After controversial testimony, Harvard University president remains NPR's Juana Summers talks with Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe about Claudine Gay's controversial congressional hearing and the decision to retain her as Harvard's president.

After controversial testimony, Harvard University president remains

After controversial testimony, Harvard University president remains

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NPR's Juana Summers talks with Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe about Claudine Gay's controversial congressional hearing and the decision to retain her as Harvard's president.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Harvard University president Claudine Gay will keep her job. The unanimous decision to have her stay on was announced today by Harvard's board. This came after calls for Gay's removal following her comments at a congressional hearing about the rise of antisemitism on campus. Gay and the presidents of two other universities came under intense scrutiny following that hearing. When asked if calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard's code of conduct, Gay wouldn't give a yes or no answer. Harvard constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe called her testimony hesitant, formulaic and evasive. But he was among hundreds of faculty members who rallied behind Gay, urging Harvard to keep its president. When I spoke with him earlier today, he gave me his reaction to this news.

LAURENCE TRIBE: I was pleased to see that she will remain president. I think it would have been a real mistake for the university to cave to the particular pressures placed upon it from external sources. And I'm glad that she will be retained.

SUMMERS: So she keeps her job. But, I mean, what type of position does this put Claudine Gay in now? Do you think she's out of the woods?

TRIBE: Well, I don't think she's out of the woods by any means. I think the only way through this forest is through the trees, and she's got to plant plenty of trees. It's clear that Harvard has not done as good a job as it should have in having a clear policy that would have made it obvious to anyone that for students to call for the killing of fellow students - the killing of Jews, of Muslims, the killing of Blacks - is not even close to the line - obviously and clearly unacceptable. It should have been very easy for all of the university presidents to answer that question. It was softball, not a got-you. You know, I was very disappointed, I must say, not just by the president of Harvard, but by the presidents of Penn and MIT. They all relied on obviously terrible legal advice, suggesting that they should answer in a kind of hyper-technical way that kept all of their options open. That was a mistake.

SUMMERS: Let's talk about the politics here. Much of the intense national backlash stemming from this hearing was related to questions that came from Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York. She's a member of Republican leadership in the House. And since the hearing, Liz Magill, who's the president of the University of Pennsylvania, was forced to resign. Congresswoman Stefanik wrote on social media, one down, two to go, in reference to the other university leaders who testified - Gay and the president of MIT. I want to ask you, does it worry you that politicians are attempting to influence higher education for political gain?

TRIBE: It worries me greatly. One down, two to go makes it sound like she's playing "The Hunger Games." She's on the hunt for people who don't follow her particular right-wing political agenda - the MAGA agenda. When you have a former president who says he would terminate the Constitution and when you have people who are his supporters, his enablers, people who either helped him almost conduct a successful coup and remain in power - when you have those people chortling at their success in forcing one university president out of office and looking forward to forcing others out, we have a dangerous environment that, as we come close to the 2024 election, where it is really possible that a dictator wannabe will assume power. That's the time when we must be particularly vigilant not to let the Stefaniks of the world carry the day.

SUMMERS: I just want to step back a bit here because, I mean, Harvard and colleges and universities across the country have been reckoning with issues surrounding race and equity and free speech for years. And just last month, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government reported that a majority of its students did not feel comfortable expressing their, quote, "genuine views on controversial topics." Laurence Tribe, what does this current moment tell us about what kind of free speech is and isn't permissible on Harvard's campus in particular?

TRIBE: Well, it's clear to me that Harvard needs to do a better job drawing a distinction between expressing views, however controversial, and harassing other students - whether targeting individuals or naming whole groups, whether the group be Palestinians or Jews, whether they be gay or straight, Black or white, or any other group - making those people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. It's clear that much more needs to be done in the structure of the campus space - safe spaces where people know they can express views, however controversial as long as they don't call for the actual physical harming of others.

I've heard from students that there is a chill in the air in general, that people are afraid to speak their mind because they think they might be ostracized or might cross a line. I don't think Harvard or any institution that I know has done as good a job as all of us should in avoiding that chill and encouraging dialogue. And the whole society hasn't done as good a job as we should, really from the earliest phases of education, in instilling those values. So we've got a lot of work to do, not only in universities, but throughout education and throughout society.

SUMMERS: That was Laurence Tribe. He's a constitutional law scholar and professor at Harvard University. Thank you.

TRIBE: Thank you.

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