penny for your thoughts

Harvard controversy casts spotlight on Penny Pritzker, former Obama official atop university board

Obama privately lobbied on Harvard President Claudine Gay’s behalf as she faces growing scrutiny

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Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker speaks at the Semafor World Economic Summit on April 12, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Even as Harvard continues to stand behind its embattled president, Claudine Gay, amid mounting backlash over her handling of campus antisemitism and new accusations of plagiarism, Penny Pritzker, who helms the university’s highest governing body, has so far remained conspicuously silent, drawing fresh scrutiny to her role atop the administration. 

Pritzker, the billionaire Chicago hotel scion and former Obama administration official, was elected senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation last year, months after she had donated $100 million to the university. In her new position, she personally led the search committee that named Gay as president last December, praising her in an announcement at the time as “a remarkable leader who is profoundly devoted to sustaining and enhancing Harvard’s academic excellence.”

Notwithstanding her initial enthusiasm, Pritzker has in recent weeks avoided personally defending the newly installed president, who has faced calls to resign, instead joining a statement signed by the 11 members of Harvard’s top board, which has been criticized for a lack of transparency.

In their unanimous decision to back Gay last week, the board members affirmed their “confidence” in the university president, dismissing the plagiarism charges and accepting her apology for widely criticized comments at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism earlier this month, where she equivocated on whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard’s code of conduct.

Before the Harvard Corporation had released its statement, however, Pritzker had dodged repeated questions from a reporter for the school’s student newspaper on whether she would ask the president to step down, even as Gay had claimed to have her support.

A spokesperson for Harvard said in an email to Jewish Insider on Thursday afternoon that she “is not available for an interview at this time and we have no further comment to provide.” Pritzker did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Pritzker’s limited public engagement has fueled skepticism of whether she performed due diligence in the vetting process that led to Gay’s appointment, which detractors now see as flawed, citing a snowballing plagiarism scandal as well as top donors who have continued to join a growing revolt over the president’s response to rising antisemitism amid the Israel-Hamas war.

“This is a full-blown corporate governance crisis for Harvard University and the fellows of the Harvard Corporation,” Benjamin Badejo, an MBA candidate at Tel Aviv University who studied at Harvard Law School and is a vocal critic of Gay and Pritzker, said in a recent email to JI, “and raises questions about the fellows’ ability to carry out their professional responsibilities.”

Despite mounting pressure for Pritzker to address the controversy now embroiling Gay’s brief tenure, close watchers of the administration allege that she has continued to keep a low profile because she has nearly as much at stake in the ongoing ordeal as the president she herself recruited. “What I hear is she has no intention of going down with the ship,” one Harvard insider, speaking anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic, said of Pritzker’s motivations for remaining silent.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Pritzker, 64, had reportedly voiced misgivings over the university’s delay in responding to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, which had fueled an outcry from leading donors who felt the university should firmly rebuke a letter signed by a coalition of student groups that blamed Israel for the massacre.

In a private phone call with the billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin days after the attack, Pritzker expressed agreement with his demand that Harvard release a statement standing with Israel, according to an interview he gave to The New York Times two months ago. (A source familiar with the call told JI that the Times anecdote was “broadly accurate.”)

The university’s initial efforts to address the violence, however, were ultimately derided by donors, alumni and students who felt that Gay’s statements had equivocated over the attacks.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University and Liz Magill, president of University of Pennsylvania, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University and Liz Magill, president of University of Pennsylvania, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

To some observers, Pritzker’s silence amid the fallout has been particularly glaring because she has long been regarded as a staunch supporter of Israel. The 64-year-old Jewish entrepreneur and philanthropist from Chicago, whose brother, J.B., is the governor of Illinois, was one of Barack Obama’s earliest and most important financial backers, and has been credited with persuading Jewish and pro-Israel donors to support his first presidential campaign, despite skepticism over his approach to Middle East policy.

According to a source familiar with the matter, Obama, a Harvard graduate, had privately lobbied on Gay’s behalf as she faced pressure to resign in the wake of her disastrous appearance before the congressional hearing on antisemitism. “It sounded like people were being asked to close ranks to keep the broader administration stable — including its composition,” the source, who was informed of Obama’s outreach and asked to speak anonymously to discuss a confidential matter, told JI on Tuesday.

Obama’s office did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

It is unclear if Pritzker, who served as Obama’s commerce secretary in his second term, spoke with the former president as the Harvard Corporation was deliberating over its decision to support Gay.

The former Obama official has been outspoken against Jewish persecution, recalling her family’s escape from Russian pogroms to the United States, where the Pritzkers eventually created the Hyatt hotel chain. In September, she was appointed by President Joe Biden to serve as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine’s economic recovery.

But as Gay has come under scrutiny in recent months, Pritzker has found herself in an increasingly uncomfortable position, albeit one familiar to many Jews in positions of power, said Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, the founder and president of Harvard Chabad, who has been publicly critical of Gay’s remarks to the House committee.

While Zarchi clarified that he had not spoken with Pritzker, he speculated that she has been cautious in recent weeks because of what he described as a preemptively defensive posture he has observed among other Jewish leaders at Harvard. “Jews in power go to an extreme degree to show that they’re neutral, lest they be accused of showing favoritism,” he told JI last week. “It’s another reflection of the toxic culture in the academy that people can’t speak their conscience.”

Still, critics see other calculations at play. In his email to JI, Badejo, the Harvard Law School alumnus, claimed that Pritzker and her fellow board members on the Harvard Corporation “arguably have conflicts of interest regarding Gay’s continued tenure as president, as managing the public’s awareness of their potential failures to do proper diligence” could potentially “impact their own continued tenures.”

The Harvard Corporation has continued to back Gay, the school’s first Black president, even amid mounting accusations of plagiarism that have cast doubt on the integrity of her academic writings. The board on Wednesday acknowledged some indiscretions in Gay’s scholarship, but said the improper citations, for which she has requested corrections, fell short of research misconduct.

Meanwhile, in a letter to Pritzker on Wednesday, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, said she was launching an investigation into Harvard’s handling of what she described as “credible allegations of plagiarism” against the university’s president. 

Alan Solow, a former national co-chair of Obama’s reelection campaign, said he had not discussed the current controversy with Pritzker, whom he has known for years, but added that he had faith in her leadership at a particularly challenging moment.  

“She is a person of great integrity. She is thoughtful; she studies, asks excellent and probing questions and listens,” Solow, the former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a recent email to JI. “I hold her in the highest respect and have great confidence in her leadership and judgment based on my having worked on a variety of projects with her for more than 15 years.”

But a former high-profile fellow in the Harvard Institute of Politics, granted anonymity to speak candidly, questioned Pritzker’s decision to stand with Gay as misguided. “I wish I knew what motivated it because they will hemorrhage contributions,” the former fellow told JI. “She now needs to be fired and the board has to step down.”

On Thursday, Len Blavatnik, the billionaire investor whose family foundation has given at least $270 million to Harvard, reportedly became the latest major donor to pause contributions to the university over dissatisfaction with Gay’s recent handling of antisemitism.

“If Harvard has already lost a billion dollars in donations because of her testimony, her plagiarism and her unwillingness to truly back free speech,” the former fellow said, “the jury may still be out.”

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