. The drip, drip, drip of plagiarism allegations has spilled out gradually, keeping the story in the headlines despite the Harvard Corporation’s continued backing of its president. The governing board has called her mistakes “regrettable” but said the incomplete citations do not constitute research misconduct.
But the plagiarism discussion in many ways has distracted from a much bigger and more pervasive problem Harvard has been unable to solve: rising antisemitism on campus.
The Department of Education opened an investigation into Harvard “for discrimination involving shared ancestry,” an umbrella term that encompasses both antisemitism and Islamophobia. Harvard is one of scores of schools the federal government has been investigating since Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel.
Gay came under intense fire on December 5 for her disastrous testimony on Capitol Hill, in which she and other university presidents struggled to say explicitly that calls on campus for genocide of Jews would constitute a violation of school rules.
Former University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned soon after her testimony, but Harvard backed Gay. The Harvard Corporation issued a joint statement on December 12 fully supporting Gay.
Two weeks ago, Harvard announced early applications at Harvard College declined by 17% to four-year lows. It’s unclear why; Penn and other universities facing similar issues as Harvard said enrollment applications rose from the previous year.
The Class of 2028 also marks the first admissions cycle after the US Supreme Court gutted affirmative action in college, ruling the Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions programs were unconstitutional.
Last week, megadonor Len Blavatnik became the latest donor to pause giving to Harvard, a person familiar with the matter confirmed to CNN. He told Harvard he wants the university to solve the antisemitism problems on campus.
The Harvard Corporation under pressure
At last week’s dinner, according to the Times, the board members “faced a grilling” regarding the university’s president. But no one pressed for Gay’s removal, the Harvard Crimson reported Monday night.
Palandjian told the dinner group, according to the Times, replacing Gay might not be going far enough to get Harvard back on course. Harvard required “generational change,” she said, according to the Times. CNN has reached out to Palandjian for comment.
Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Swain told the Times the dinner was a “constructive and positive conversation about the importance of academic freedom, civil discourse and intellectual diversity,” adding the “discussion of ‘generational change’ occurred in that context; that addressing such a vital and complex societal issue would not happen overnight, but would take time. It was not related to any individual at Harvard.” Swain did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Flier said he did not remember Palandjian’s comment exactly as reported in the Times.
“I recall her saying that to accomplish the actions we recommended (which did not include removing the president) would take a generation … not a generational change, which has a different meaning,” he told CNN.
Gay held a virtual town hall with hundreds of faculty members on that same Tuesday, CNN previously reported, according to a source familiar with the matter. Gay held that meeting just before announcing plans to issue corrections to her dissertation.
The plagiarism controversy that has swirled around Gay did not come up during that Zoom town hall with members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the source said. About a dozen Harvard faculty members spoke during the event and all of them were supportive, according to the source.
Yet, according to the Times, “private conversations with donors, professors and others indicate that there are signs of tensions among board members.”
“(S)ome members have conceded they need to address the billowing storms, people involved in those conversations,” the paper reported.
But both supporters and opponents of Harvard’s approach say corporation members are not changing their approach in the face of criticism, the Times reported.