Anemona Hartocollis, a New York Times reporter who covers higher education, was at a party when she overheard revelers talking about Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University.
The people Hartocollis writes about are not usually the subject of festive chatter. But the Harvard controversy, Hartocollis said in a recent interview, has “dominated conversations outside of academia.”
Dr. Gay, Harvard’s first black president and the second woman to lead the university, resigned last week (less than six months into her tenure) amid accusations of plagiarism and criticism over her testimony last month at a Congressional hearing on anti-Semitism on college campuses. It was the third time in less than a year that the president of a major American university resigned under pressure.
“People are fascinated,” said Hartocollis, who has covered the turbulence that has gripped universities across the country since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.
In an interview, Hartocollis reflected on his journalism during this contentious time, how his pace has changed over the years, and how Harvard has “evolved” since he studied there in the 1970s. These are edited excerpts from the conversation. .
How have the last few months been?
It’s been exhausting since early October. We have mobilized a cast of more than a dozen reporters with different areas of specialization from the business, politics, culture and education teams.
How many in-person reports have you had the opportunity to do?
I’ve been to Cambridge, Massachusetts, twice. The week after the Hamas attack on October 7 – when Dr. Gay was criticized for not responding quickly enough to the attack or to statements made by pro-Palestinian students – I went to report on pro-Palestinian students being misled. Photos of their faces in huge sizes were posted on trucks under the title “Harvard’s Leading Anti-Semites.” I talked to students whose faces were on the trucks and it resulted in a story. I made connections with pro-Palestinian students and pro-Israel Jews.
I went again on December 11 when Dr. Gay’s job was at stake and Harvard was considering whether to support her or let her go. I wanted to get a sense of what the Harvard Corporation, a governing body, was thinking. It was good to be there because the day after I arrived they announced that they would support her and I was able to get intelligence by meeting people.
Have you spoken to Dr. Gay?
I have not spoken to her during this period; She has been very cautious. When I was in Cambridge in December, I attended the Hanukkah menorah lighting where I was three feet away from her and her husband. Afterwards I beat myself up for not trying to talk to her, even though I don’t think I would have gotten very far from her. She disappeared when she finished the ceremony.
Were you and the rest of the education department surprised by his resignation?
No. We were ready; we saw it coming. We had one version of a story written one way (she resigns) and another with an alternative outcome: she stays. That’s standard practice in the news business.
Do you think the decision will affect Harvard’s reputation in the long term?
That is the question; I do not know the answer. That’s what Harvard should be worried about.
Just a tiny fraction of the American population will ever attend an elite educational institution. So why are people so passionate about what happens to them?
All universities, not just Harvard, are a reflection of the state of our society; They are incubators of ideas that then spread throughout the world. This particular story addresses many contemporary issues, such as the war between Israel and Hamas, the influence of big money on universities, and race and its impact on our lives. I think people came in through several doors.
You were a student at Harvard in the 1970s. How has this changed in the decades since?
What caught my attention is how similar it is; has evolved in a consistent direction. Many of the debates are the same.
He has been covering education for The Times on and off for nearly three decades. How did your previous reporting prepare you to cover this moment?
Whether it’s a big or small story, the principles of journalism are the same. Maybe this was more like political reporting than other types of reporting I do, but it’s not that different from running after a fire or a crime: You gather information, figure out who to talk to (and hope they talk), and try to be there when something happens.
What has been the most challenging part of your reporting?
Many people are only willing to talk off the record. It is a delicate story. It’s been a history of people being reluctant to be open about what they think.
What are the general questions people should be asking themselves as this story continues to unfold?
What do we expect from a president of Harvard, the leader of arguably the most prestigious university in the country? Was race a factor in his selection, and how much should it be for any academic or administrative position? Should university presidents make statements about world affairs? What are the appropriate limits, if any, of student speech? Should a university president be judged by the same standards as students, or perhaps even a higher standard? What is plagiarism?
Higher education is plagued by a litany of problems: opaque admissions policies, runaway tuition costs, grade inflation, cancel culture. How do we fix it? Can?
There is no doubt that tuition costs are out of reach for most people. There are growing questions about whether college represents a decent return on investment. So many people can relate to the experience of going to college and want to read about it. Can these problems be solved? They seemed quite intractable.
Any final thoughts?
It’s an important story, which I urge people to follow. And it will remain a story for a while, despite the wishes of many people involved for it to simply go away.