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Harvard's president still has significant public support after controversial hearing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An announcement is expected today regarding the job status of Harvard President Claudine Gay. Gay and the presidents of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania have been under fire since testifying to Congress last week that calls for genocide might not necessarily violate campus codes of conduct. The president of the University of Pennsylvania has resigned under pressure, but MIT's president seems safe for now. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, Harvard's president still enjoys significant public support.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The executive committee of a Harvard alumni group is expressing unequivocal support for their, quote, "exceptional" university president.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Let Gay stay. What? Let Gay stay. What?

SMITH: But the small group of students who turned out to rally in support of President Gay on campus yesterday were not quite as effusive. To many, it's just too soon to fire a president who was just inaugurated 10 weeks ago. And as Harvard student Jeremy Ornstein put it, it's wrong for a university to cave to outside pressure.

JEREMY ORNSTEIN: We don't want to let donors and politicians dictate who gets to lead our university, and we want a...

SMITH: A pro-Palestinian student says it's especially important to resist calls for Gay's resignation that he says are all about her failure to protect Jewish and Israeli students, but not Muslim, Arab or Palestinian students. He asked that his name not be used for fear of harassment and doxxing, as many Harvard students accused of antisemitism or supporting Hamas have had their pictures posted online or on billboard trucks around town.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm not happy with what she's done, but if the concern were general student safety, then I'd be more sympathetic to calls for her to resign. But if the calls are simply on one side, I worry that the blowback towards students from a replacement to Gay would be quite bad.

SMITH: Others on campus remain adamant that Gay must go. Shabbos Kestenbaum, a Jewish divinity school student, blames the president for being a purist on free speech only when it's speech against Jews.

SHABBOS KESTENBAUM: She has let the calls for violence against Jewish people - she has let this become normalized at Harvard. I entirely blame her. She has let a lot of antisemitism at Harvard run rampant.

SMITH: Gay's defenders say slogans that some are objecting to mean different things to different people, and should not be conflated with calls for genocide. As for Gay's future, one thing many agree on - the optics would not be good if Harvard fires its first Black president and a Black woman. As one put it, it would definitely be ugly.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Cambridge, Mass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.