Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, announced her resignation on Tuesday, after her presidency had become engulfed in crisis over accusations of plagiarism and what some called her insufficient response to antisemitism on campus after the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.
In announcing she would step down immediately, Dr. Gay, Harvard’s first Black president and the second woman to lead the university, ended a turbulent tenure that began last July. She will have the shortest stint in office of any Harvard president since its founding in 1636.
Alan M. Garber, an economist and physician who is Harvard’s provost and chief academic officer, will serve as interim president. Dr. Gay will remain a tenured professor of government and African and African American studies.
Dr. Gay became the second university president to resign in recent weeks, after she and the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and M.I.T. appeared in a Dec. 5 congressional hearing in which they appeared to evade the question of whether students who called for the genocide of Jews should be punished.
Penn’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill, resigned four days after that hearing. Sally Kornbluth, M.I.T.’s president, has also faced calls for her resignation.
In a letter announcing her decision, Dr. Gay said that after consulting with members of the university’s governing body, the Harvard Corporation, “it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.”
At the same time, Dr. Gay, 53, defended her academic record and suggested that she was the target of highly personal and racist attacks.
“Amidst all of this, it has been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor — two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am — and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus,” she wrote.
Last year, the news of Dr. Gay’s appointment was widely seen as a breakthrough moment for the university. The daughter of Haitian immigrants and an expert on minority representation and political participation in government, she took office just as the Supreme Court rejected the use of race-conscious admissions at Harvard and other universities.
She also became a major target of some powerful graduates like the billionaire investor William A. Ackman, who was concerned about antisemitism and suggested on social media last month that Harvard had only considered candidates for the presidency who met “the D.E.I. office’s criteria,” referring to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Dr. Gay’s resignation came after the latest plagiarism accusations against her were circulated in an unsigned complaint published on Monday in The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online journal that has led a campaign against Dr. Gay over the past few weeks.
The complaint added to about 40 other plagiarism accusations that had already been circulated in the journal. The accusations raised questions about whether Harvard was holding its president to the same academic standards as its students.
Lawrence H. Summers, the former U.S. treasury secretary who resigned as Harvard president under pressure in 2006, suggested that Dr. Gay had made the right decision. “I admire Claudine Gay for putting Harvard’s interests first at what I know must be an agonizingly difficult moment,” he said in an email.
Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who leads the House committee that is investigating Harvard and other universities, said the inquiry would continue despite Dr. Gay’s resignation.
“There has been a hostile takeover of postsecondary education by political activists, woke faculty and partisan administrators,” Ms. Foxx said in a statement, adding, “The problems at Harvard are much larger than one leader.”
On Harvard’s campus, some expressed deep dismay with what they described as a politically motivated campaign against Dr. Gay and higher education more broadly. Hundreds of faculty members had signed public letters asking Harvard’s governing board to resist pressure to remove Dr. Gay.
“This is a terrible moment,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Republican congressional leaders have declared war on the independence of colleges and universities, just as Governor DeSantis has done in Florida. They will only be emboldened by Gay’s resignation.”
Some faculty members criticized how the secretive Harvard Corporation had handled the political onslaught and plagiarism allegations.
Alison Frank Johnson, a history professor, said she “couldn’t be more dismayed.”
“Instead of making a decision based on established scholarly principles, we had here a public hounding,” she said. “Instead of listening to voices of scholars in her field who could speak to the importance and originality of her research, we heard voices of derision and spite on social media. Instead of following established university procedure, we had a corporation granting access to self-appointed advisers and carrying out reviews using mysterious and undisclosed methods.”
Rumors about problems in Dr. Gay’s work had circulated for months on anonymous message boards. But the first widely publicized report came on Dec. 10, before Harvard’s board met to discuss Dr. Gay’s future, after her disastrous testimony in the congressional hearing.
That evening, the conservative activist Christopher Rufo published an essay in his Substack newsletter highlighting what he described as “problematic patterns of usage and citation” in Dr. Gay’s 1997 doctoral dissertation.
The Washington Free Beacon followed with several articles detailing allegations regarding her published scholarly articles, and reported two formal complaints submitted to the Research Integrity Office of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
In a statement on Dec. 12 saying that Dr. Gay would stay on, the board acknowledged the accusations and said it had been made aware of them in late October. The board said it had conducted an investigation and found “a few instances of inadequate citation” in two articles, which it said would be corrected. But the infractions, the board said, did not rise to the level of “research misconduct.”
Dr. Gay was already under pressure for what some had said was the university’s inadequate response to the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.
After initially remaining silent after student groups wrote an open letter saying that Israel was “entirely responsible” for the violence, Dr. Gay and other officials released a letter to the university community acknowledging “feelings of fear, sadness, anger and more.” After an outcry over what some considered the tepid language, Dr. Gay issued a more forceful statement condemning Hamas for “terrorist atrocities,” while urging people to use words that “illuminate and not inflame.”
At the congressional hearing, Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, pelted Dr. Gay and the other university presidents with hypothetical questions.
“At Harvard,” Ms. Stefanik asked Dr. Gay, “does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?”
“It can be, depending on the context,” Dr. Gay replied.
That exchange, and a similar back and forth between Ms. Stefanik and Ms. Magill, rocketed across social media and infuriated many people with close ties to the universities.
Dr. Gay moved to contain the fallout with an apology in an interview that was published in The Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper. “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” she said.
One week after her testimony, the Harvard Corporation issued a unanimous statement of support — after meeting late into the night — saying that it stood firmly behind her.
But there were signs that controversy might have harmed Harvard’s reputation. The number of students who applied this fall under the university’s early action program — giving them the possibility of an admissions decision in December instead of March — fell about 17 percent, the university said last month.
Reporting was contributed by Dana Goldstein, Rob Copeland, Annie Karni and Vimal Patel. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.