At Harvard, some are asking what it will take to stop the spiral

When seventy university presidents gathered for a summit in late January, the topic on everyone’s minds was the crisis at Harvard.

The summit hosts treated the university, which has been plagued by accusations of fostering anti-Semitism, as a business school case study in leadership in higher education, complete with a slide presentation on the university’s declining reputation.

The killer slide: “Boeing and Tesla have similar levels of negative buzz as Harvard.”

In other words, Harvard, a centuries-old symbol of academic excellence, received as much negative attention as an airplane manufacturer whose door panel fell out of the sky or an automaker with an erratic CEO and multiple recalls.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, professor at Yale’s School of Management, organized the summit. “Despite nearly 400 years of history, brand equity is not nearly as permanent as Harvard administrators think,” he said in an interview. “There was a term in the industry that something was the Cadillac of the industry. Well, Cadillac itself is, you know, unfortunately not the Cadillac of the industry anymore.”

Many of the presidents attending the summit saw the erosion of Harvard’s brand as a problem not just for the school but, by extension, for the entire enterprise of higher education. If Harvard couldn’t protect itself, what about every other institution? Could Harvard’s leadership find an effective response?

There was a hint of a more assertive approach from Harvard on Monday, when the university announced that it was investigating “highly offensive anti-Semitic tropes” posted on social media by pro-Palestinian student and faculty groups. The groups had posted or reposted material that included an old cartoon of a puppeteer, his hand marked by a dollar sign inside a Star of David, the lynching of Muhammad Ali and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Harvard’s action comes as the House Committee on Education and the Workforce is scrutinizing its record on anti-Semitism. On Friday, the committee issued subpoenas to Harvard’s interim president, the head of the school’s board of trustees and its investment manager in a sweeping search for documents related to the university’s handling of anti-Semitism claims on campus. The threat of the subpoenas prompted PEN America, a writers’ group that defends academic freedom, to warn against a fishing expedition.

There also is a court case against Harvard, calling the university “a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and intimidation,” as well as federal investigations into allegations that the university ignored both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on campus.

Business leaders and major donors, including hedge fund director Ken Griffin, have threatened to withhold funding and not hire Harvard students who defended Hamas’s atrocities in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Right-wing media and anonymous researchers continue to file plagiarism claims against university officials, as part of an attack on diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

There is already evidence of reputational damage: a 17 percent drop in the number of students applying to Harvard for early admissions decisions this year. Other Ivy League schools saw increases.

The attacks “have clearly unsettled Harvard, in terms of its top leadership,” said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor. “They have undermined morale. It has been a very effective attack.”

Within Harvard, faculty and students are seeking a signal from university officials, including its main governing board, the Harvard Corporation, about its future direction.

In a interview Last week, the university’s interim president, Alan Garber, outlined with Harvard Magazine some efforts to ease the tension by enforcing rules against disruptive demonstrations and offering a series of events designed to encourage dialogue rather than conflict between students and faculty.

Those are good steps, said Dara Horn, a novelist who served on a committee last year that advised Harvard’s president on how to combat anti-Semitism. She had noticed that many students didn’t engage with people they disagreed with, and didn’t know how.

“That attitude is the end of education,” says Dr. Horn, who published an article about her experiences at Harvard in The Atlantic. “To me, that’s kind of the baseline.”

Alex Bernat, a Harvard junior and board member of Chabad, a Jewish student group, said Tuesday that the university’s swift response to this week’s anti-Semitic posts was a good sign. But he worried that some members of a pro-Palestinian faculty group who redistributed the anti-Semitic material would have power over the academic careers of Jewish and Israeli students.

The groups that posted the material removed it on Monday. According to them, their approval of anti-Semitic images was unintentional.

Yet the Harvard Corporation has remained relatively quiet, other than confirming that its leader, Penny Pritzker, a philanthropist and former Obama administration official, would stay on and launch a new search for a president, just as she led the search which led to the selection of the previous president, Claudine Gay.

The Corporation was criticized for its selection and support of Dr. Gay, who resigned on January 2 after a storm of outrage over her testimony before Congress in which she argued that calling for genocide of Jews was not necessarily a violation of Harvard’s code of conduct, depending on the context.

The Corporation has been criticized for not taking quicker action to address the issue, and “letting the university spin in the wind,” as Steven Pinker, an outspoken psychology professor, put it in an interview. (He was quick to note that he had not called for Dr. Gay’s resignation.)

However, there is a feeling among some faculty members that the university may be going too far in appeasing its critics.

During the December congressional hearing that doomed Dr. Gay, Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, pointed out a class at Harvard, “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power,” as an example of “ideology at work.”

The instructor of that class, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, said the accusation was “absurd” and that the class includes lectures on the history of anti-Semitism in the United States. He said he was concerned that new conduct rules passed in September, which prohibit discrimination based on “political beliefs,” would lead to students complaining if, like Dr. Foxx, they objected to the content of his classes.

“Prominent black people at this university have reason to worry” that their qualifications will be questioned, he said.

In the tense atmosphere, good intentions sometimes led to problems.

Harvard’s decision to create task forces on campus anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — usually the most abhorrent institutional response — ran into trouble in late January, after Derek Penslar, a leading scholar of Jewish studies, was asked to co-chair become part of the anti-Semitism task force.

Critics objected to his appointment and mentioned an open letter signed by Dr. Penslar and other academics and published before the October 7 attacks, which accused Israel of being “an apartheid regime.” The critics laughed at his comments, quoted in the Jewish press, and said the level of anti-Semitism at Harvard was exaggerated.

According to David Wolpe, a leading rabbi and visiting professor at Harvard Theology School, Harvard’s skeptical reaction to Dr. Penslar has not provided for a leadership that is too narrow-minded.

“The university is failing to see how it would be seen, and there is a sloppiness that is disheartening to many Jewish students, faculty and staff,” Rabbi Wolpe said.

Dr. Penslar, co-chair of the task force, declined to comment for this article. His supporters were angry at what they saw as superficial criticism of a respected scholar.

“For him to have an outside veto for expressing his views — especially given that they are fairly mainstream views — is just a terrible precedent,” said Steven Levitsky, a professor of Latin American studies and government at Harvard. Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Penslar is “a self-proclaimed Zionist,” Dr. Levitsky said.

Some alumni are trying to shake things up. Several independent candidates campaigned for seats on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the university’s second governing body. The candidates failed to gather enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, but have vowed to keep pushing.

One of those candidates, Sam Lessin, a venture capitalist and 2005 Harvard graduate, said the election process itself had exposed the problems with leadership.

Harvard’s governance system is “almost like a peacetime organization,” and not suited to navigating troubled waters, he said. Candidates for the Board of Overseers are typically nominated through the alumni association, and the position is often seen as “a glorified reward for being a catalyst.”

Some faculty members are also organizing. About 170 Harvard professors have joined an academic freedom council, co-founded by Dr. Pinker last spring, to counter what he describes as “an intellectual monoculture.”

Dr. Pinker believes that if Harvard had adopted a policy of institutional neutrality and refrained from taking positions on tough issues of the day, some of the pain of recent months could have been avoided.

“Universities need to get away from the habit of giving mini-sermons every time there is something in the news,” he said.

Dr. Pinker has made a mischievous hobby of collecting headlines and cartoons that ridicule Harvard’s reputational problems. One bumper sticker in his collection reads, “My son didn’t go to Harvard.”

But despite all that, Harvard “still has the brand, it has the legacy,” Dr. Pinker said. “Whether it will get back on track, I don’t know. I suspect it will.”

Stephanie Saul contributed to the reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed to research.

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