More than 600 members of staff at Harvard University have backed its president following criticism over her appearance at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism.
It comes amid mounting pressure on Claudine Gay to step down after she suggested it would depend on the context whether or not calling for the “genocide of Jews” would be classed as breaking university rules on bullying and harassment.
She told the Washington DC committee of politicians that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies”.
Two others who appeared alongside her at the hearing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President Sally Kornbluth and University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, were criticized for similar comments.
All three condemned antisemitism during the session last week but dozens of Republican politicians have demanded they be removed from their posts, arguing that the trio should have been more unequivocal in their answers.
Prof Magill resigned at the weekend amid the growing row, while Harvard’s governing body is yet to issue a statement. MIT has given Prof Kornbluth its full backing.
Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican whose questions sparked the controversy, wrote on X: “One down. Two to go”.
More than 70 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, have also called for Prof Gay to go, while billionaire donor and former student Bill Ackman accused her of doing more damage to the university’s reputation than anyone else in history.
However, a petition signed by hundreds of staff has now urged Prof Gay to stay in her post and for the university’s governing body to resist political pressures “that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom”.
In an interview with student newspaper The Crimson, the Harvard president apologized for her answer and said she “got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures”.
She added: “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community – threats to our Jewish students – have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”