With the new year comes new leadership for prestigious colleges Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, as both of their presidents resigned in the final days of 2023. 

Claudine Gay addresses the audience at Capitol Hill on Dec. 7, 2023.

The former President of Harvard, Claudine Gay is a New York native who attended Harvard and Princeton University and taught at Stanford University prior to returning to her alma mater in 2006 as a professor of governmental studies. She transitioned to teaching African American studies in 2007 and was appointed the President of Harvard in July of 2023. 

The former President of Penn, Liz Magill, originally from of North Dakota, is a University of Virginia and Yale University graduate and legal scholar. Her resume includes serving as the dean of Stanford Law School and Provost of the University of Virginia. She was appointed as president of Penn in July of 2022. 

Along with President Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gay and Magill attended Capitol Hill on December 5th, 2023 to speak before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The title of the hearing was “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Anti-Semitism” as a result of increasing acts of antisemitism on campuses since the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. 

“The presidents’ opening statements were broadly similar: They condemned the Hamas attack and antisemitic incidents on campus, discussed their free speech policies and vowed to work immediately and in the long term to combat hate in all forms,” reported NPR’s Rachel Treisman. 

All the noise surrounding this trial stemmed from the following question asked by representative Elise Stefanik: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [the university]’s code of conduct?”

To this, Gay answered, “It can be. Depending on the context…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 action against it. When speech crosses into conduct, we take action.” 

Magill responded similarly. “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes. If it is directed and severe or pervasive, it is harassment. It is a context-dependent decision, Congresswoman.” 

Upon repeated questioning, neither Gay nor Magill explicitly answered “yes,” leading to an uproar of media around the world. Within minutes of the trials’ end, both women faced the wrath of the public for their testimonies. 

On the morning of Dec. 7, Magill issued an apology video, where she expressed her regret regarding her testimony. Unfortunately, it was too late. The Penn trustees met for an emergency meeting on the same day and a petition was signed by 18,000 Pennsylvanians saying that, “the time for apologies is over. It is time for Magill to step down.” On Saturday, Dec. 9, Liz Magill officially resigned. “It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution,” Magill mentioned in her final statement. “It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”

Shortly after the trial, Gay had an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was 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. I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures.” 

Gay faced further criticism as the academic integrity of her works began to be questioned on Dec. 9 when she was accused of plagiarizing some of her early academic work. Gay denied these allegations in an op-ed article published by The New York Times, saying that she still stood by the “integrity of her scholarship.”
Upon further review, the Harvard Corporation agreed that while Gay’s works “revealed a few instances of inadequate citation” they did not violate “Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.” Although the allegations were not taken much further, The Washington Post mentioned that this event was the “final nail in Gay’s coffin.”

On Jan. 2, Gay resigned from her position in a letter to the Harvard Community. “It is with a heavy heart but a deep love for Harvard that I write to share that I will be stepping down as president. After consultation with members of the Corporation, it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.” Gay will return to her previous teaching position, and the search for a new president is underway. In the meantime, Provost Alan Gerber will serve as the interim president. 

The resignations of Gay and Magill will bring change to the admissions and community of Penn and Harvard. In a study by CNBC, it was found that the early applications at Harvard have fallen 17%: 7,921 students applied this year compared to 9,553 last year. The universities will also face a major decrease in funding. It was reported that since Magill’s trial, Penn has lost over 100 million dollars from its donors. 

Beyond Harvard and Penn, these events will affect higher education across the country as high school students decide where they want to apply. The resignations of Magill and Gay have and will continue to shake up the world of education that we know. 

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