Lowell House on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023.
New York CNN —
The Harvard brand, one of the most prestigious among all universities, took nearly 400 years to build. But it’s taken just three months to call that brand very much into question.
The university’s initial response to the October 7 terror attack on Israel was criticized, even by its own top board. Harvard President Claudine Gay’s testimony before Congress was an unmitigated disaster. And now Gay is mired in a plagiarism scandal.
All of this has opened up Harvard to fierce criticism from politicians and alumni, some of whom have vowed to close their checkbooks.
One such Harvard graduate, venture capitalist and former Facebook executive Sam Lessin, told CNN he believes the university has “never been weaker” — and he’s pointing the finger at the very top.
“The Harvard brand is deeply embattled,” Lessin said in a phone interview. “Gay has demonstrated extreme weakness as an administrator and as a leader. The Harvard Corporation has not communicated well with the outside world.”
Lessin, who worked at Facebook from 2010 to 2014 before co-founding San Francisco-based Slow Ventures, is hoping to fix Harvard by getting elected to the university’s powerful Board of Overseers.
He’s scrambling to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot, a tall task made more plausible by growing dissatisfaction among rank-and-file alumni.
‘Everyone is terrified’
To make his case, Lessin pointed to a drop in early applications to Harvard that its rivals did not experience, as well as conversations with parents who say top students are rethinking whether they even want to go to the Ivy League school.
“It’s really sad,” he said. “I believe in Harvard. I love Harvard. But the university is clearly in a weak spot.”
Lessin described a culture of fear where some associated with the university are unwilling to speak out publicly.
“Everyone is terrified. It’s not a free-speech culture,” he said. “The irony is Gay is speaking about free speech but there is anything but free speech at Harvard.”
Last week, billionaire Len Blavatnik joined a growing list of frustrated Harvard donors closing their checkbooks to the school.
Blavatnik, who is Jewish and whose family foundation has donated at least $270 million to Harvard, is holding back donations until the university addresses antisemitism on campus, a person familiar with the matter previously told CNN.
Harvard’s board stands by Gay
Harvard, which has a massive endowment valued at a staggering $51 billion, did not respond to requests for comment on Lessin’s criticism.
Days after her controversial appearance before Congress, Gay apologized, telling The Harvard Crimson: “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret.”
On December 12, the Harvard Corporation issued a statement saying its members “unanimously stand in support of President Gay,” arguing she is the “right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”
Last week, some key members of Harvard’s faculty and the Harvard Corporation held a meeting over dinner to discuss the problems at the school. During that meeting, Jeff Flier, a former dean of the Harvard Medical School, urged the board to address the problems at Harvard more directly.
“If people are saying the university is making mistakes — they are talking about you!” Flier said he told the Corporation members.
The pressure on Harvard and Gay has only been amplified by the plagiarism controversy.
Last week, Harvard announced Gay plans to submit corrections to her 1997 PhD dissertation due to “inadequate citation.” Those corrections come on top of ones Gay issued earlier this month to a pair of scholarly articles she wrote in the 2000s.
Harvard has described Gay’s corrections as “regrettable” but found the matter does not constitute research misconduct — a punishable offense.
‘Real failure’ by Harvard’s board
Lessin, the former Facebook exec, called the plagiarism charges “pretty serious” and “very embarrassing” for Harvard.
He questioned why the Harvard Corporation did not uncover the plagiarism issue before hiring Gay just over a year ago.
“This is a real failure of the Corporation,” he said. “Their fate is very tied up with Gay’s, given the fact they did a search and selected her.”
Lessin compared the situation to that of the investors and celebrities who failed to thoroughly vet FTX, the crypto exchange that collapsed in November 2022.
“People just didn’t do their homework. It’s pretty clear the [Harvard] Corporation and the Overseers skipped a step,” Lessin said.
Gay gets internal support
However, plagiarism experts interviewed by CNN were divided on what the punishment for Gay should be — or whether there should be one in the first place.
None of those experts argued Gay should be outright fired, and said it’s rare for academics to be fired or students to be expelled for plagiarism.
Gay has defended her writings.
“I stand by the integrity of myscholarship. Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure myscholarship adheres to the highest academic standards,” Gay said in a statement earlier this month.
Although Gay has faced calls for her resignation from some lawmakers and donors, earlier this month the Harvard president enjoyed strong support from hundreds of faculty members who signed a petition urging officials not to let her go.
During a virtual town hall Gay held with Harvard faculty last week, about a dozen faculty members spoke and all of them were supportive, a person familiar with the matter previously told CNN.
The plagiarism controversy swirling around Gay did not come up, the source said.
As a seasoned expert in higher education dynamics, university governance, and the intricacies of academic leadership, it's clear that the recent developments at Harvard University have far-reaching implications for its esteemed reputation. My deep knowledge in this field allows me to shed light on the complexities surrounding Harvard's current challenges.
Firstly, the mention of Lowell House on the Harvard University campus brings to mind the rich history and architectural significance of Harvard's residential houses, each with its own unique character. Lowell House, named after the prominent Lowell family, is part of this historical tapestry.
Now, let's delve into the unfolding crisis. The Harvard brand, meticulously built over nearly four centuries, finds itself under unprecedented scrutiny due to a series of events within the past three months. The terror attack on Israel triggered a controversial response from the university, drawing criticism even from its own board.
Harvard President Claudine Gay's testimony before Congress exacerbated the situation, marking it as an "unmitigated disaster." This incident, coupled with a plagiarism scandal involving Gay, has ignited fierce criticism from both politicians and alumni, some of whom are reconsidering their financial support.
Notably, venture capitalist and former Facebook executive Sam Lessin, a Harvard graduate, has emerged as a vocal critic, asserting that the university has "never been weaker." Lessin is actively seeking a place on Harvard's powerful Board of Overseers to address what he perceives as a leadership crisis.
Lessin supports his claims by pointing to a decline in early applications to Harvard, a trend not observed in its peer institutions. He emphasizes conversations with concerned parents who report that top students are reevaluating their desire to attend the Ivy League school.
Harvard's current predicament, as described by Lessin, extends beyond mere dissatisfaction; he paints a picture of a culture of fear within the university, where individuals are hesitant to express themselves openly. This perceived lack of free speech stands in stark contrast to the university's purported commitment to the principle.
A critical aspect of this crisis is the stance of influential donors. Billionaire Len Blavatnik, a significant contributor to Harvard, has decided to withhold donations until the university addresses allegations of antisemitism on campus. This move reflects a broader trend among frustrated donors who are closing their checkbooks, posing a financial threat to a university with a massive $51 billion endowment.
In response to these challenges, Harvard's board, backed by its substantial endowment, publicly supports President Claudine Gay. The board contends that she is the right leader to guide the university through these difficult times and address societal issues.
The plagiarism controversy surrounding Gay, marked by corrections to her 1997 PhD dissertation and scholarly articles, adds another layer to the crisis. Despite calls for her resignation, internal support from faculty members has been substantial. During a recent virtual town hall, faculty members overwhelmingly expressed their support for Gay, and the plagiarism issue did not surface.
As the situation unfolds, it raises questions not only about the leadership at the highest levels of the university but also about the oversight mechanisms, including the Harvard Corporation, tasked with vetting and selecting leaders. The comparison made by Lessin to failures in vetting during the FTX collapse underscores concerns about due diligence.
In conclusion, the Harvard crisis is a multifaceted challenge encompassing leadership, donor relations, free speech concerns, and academic integrity. The university's response and resolution of these issues will undoubtedly shape its future trajectory and the perception of its brand for years to come.