When Dr. Claudine Gay was under attack, Black Harvard alumni rallied to save her job

OPINION: Racism and sexism also played a role in the campaign to oust Dr. Gay after her controversial testimony before Congress about antisemitism.

University Presidents Testify In House Hearing On Campus Antisemitism
Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023 in Washington, DC. The Committee held a hearing to investigate antisemitism on college campuses. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) Credit: Photo byKevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

It was a setup from the beginning. That was the consensus in numerous group chats and urgent phone calls I witnessed between many Black Harvard alumni watching the backlash against Harvard President Claudine Gay’s testimony before Congress last week.

Dr. Gay started off by denouncing antisemitism on college campuses in an opening statement and acknowledged her own shortcomings in handling the backlash from the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians.

“We have seen a dramatic and deeply concerning rise in antisemitism — around the world, in the United States, and on our campuses, including my own. I know many in our Harvard Jewish community are hurting and experiencing grief, fear, and trauma,” Dr. Gay testified.

“In response, I have sought to confront hate while preserving free expression. This is difficult work, and I know that I have not always gotten it right … We have also repeatedly made clear that we at Harvard reject antisemitism and denounce any trace of it on our campus or within our community.”

Despite this sentiment, Dr. Gay, a 53-year-old esteemed political scientist – widely celebrated for becoming Harvard’s first Black president in the university’s 387-year history —  was subject to an angry, snarling and emotional interrogation by Republican New York Rep. Elise Stefanik — a 39-year-old Harvard alum — that barely let Dr. Gay get a response out before trampling over her answers.

“A Harvard student calling for the mass murder of African Americans is not protected free speech at Harvard, correct?” Stefanik immediately.

“Our commitment to free speech — ”

“It’s a yes or no question!” Stefanik snapped.

Dr. Gay refused to say “yes” or “no” and tried to explain the same “free speech” legal framework that would eventually get her in trouble during the testimony.

Not getting the response Stefanik had hoped for (presumably to show that Black students were protected on campus and Jewish students were not), the Trump-supporting Republican asked Dr. Gay about chants of “intifada”

“That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me,” Dr. Gay responded.

Can you not say here that it is against the Code of Conduct at Harvard?” Stefanik pressed.

We embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful — it’s when that speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies against bullying, harassment, intimidation,” Dr. Gay replied.

Later equating “intifada” with calls for genocide, Stefanik pressed a hypothetical: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?”

“The rules around bullying and harassment are quite specific and if the context in which that language is used amounts to bullying and harassment, then we take, we take action against it,” Dr. Gay replied, instead of simply saying, “No.”

While only Dr. Gay can speak for her choice of words, her later apology, seemingly revealed her true sentiment and not the overly formal legalese she presented at the testimony.  But the damage was done.

Despite clear conflicts of interest and moral failings, such as Stefanik having been removed from the Harvard Institute of Politics Board in the wake of Jan. 6 and her election denialism, Stefanik sat on the highest of horses and immediately called for the resignation of Dr. Gay, and the other two Ivy League women presidents who testified.

In response to growing calls for Gay to be fired, Black Harvard Alumni sprung into action. Sonji Jacobs was one of them.

“We watched the testimony and felt a sense of dismay,” Jacobs told theGrio.  “Here was the first Black president of Harvard University being pulled into a very complicated, nuanced controversy about her commitment to all her students when she hadn’t been given the time to establish her leadership and set her tone and vision around the balance between free speech and free thought at the university.”

Jacobs teamed up with four other Black women alumnae (Natosha Reid Rice, Dina Paul-Parks, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Janine Gilbert) to draft a letter which was shared by multiple organizations such as the Black Harvard-Radcliffe Alumnae and Harvard Black Alumni Society to garner signatures:

Today, we, the undersigned, write to offer our unequivocal support for President Claudine Gay in her efforts to build a stronger, more inclusive community at our alma mater while balancing the critical principles of free thought and free speech, especially at a time when our country’s political rhetoric threatens to obscure fact from fiction.

No one understands better than President Gay, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, that Harvard University must always stand against hate.  Over her three decades as a professor and dean, she has made it clear that she is committed to fostering a university climate that does not tolerate harassment or bullying. While the current issues at play are complex, her commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism has never wavered.  

During her testimony before Congress, President Gay’s deep compassion and concern for the entire Harvard community were lost in some of her carefully measured words.  But her apology made clear where she — and we — stand: “Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group, are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

At a time when the banning of books is occurring across our nation and lawmakers are enshrining laws that curtail the teaching of American history – with all its joy, pain, triumphs, and mistakes – President Gay’s commitment to free speech and the safety and protection of all of her students, as well as her leadership at Harvard as a Black woman, are critical and deserving of the opportunity to coalesce and take shape. 

We believe a university campus – especially Harvard’s – is exactly the place where these hard, nuanced, often painful, conversations need to happen, in a manner that shows empathy and respect and accords dignity to each individual human being. This is the place and space in which people are challenged and can learn and grow.

We look forward to the University, under President Gay’s stewardship, continuing to model the courageous leadership now so desperately needed to rebuild and restore community on our campuses and in our nation and world.

— Concerned Black Alums and Allies

By Monday morning the letter had more than 700 signatures. As of Wednesday, December 14, the number had grown to over 1,700 signatures.

This letter shows the “story behind the story” is part of a larger campaign of silencing education.  A reading of the room that too many media outlets, whipped into hysteria over calls to see the presidents resign, didn’t ask themselves as they further amplified calls to immediately fire these presidents.

While many Jewish students and alumni were understandably deeply hurt and disappointed by Dr. Gay’s legalistic and short answers to Stefanik’s interrogation, many of Dr. Gay’s most influential critics had questionable intent.

Not enough people noted that these critics included Larry Summers, who was ousted as Harvard president for comments about women’s abilities in science, or Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus billionaire hedge fund manager who once said Kyle Rittenhouse was a “patriot” who acted in self-defense after Rittenhouse killed two Black Lives Matter protestors.

The nastiness of the critics’ intent came through as allegations of academic plagiarism were spun up against Dr. Gay by anti-critical race theory ambassadors, allegations that the university has since addressed through an independent review of her work, saying it found “a few instances of inadequate citation” but “no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.” Dr. Gay has since requested four corrections in two published articles to clear the air.

News outlets like the New York Post, took the low blow of publishing a tweet that lambasted the “institutional stupidity” of leadership at Harvard and UPenn, while only using a photo of Dr. Gay as their featured photo.

Even Rev. Al Sharpton had to speak up when Bill Ackman called Dr. Gay a “DEI [diversity equity and inclusion]” hire.

The silencing of certain voices and the online bullying people have experienced for speaking up amid the Israel-Gaza conflict has had a chilling effect, even on Black Harvard alums who wanted to defend Dr. Gay publicly but feared losing their jobs or livelihoods if they were misrepresented as antisemitic. Privilege doesn’t look the same on everyone.

Many Black alums and allies still rallied despite the risks. Rather than fold in the face of outside political pressure, Harvard leaders, including Tracy “Ty” Moore, the first African-American president of the Harvard Alumni Association, and the group of Black Harvard women leaders issued statements of faith in Dr. Gay to lead the university through this moment.

“The Corporation needed to know President Gay had support because of who she is as a leader and that a complicated issue can’t be boiled down to a 90-second soundbite— and that Harvard should not bend to political or other pressure from any outside group or individual,” Jacobs told theGrio.

Through an editorial in the Harvard Crimson, students called for the same, saying that the congressional hearing was “a pretext for opportunistic politicians to launch an all-out assault on higher education” and that “for the good of free speech” and “free democracy,” Harvard and Dr. Gay must not yield.

In an unexpected victory for these groups, Harvard did not and Dr. Gay will keep her job.

For Natosha Reid Rice, another Harvard alumna who rallied support for Dr. Gay, the victory was about more than politics or a single role:

“In watching this moment unfold, I was reminded of and inspired by President Gay’s words in her inaugural address: ‘Courage faces fear and finds resolve. And so must we hold fast to our purpose in a dangerous and skeptical world…Not only for our students but for the billions of people who will never set foot in Harvard Yard, yet whose lives may advance a step because of what we do.’ We had to move forward with this same courage to support Gay’s vision for a more inclusive and safe campus for all students.”

Harvard alumna Dina Paul-Parks, another member of the core group of organizers, said the news of Dr. Gay keeping her presidency was a testament to collective action.

“It was amazing — and so gratifying — to witness the groundswell of support for her grow in real time,” Paul-Parks told theGrio.  “It is remarkable what we can do when we truly work together.”

But while Dr. Gay will have the opportunity to prove her leadership capability through this tumultuous moment and to proactively fight antisemitism and Islamophobia, surely her bitterest critics will try to punish the university with calls to “defund” it and a sudden slandering of Harvard degrees as “worthless” because of the Black woman at the helm of the institution.

It will now be up to the true believers of veritas or “the search for truth,” to show that true education is worth a whole lot more than money.

This story was updated on Dec. 14, 2023.

Natasha S. Alford is VP of Digital Content and a Senior Correspondent at theGrio. An award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and TV personality, Alford is author of the forthcoming book “American Negra.” (Harper Collins) Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.

Never miss a beat: Get our daily stories straight to your inbox with theGrio’s newsletter.