(Bloomberg) -- Harvard University is fracturing.

More than 700 faculty have signed a petition urging the school’s leadership to resist political pressures “at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom, including calls for the removal of President Claudine Gay.”

At the same time over 1,000 students and alumni, including billionaire donors such as Bill Ackman, are demanding the school replace its leader in the wake of rising antisemitism on campus and her responses. 

In the middle: Students and some of the other 20,000 staff and faculty dismayed by events that are dividing the school.

The rhetoric has reached a fever pitch since Gay testified at a Dec. 5 hearing in Congress, which has drawn the ire of the White House, been lampooned on Saturday Night Live and has already forced out University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill.

At the center of it all are the dozen members of the Harvard Corp. Drawn from academia, business and philanthropy the group includes Gay, ex-Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, former American Express Co. head Ken Chenault, investor and Harvard Treasurer Timothy Barakett and Shirley Tilghman, who was head of Princeton University.

That board met until late on Monday, ostensibly to discuss university business, but with the leadership question top of the agenda. A spokesperson for the university said no immediate announcement or decision was expected. The New York Times reported that a decision on Gay’s future could come Tuesday, citing two people it didn’t identify. 

As the controversy over her testimony has dragged on, the board hasn’t issued a statement in support of Gay, the university’s first Black president who has only been in the role since July.

By contrast, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said on Dec. 7 it unequivocally backed its president Sally Kornbluth, who along with Magill and Gay testified at the hearing.

All three women provided narrow legal responses over whether calling for the genocide of Jews is against school policy, fueling demands for them to quit or be fired. Elise Stefanik, the Republican from upstate New York who led that line of questioning, described their leadership as “totally unfit and untenable.”

It’s not just Gay’s fate that is most immediately at stake. 

Events since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, have exposed fault lines at Harvard and other elite universities over their approaches to free speech, racial and gender diversity and the influence of donors. 

Protests in support of Palestinians and against Israel, and antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents, have rattled campuses, but also become part of a broader ideological battle, with Republicans and some donors sensing an opportunity to reshape the Ivy League, which they believe has drifted too far to the left.

“This is as difficult a moment for elite higher education as any moment since the Vietnam War,” said Larry Summers, a former Harvard president who’s a paid contributor to Bloomberg TV and initially slammed Gay for failing to adequately condemn the attack by Hamas, which is designated by the US and European Union as a terrorist group. “Perhaps more difficult.”

$51 Billion 

Nowhere are the stakes higher than at Harvard, which counts eight US presidents, four sitting Supreme Court justices and many global leaders among its alumni. It’s the oldest and richest university in the country with a $51 billion endowment and has a fundraising arm that brought in $1 billion annually since 2014.

Gay, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, was selected as Harvard’s 30th president last year to succeed Lawrence Bacow. The search committee, led by Pritzker, considered more than 600 nominations over several months before settling on Gay, a political scientist, who earned her Ph.D. from Harvard and had most recently been dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 

Tilghman told the Harvard Crimson at the time that when Gay was announced as the final choice, the board of overseers responded with “overwhelming excitement and joy.” 

The board now has to decide whether Gay can steer the institution through its current turmoil, build bridges with donors and alumni and secure government funding. She’ll also have to contend with two federal investigations stemming from antisemitism charges.

Stefanik-Ackman

Her most fervent critics include very different alumni. Stefanik, who was removed from the senior advisory committee of Harvard’s Institute of Politics after she claimed voter fraud in the last presidential election, and Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager with almost 1 million followers on X.

Ackman has used the social media platform to hammer Gay for weeks, including for the university’s slow response when over 30 student groups laid the sole responsibility for Hamas’ attack against Israel on the Jewish state. 

He’s highlighted antisemitism on campus, but also expanded his critique to Harvard’s policies over diversity, equity and inclusion.

On Sunday he posted a letter on X that he sent to Harvard’s governing boards claiming that during her “short tenure” as president, Gay “has done more damage to the reputation of Harvard University than any individual in our nearly 500-year history.”

He’s also made it personal, raising questions over the quality of her academic work, how she was selected to lead the institution, and accusing her of suppressing speech she disfavors. Ackman even raised controversial actions prior to her presidency, including when Harvard Professor Ronald Sullivan was fired for taking on Harvey Weinstein’s legal defense.

Amid the turmoil, Gay has found her academic credentials and doctorate thesis under attack as well. She pushed back on that criticism this week, saying, “I stand by the integrity of my scholarship. Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards.”

The source and nature of the attacks has given pause to many in the Harvard community, including current and former faculty and other billionaire donors.

‘Bizarrely Evasive’

The petition to resist political pressure over Gay has been signed by some of Harvard’s most eminent teachers, including law professor Laurence Tribe, even after he described her testimony last week as “bizarrely evasive.” 

“I really hope we don’t let donors and politicians dictate who leads our school,” wrote Harvard Professor Jason Furman, a former top economic advisor in the Obama administration.

“Mr. Ackman and others are right to call attention to issues of antisemitism at his alma mater,” wrote David Thomas, president of Morehouse College and Ackman’s former professor at Harvard Business School. “To turn the question to the legitimacy of President Gay’s selection because she is a Black woman is a dog whistle we have heard before: Black and female, equal not qualified. We must call it out.” 

The Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance, which has thousands of members, also said while it “understands” the calls for Gay to step down, it has concerns “the plight on campus would deepen in the prolongated process of searching for a new president.” 

All of this is unfolding on campus during finals and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. 

At a Friday night menorah lighting organized by Harvard Chabad, Barakett attended with Josh Friedman of Canyon Partners — both sit on the board of Harvard Management Co. which oversees the endowment.

Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, founder and president of Harvard Chabad said that it showed solidarity at a difficult time. He also noted that every president in the past 25 years has attended a Menorah lighting, but that Gay hasn’t yet participated despite an invite. 

Zarchi said that she’d be welcome. 

“Let’s see what the coming days bring to ensure that Harvard regains its dignity,” he said.

(Updates with Harvard saying no developments expected Monday night in seventh paragraph and Gay’s defense of her academic background in 24th paragraph.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.