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Harvard President Claudine Gay defended academic freedom and warned affiliates against violence, harassment, and other violations of conduct rules in a University-wide email Friday evening — her latest attempt to subdue weeks of sustained criticism from donors and alumni.
“While free inquiry remains a bedrock academic value, Harvard will not tolerate any activity that violates the safety of our community members, and we will not hesitate to enforce our policies and hold those who engage in such conduct accountable,” Gay wrote.
The University has faced enormous backlash from a slew of prominent alumni — including powerful donors and former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers — over its slow response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the timing of Gay’s message, but it seemed to signal deep concern that the Islamophobic and antisemitic violence during a month of war in the Middle East could spread to Harvard’s campus. The past few weeks have also seen additional Harvard University Police Department officers stationed outside Harvard Hillel.
The Friday statement also came after videos circulated widely on social media of an intense confrontation between a man filming pro-Palestine protesters at a “die-in” at the Harvard Business School and protest organizers blocking his camera and trying to escort the man away, yelling “shame” as he left.
In her Friday message, Gay drew a parallel between the current tensions on campus over Israel and Palestine and the political divisiveness of the Vietnam War era.
The anti-Vietnam War protests prematurely ended the tenure of Harvard’s 24th president, Nathan M. Pusey ’28 — and the comparison suggested Gay believes the current alumni and donor pressure on Harvard could pose a risk to her presidency.
Gay also urged affiliates to read Harvard’s “University-Wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities,” which the governing boards adopted after the 1969 University Hall takeover by anti-Vietnam War protesters. The statement defended peaceful protest that does not infringe upon the personal rights of Harvard affiliates.
“The document emerged in the late 1960s, during a time of unrest not unlike today,” Gay wrote. “Amid that discord, our predecessors affirmed the rights vital to academic freedom, while also extracting from the tumult an opportunity for reflection, renewal, and growth.”
Gay pledged to defend the 53-year-old University-Wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities throughout her tenure.
“As President, I take these rights and responsibilities seriously, especially in divisive times,” she wrote. “Our University’s purpose is to advance human knowledge for society’s betterment.”
Harvard found itself at the forefront of a national conversation about political divisions on college campuses after the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee authored a statement originally co-signed by more than 30 other student groups that held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible” for ensuing violence.
The statement received widespread condemnation, and the students allegedly affiliated with signatory groups became the subjects of multiple doxxing attacks, including by a truck that drove around campus and displayed students’ names and faces.
Gay’s message on Friday came hours before Executive Vice President Meredith L. Weenick ’90 sent another University-wide email outlining efforts at Harvard to ensure affiliates’ safety, including the publication of a new guide to “protecting against online abuse and harassment.”
“We’ve seen an increase in hateful and reckless rhetoric,” Weenick wrote. “We’ve seen individuals within our community targeted by acts of harassment and intimidation.”
“I want to assure you that we do not condone and will not ignore acts of harassment or intimidation, or threats of violence,” she added.
Weenick also wrote that HUPD has stepped up its physical security presence on campus and is monitoring “online activity for the potential of any specific threat to the campus community or individuals on campus.”
“We are committed to the wellbeing of every community member during this challenging time,” she added.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @claireyuan33.
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