Claudine Gay was in Rome on a family vacation on Dec. 27 when Penny Pritzker, the leader of Harvard University’s governing board, called to ask: Did she think there was a path forward with her as the school’s president?
Ms. Pritzker sounded weary, and it was posed as an open question, two people with knowledge of the conversation said. But Dr. Gay understood what it meant. Her six-month tenure as Harvard’s president was over. On Jan. 2, she announced her resignation.
That marked the end of one of the most tumultuous periods in Harvard’s 387-year history, a controversy that thrust the school into the public debate after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza. Not only did the university’s president lose her job, but the secretive workings of its board, the Harvard Corporation, were laid bare.
For weeks the board had stood by its embattled president as she dealt with withering criticism of her tepid response to antisemitism on campus, her disastrous testimony before a House panel and mounting allegations of plagiarism in her academic work. Ms. Pritzker, who had led the selection of Dr. Gay as the school’s first Black president, was an especially ardent backer.
On Dec. 12, the corporation put out a statement in support of Dr. Gay, citing “our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”
The campus of Harvard, which has been racked by protests and controversy since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times
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.
She was exhausted and scared. As the holidays approached, her husband and teenage son pressed her to go on a long-scheduled vacation to Rome. Desperate for a breather, Dr. Gay and her family flew out on Friday, Dec. 22.
Corporation members also scattered to vacation homes and resorts around the world. Ms. Pritzker, a former secretary of commerce and an heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, spent time in Aspen, Colo. Kenneth I. Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express, went to Miami. Mr. Barakett was also in Florida, while Karen Gordon Mills, a former leader of the Small Business Administration and an heir to the Tootsie Roll fortune, was at an economic conference in India.
The board members had received plenty of advice and criticism by others in their wealthy circles, Harvard alumni and donors. But when they arrived at their vacation spots around Christmas they were besieged by a new wave from friends and relatives. Some people told Ms. Pritzker that she might be forced to resign from the Harvard Corporation because she had helped choose Dr. Gay and stood by her.
More than one board member had children studying at Harvard. At least one worried that other students would harass them because of their parents’ roles on the board and the bad press, according to two people who spoke with corporation members.
It was clear that the controversies were not dying. On Christmas Eve, William Ackman, a hedge fund manager and a vigorous opponent of Dr. Gay, posted on X that she had been asked to resign — which was not true at the time. He also revealed that she had hired outside lawyers — which was true. Newspaper articles about Dr. Gay and the board kept coming.
At this point, Dr. Gay was somewhat removed from the situation. She called Mr. Chenault from Rome at Christmastime, and he was sympathetic and supportive, a person familiar with the conversation said. She reached out to Ms. Pritzker on Christmas Day.
By then the board action had shifted from formal meetings to a flurry of phone calls and email discussions among small groups of members, with Ms. Pritzker guiding many of the conversations.
The board had been ground down by new allegations of plagiarism, the drumbeat of news articles, and the barrage of criticism and advice from influential strangers and loved ones.
For weeks, the focus of board conversations had been on finding a way to keep Dr. Gay and end the crisis on campus. But by the day after Christmas, that had changed, people briefed on the events said. The board members agreed that they were dealing with a crisis of leadership and that the best path forward for Harvard was without Dr. Gay in the president’s chair. Everyone agreed it was time for Ms. Pritzker to call her.
On that Dec. 27 phone call, Dr. Gay said she would resign. Ms. Pritzker gave her the weekend to sort out her exit, three people with knowledge of the conversation said. In subsequent phone calls, the two began to hammer out the terms of Dr. Gay’s departure, including what the Harvard Corporation’s and her statements should say and an agreement that she would remain on Harvard’s faculty.
The rest of the details they left to the lawyers.