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Following testimony, Harvard University's board meets over president's tenure

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We begin this hour with fallout from the testimony of three college presidents on Capitol Hill. The president of the University of Pennsylvania has stepped down after facing donor pressure and anger. And today the group that could ultimately decide the fate of the Harvard president is meeting. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is following this. Hi, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Remind us why these college presidents are under so much pressure, starting with what happened last week here in Washington.

NADWORNY: Yes. As we've been hearing for days and on "Saturday Night Live" this past weekend, the presidents of Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and MIT testified before a House committee about the rise of antisemitism on campus. Their remarks were full of legalese, and critics were convinced they didn't go far enough in condemning calls for genocide. As you mentioned, one president, Liz Magill of Penn, resigned. So far, Sally Kornbluth of MIT has the support of that university's governing board. Claudine Gay of Harvard has since apologized and clarified her comments, saying that calls for genocide are vile.

SHAPIRO: So today her job seems to be on the line. How is that situation different from what played out at the University of Pennsylvania?

NADWORNY: Well, at Penn, frustrations over Magill's leadership had been brewing for several weeks over a number of issues. And what's different at Harvard - while there are calls for her to go, you know, from donors and alumni, Gay has strong support from faculty. She's the first Black female president of Harvard, and Black faculty members have signed a letter in support. That's in addition to a two-sentence letter that has now been signed by more than 700 faculty at Harvard. It urges the Harvard Corporation, which is this small board with a lot of power, to, quote, "defend the independence of the university and to resist political pressures." I talked with Alison Frank Johnson, a history professor who co-authored that letter. Here's what she had to say.

ALISON FRANK JOHNSON: We thought in this particular moment, the most important thing to do was to insist that universities should be independent of political influence.

SHAPIRO: And is political influence what's happening here?

NADWORNY: So the most combative moment from that several-hours-long hearing last week, where all this stems from, came from sharp questions by Republican House member Elise Stefanik of New York. Over the weekend, after the resignation of the University of Pennsylvania President, Stefanik said on social media, quote, "one down, two to go." I talked about this with Lauren Lassabe Shepard, who recently wrote the book "Resistance From The Right: Conservatives And The Campus Wars In Modern America."

LAUREN LASSABE SHEPHERD: Conservatives in the U.S. have long been suspicious of higher education, especially since World War II, for its democratizing effect, for its liberal approach to learning. I mean, there's a whole range of issues that the right doesn't like or appreciate. And unfortunately, they can use instances like this to their advantage.

SHAPIRO: But, Elissa, the criticism is not only coming from conservative Republicans, right?

NADWORNY: That's right. There are, you know, a wide range of political viewpoints behind this criticism, including Democrats. I heard also this reflected, too, in the voice of Harvard students that I talked to today. I mean, they're conflicted. I talked with students who are appalled, disappointed, shocked by Gay's comments on the Hill. But they are seeing, you know, the politics play out here. And several students told me they see calls for Gay's resignation as a distraction not just from issues on campus but the conflict unfolding abroad.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thank you.

NADWORNY: Thank you. 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.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.