Yale management professor: ‘Harvard’s board is guilty of 5 key failures. Here’s how to avoid repeating them’


The leadership change at Harvard should not be greeted with joy as it is not only a sad moment for the individuals and institutions involved but also feeds populist skepticism over higher education’s credibility. At 387 years old, Harvard University is the nation’s oldest higher educational institution and long an unsurpassed global beacon of knowledge and intellectual greatness in all disciplines–but it should go back to school when it comes to governance.

I previously served on the National Commission on University Governance Reform of the Association of Government Boards of Colleges and Universities, as well as chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on CEO Succession of the National Association of Corporate Directors, and I believe Harvard’s governance crisis is a cautionary tale for other overly insulated boards which avoid accountability.

The abrupt end of President Claudine Gay’s historically brief six-month term as president of Harvard startled Gay’s detractors and defenders alike, despite widespread concern over her handling of rising antisemitism on campus and the surfacing of violations of the university’s code of conduct in her own research from years earlier. I know well roughly half the board of the board of the Harvard Corporation and admire them for their individual distinguished accomplishments, their sophisticated expertise in their respective fields, and their personal character. However, I said the same thing about the failed Enron board 22 years ago. Sometimes, the wrongly celebrated “wisdom of crowds” is not so wise when collective action undermines good sense. The possible pathology of a group process transcends the qualities of individuals–what Yale psychologist Irving Janis labeled “groupthink” 50 years ago. 

Harvard’s board implosion will become a classic case study of failed succession planning for colleges and universities everywhere, as well as for failed board governance across sectors. The profound damage to the venerable Harvard brand in terms of its reputation for academic integrity, with its school motto being “Veritas” (Latin for truth), could have long-lasting consequences: a decline in student applications, diminished employer enthusiasm for Harvard graduates, discouraged fundraising, and a demoralized, fractured campus culture. But it can be corrected if the university acknowledges five classic corporate governance failures–and then implements key needed remedies quickly. 

1. Failed diligence

The first problem is one of obvious failed diligence in the search process. The Harvard Corporation board, the university’s primary governing body, requested Gay’s resignation a mere two weeks after they announced their “confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”

But the Harvard-Gay fiasco began with what was perceived–regardless of the facts–as a hasty, careless hiring process, in what the Crimson calls the “shortest presidential search in history.” The board selected the wrong candidate, ignoring her thin scholarly credentials–a handful of publications, including non-peer-reviewed opinion pieces (for example, Gay never authored any book)–and amidst a lack of faculty support (strong resentment across fields for reported reliance on protocol over invention and fairness in crediting inter-disciplinary courses and many other faculty concerns). The search committee preemptively discarded “extraordinary scholars” who did not have as much “administrative experience.” 

And while candidate demography was denied to have been a key factor in Gay’s hiring, many rejoiced in the hiring of the first Black woman president at Harvard. Gay received the support of a 1,000-strong group of students, alumni, staff, and faculty, known as The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, which campaigned  for a candidate who addressed “the environmental impacts of the university, its legacy of slavery, the still-insufficient diversity of its faculty, staff, administrators, and students, labor practices, the need for a safe and affirming environment for all members of the campus community, and deficiencies in the academic program.”

2. Poor responsiveness to key stakeholders worried about rising campus antisemitism

Many campus voices and enraged alumni criticized university presidents at schools such as Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, MIT, Stanford, Vanderbilt, University of North Carolina, and Berkeley for their tepid, tardy, and avoidant responses often minimizing or even ignoring the brutal atrocities inflicted upon innocent Israeli civilians on Oct. 7.

Renowned mega-donors threatened to withhold needed funds and boycott hiring pro-Hamas students–and even called for the removal of unresponsive university presidents. These calls became louder and more forceful following the poor congressional testimony of the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT as they failed to condemn calls for the genocide targeting Jews as clear violations of campus hate speech guidelines. Gay’s testimony was perceived as overly rehearsed, arrogant, and avoidant. The overlawyered president hid behind bureaucratic haze during her congressional testimony and failed to clearly condemn hate speech calling for the genocide of all Jews as a breach of campus rules. This was followed by deafening public silence from the Harvard Corporation for an entire week amidst “extensive deliberation” behind closed doors.

On Dec. 9, Penn’s president and chairman of the board stepped down over this leadership failure but Harvard resisted such changes and did not meet with concerned Harvard students and alumni stakeholders. This unwillingness to engage with key on-campus constituents and off-campus opinion leaders, alumni, and donors–even before the congressional testimony fiasco–unnecessarily alienated crucial stakeholders. For example, Gay reportedly turned down invitations by Harvard Chabad to view footage of the atrocities committed by Hamas.

Despite significant video evidence and a widespread student outcry, Harvard delayed its investigation and punishment over the bullying of Jewish students on campus. Hate speech was confused with freedom of expression. As First Amendment Constitution law experts, such as former Yale Law School dean Robert Post, have explained, nowhere in society is freedom of expression absolute–and that is certainly true on a private university’s campus, where duties to protect students and employees are paramount.

Even though the board privately requested Gay act promptly to address the crisis of rising antisemitism with immediate improved guidelines, enforcement, and seminars, she reportedly deferred action to the springtime and instead went on a family European vacation.

The board started to fracture, with at least two disenchanted board members peeling off to meet privately with prominent Harvard faculty members and former Harvard deans, in a bid to get information from which the board’s attorneys and advisors may have been shielding them, which further eroded group trust.

3. Failures in the duty of care and premature denials of misconduct allegations

The Harvard Corporation hastily conducted a review, rather than a genuine comprehensive independent investigation (as in similar cases such as the recent forced exit of the president of Stanford over academic integrity matters and conduct concerns).  

Credibility was weakened further through the constant drip of facts. Two, then four, five, 10, and now dozens of plagiarism allegations seeped out, despite Harvard apparently first learning about credible allegations of plagiarism as early as October. The clear university guidelines on plagiarism were misinterpreted, creating a unique “above the rules” special exemption for Gay, with the violations downplayed as “a few incidents of inadequate citations.”

While some of the violations may have been minor, side-by-side text comparisons published by The Harvard Crimson reveal evidence that massive sections were often copied verbatim. Other text comparisons suggest Gay even used the findings of genuine data to reach an opposite conclusion to that of the original research. The flagrant violations of Harvard’s plagiarism policy repeatedly are not hard to evaluate. It states that: “Students should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources. The term “sources” includes not only primary and secondary material published in print or online, but also information and opinions gained directly from other people. Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely.”

The victims were actually scholars in Gay’s field, including a former Vanderbilt professor who complained of massive, documented plagiarism of her work by Gay. This Vanderbilt professor claiming the theft of her work is not a prior Harvard critic but a Black scholar of African American history who grew up in a troubled family situation of great hardship in a shack with no running water.

Paradoxically, Gay oversaw 42 cases where Harvard students were disciplined for plagiarism last year alone. This year, a prominent tenured Harvard Business School professor has already been disciplined, put on unpaid leave, and is currently being reviewed for possible tenure revocation on the back of similar allegations. Instead of applying equal standards of justice to Gay, she and the corporation falsely denied the allegation and clumsily threatened the media with litigation for reporting honest facts. They even hired a law firm with well-documented unsavory brutal tactics and a client list that includes discredited villains, Russian oligarchs, and Me-too predators

As the law firm asserted that the allegations against Gay were “demonstrably false,” Gay was quickly correcting the violations with no retraction or admission that the allegations were true after all from Harvard or their law firm. Even if some of Gay’s detractors had ideological motivations, the facts were made public and were quite condemning. Those many scores of students each year punished by Gay as dean for lesser violations of the honor code than her own are entitled to equal protection–and she should be held to the same academic integrity standards as scholars and authors at Harvard and elsewhere.

4. Failures to address the serious erosion of Harvard’s brand and institutional mission

The board seemed motivated to attack the legitimacy of critics regardless of the veracity of the allegations and the strength of the evidence in an effort to protect their president, not the value of the enterprise. By allowing the erosion of the school’s public reputation for integrity and truth and a breakdown of trust internally, the board was negligent in attending to the priorities of key stakeholders: students, faculty, staff, and alumni. The board’s negligence has damaged the attractiveness of Harvard to the outside world, with consequences such as reduced applicationsfalling job placement, and development funding. This would be classified by governance experts as a failure of their duty of loyalty, which should not be to protect the interest of an executive over the interests of the owners and stakeholders.

Any investigation should not have been only conducted by Gay’s peers in the same field as they may have conflicting personal and professional ties to the subject of the probe. Instead, ad hoc, cross-disciplinary faculty should have led the process, and separate independent outside counsel should have been sought to ensure a credible and objective review.

5. Unexplained violations of collegial shared governance and presumptions of racial bias

Faculty voices are traditionally solicited in leadership staffing decisions in higher education. That practice is termed “shared governance.” The unexplained reversal of support for Gay leading to her resignation made the board look capricious and confused, with faculty members left in the dark. The public announcement from the corporation was released hours after various media platforms already reported Gay’s imminent resignation through a board leak. Only two hours later was Gay’s resignation statement officially released.

The vague cursory statement from the Harvard Corporation contradicted widespread calls for better transparency and communication by stakeholders. As reported by The Boston Globe,  former faculty defenders of Gay dropped away and went silent, dismayed by the magnitude of the plagiarism charges and public evidence but still they were frustrated by the lack of a transparent, objective faculty review process.

In the words of revered Chinese history expert and Harvard’s former dean of Arts and Sciences, William Kirby, “In the absence of any information to the contrary, are we now in a world in which Congress and big donors chose the Harvard president? Above all, this is another crisis of governance. As I wrote in my 2022 book, Empire of Ideas, about Harvard’s turmoil of the early years of this century: ‘The Corporate was too remote, too uninformed and simply too small to understand the challenges of governing a now massive and divided university.’ I fear that is still the case. In the past two decades, the Corporation has presided over two forced presidential resignations and (in 2008) world-class fiscal mismanagement. No other governing board of a leading university is as secretive and opaque.”

To date, the board has not revealed who reviewed Gay’s work, other than that three “experts” did so and there is no report as to what was found or why the corporation asked for her resignation. This vacuum allows ideologues to redefine the academic integrity decision as a victory for racial bigotry. Gay was released in an undignified way after rotting on the vine and being subject to vile racial attacks. Thus, she understandably used that context to explain her exit. If the board feels that they are not succumbing to bigotry and demagoguery but that they actually lost faith in Gay’s legitimacy, it is urgent that they say so publicly.

For university leaders, silence is not always golden. While the landmark 1967 Kelvin Report of the University of Chicago advised observing silence over social issues, it stated that exceptions should be made for situations that “threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” Surely, allegations of plagiarism, racism, and antisemitism threaten the university’s mission!

If handled properly, institutions and individuals can be remarkably resilient in these situations. Mistakes do happen–and can be corrected transparently. Renowned journalist Fareed Zakaria resigned from the Yale Corporation board after acknowledging that he had plagiarized a single paragraph in his TIME column on gun control. Instead of denying accusations or attacking the conservative media critics who surfaced the problem as bigots, Zakaria candidly admitted the error. He was reinstated in his roles at CNN and TIME and continues to be a highly regarded prolific print and TV commentator. Popular history writers Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Joseph Ellis, and David McCollough were admonished over similar attribution incidents, promptly addressed their errors, and rebounded–without attacking the legitimacy of their critics.

Ideologically charged critics–whether it’s the detractors of President Gay or her defenders–do everyone a gross disservice by shooting the messengers, regardless of their motives. It is reckless for those driven by grandiose agendas across the political spectrum to exploit this situation, with its tragic consequences for individuals and institutions. It is unfair for great Black women leaders at the helm of scores of colleges and universities to pay the price for Gay’s alleged misconduct.

Harvard should follow Rahm Emamuel’s wisdom to never let a crisis go to waste. It’s time to open the locked gates of Harvard Yard and let the sunshine into the shuttered windows of the board to show how they are fortifying their legacy of academic integrity and providing a safe learning environment.

Being the home of case studies, perhaps Harvard is not used to being their subject. Four centuries into its existence, it is never too late for Harvard to give good governance the old college try.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the Lester Crown Professor in Management Practice and Senior Associate Dean at Yale School of Management. He was named “Management Professor of the Year” by Poets & Quants magazine. Sonnenfeld was a member of the National Committee on Higher Education Governance Reform of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities & Colleges, chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on CEO Succession for the National Association of Corporate Directors, and created the first school for incumbent major college presidents called the Yale Higher Education Leadership Summit.

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