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Harvard had no choice but to let Gay step down, private equity say


The new year began with a bombshell at Harvard when the university’s embattled president, Claudine Gay, resigned just six months into her tenure. While some have claimed Gay’s ouster was spurred by systemic racism, others say it was inevitable following her disastrous testimony before Congress last month and a growing mountain of apparent plagiarism. In interviews with Fortune, three private equity executives who attended the famous school took the the latter position.

“She lost the moral and intellectual authority to lead Harvard. Her response to antisemitism on campus was wholly inadequate,” said one PE executive, who added the resignation was “long overdue.”

The executive, who like others in this story asked not to be named so they could speak candidly, pointed to a pro-Palestine protest held at Harvard’s Widener library in December. According to the Harvard Crimson, students donned keffiyehs (traditional Palestinian scarves) and taped signs taped to their laptops that said, “No normalcy during genocide. Justice for Palestine.”

“To this day, some Jewish students are physically afraid,” the exec said, who also decried reports of Gay’s repeated plagiarism. The executive argued she should be held to the same standard, or higher, as Harvard students who face severe repercussions for even minor incidents of plagiarism. 

In mid-December, The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online journal, reported that Gray plagiarized parts of her 1997 dissertation as well as other academic articles. This was followed by a Jan. 1 report, also from The Washington Free Beacon, that detailed several more alleged plagiarisms found in articles that are sometimes more than 20 years old, as well as Gay’s 1997 dissertation. 

“There was no choice but for [Gay] to resign,” another PE executive told Fortune. Ultimately, it was the combination of events—Gay’s failure to rein in antisemitism and the plagiarism claims— that ended her career as Harvard’s president, the PE execs said.

Gay was one of three university Presidents who were asked by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Dec. 5 whether they would punish students who called for the genocide of Jews. All three gave vague responses.  Gay said it would depend on the context, adding that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies”—a response many viewed as legalistic and insensitive.

Gay did later apologize for her comments but efforts to ride out the controversy over anti-Semitism were eclipsed by news of her plagiarism 

“It’s for the best and I didn’t think Harvard had a choice,” said a third private equity executive in describing the fast-moving events.

Gay did not return requests for comment.

Bill Ackman weighs in

Bill Ackman, the billionaire investor who founded Pershing Square Capital Management and is a Harvard alum, has led a high-profile campaign against Gay. On Wednesday, Ackman published a roughly 4,000 word essay on X that claimed DEI policies were the “root cause of antisemitism at Harvard.” He also said Gay “did not possess the leadership skills to serve as Harvard’s president, putting aside any questions about her academic credentials.”

Ackman called for Penny Pritzker, Harvard Corp’s board chair, to resign along with any other members who led the campaign to keep Gay. He also wants to shut down Harvard’s office for equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. (Penny Pritzker is the sister of J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, and chair of investment firm PSP Partners.) 

Some PE execs agree with Ackman. Harvard Corp failed to conduct proper diligence when it hired Gay and anyone involved in the search should resign, the first private equity executive said. Harvard needs to “bring in new members who are not besmirched by the episode,” they said.

“Senior Fellow Penny Pritzker is not resigning,” a Harvard spokesman said. 

Not everyone is comfortable with Gay’s ouster. One venture capitalist and Harvard alum told Fortune he hated the “witch-hunt feeling” preceding her resignation. Free speech is a critically important issue that gets cloudy when hate speech is introduced, the VC said, adding “Anyway, it’s a crappy situation and [there is] no winning for anyone.”

A Pershing Square spokesman declined to comment on Ackman’s remarks.

Gay earned her Ph.D. at Harvard roughly 25 years ago and will remain at the storied institution. She is a professor of government and of African and African American Studies. Alan M. Garber, Harvard’s provost and chief academic officer, will serve as interim president until the school selects a new one, a statement from Harvard Corp said.

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