On Tuesday, the day before Harvard acknowledged more problems with its president’s scholarly work, two members of its governing body sat in a private dining room at Bar Enza, a popular Cambridge restaurant, and faced a grilling.
It was an exceedingly rare opportunity for a small group of prominent academics to speak directly to members of the reclusive board in charge of the school, as it endured a turbulent period. The campus was convulsed by demands for the resignation of Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, after allegations of plagiarism and anger over her handling of antisemitism and threats to Jewish students, which spurred a donor revolt.
The two board members, the nonprofit founder Tracy Palandjian and the private-equity executive Paul Finnegan, were told directly that they had to do more to address the ongoing maelstrom consuming the campus.
“You need to be more out front of this,” Jeff Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School, recalled telling them. “If people are saying the university is making mistakes — they are talking about you!”
The secretive, powerful group that runs Harvard, known as the Harvard Corporation, has projected unity amid the unyielding turmoil around Dr. Gay. The board’s Dec. 12 announcement to stand by Dr. Gay, who is also a member, was followed by silence, even in the wake of rising demands for her removal by powerful donors, alumni and media figures.
Yet private conservations with donors, professors and others indicate that there are signs of tensions among board members. Some members have conceded they need to address the billowing storms, people involved in those conversations have said. Critics and sympathizers who have tried to privately counsel the board say members have shown little concrete impetus toward changing their approach.
At Bar Enza, the corporation members had no specific answers to the professors’ pleas for action, according to people who were there. The professors did not ask for Dr. Gay’s resignation, but rather an explanation of the board’s plan to stabilize the school, said Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist at the table. The board members offered muted apologies, and promised follow-ups.
The board members seemed aware of mounting disapproval. One toted a folder of news articles critical of the university, a Harvard spokesman confirmed.
The overall message, relayed Dr. Pinker, was that “they kind of agreed with us” that the corporation had helped create some of the problems it now needed to solve.
Ms. Palandjian told the dinner group, leaders of a Harvard council on academic freedom, that replacing the university’s president might not be going far enough to get Harvard back on course. Harvard required “generational change,” she said.
Ms. Palandjian did not respond to requests for comment, while Mr. Finnegan and other corporation members deferred to a Harvard spokesman.
The spokesman, Jonathan Swain, described the dinner as a “constructive and positive conversation about the importance of academic freedom, civil discourse and intellectual diversity.”
He added that the “discussion of ‘generational change’ occurred in that context; that addressing such a vital and complex societal issue would not happen overnight, but would take time. It was not related to any individual at Harvard.”
It is unclear what the board might do with feedback from the dinner, but such meetings suggest members are actively working to quell the upheaval.
Much of the consternation about the board stems from the very nature and traditions of the Harvard Corporation itself, founded in 1650, to govern Harvard. It boasts on its website that it is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere. The site says little else about the group beyond listing members and characterizing its duties as exercising “fiduciary responsibility with regard to the university’s academic, financial and physical resources and overall well-being.”
For centuries, the corporation steered the university from behind closed doors and with minimal transparency, making decisions shielded from public scrutiny. Those traits have long frustrated faculty. But under the corporation’s leadership, Harvard has secured its status as a global academic powerhouse, with a $50 billion endowment.
In 2010, the corporation announced plans to expand from seven to 13 members and in doing so, said it would become more transparent and communicative to students and faculty.
The modern corporation, which currently has 12 members, is responsible for the financial health of the university and certain key decisions, but perhaps its most important role is the selection and success of the Harvard president.
In 2022, after Lawrence S. Bacow, then Harvard’s president, announced that he planned to step down, Penny Pritzker, a board member, billionaire businesswoman and an heir of the Hyatt hotel fortune, led the corporation’s search for his successor.
Officials said they considered more than 600 nominations and announced Dr. Gay in December 2022. The five-month search was the fastest at Harvard in nearly 70 years, the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, reported.
The board has declined to say whom among the corporation members had been responsible for reviewing her work, or which outside academics they enlisted to help.
During the weekend that the corporation met to decide Dr. Gay’s future, she participated in some of those discussions and had the opportunity to review the corporation’s Dec. 12 statement in her defense before it became public, two people involved in the process said.
According to a person consulted by the corporation, the body discussed but opted against releasing a detailed, public independent review in the style of Stanford University, whose president resigned this summer.
Harvard’s board is led by Ms. Pritzker, who was an early backer of Barack Obama’s presidency and later served as secretary of commerce under his administration. Despite her leadership role, Ms. Pritzker, a champion of Dr. Gay’s, has not spoken publicly since the controversy began, leaving the corporation to communicate through a single public statement.
The other 10 members, in addition to Dr. Gay, include relatively unknown financiers, donors, a former justice of the Supreme Court of California, the former chief executive of American Express and former presidents of Princeton University and Amherst College.
The board meets several times a year, and members serve six-year terms that can be renewed once. How it identifies and chooses its members, who are known as fellows, is something of a mystery. Outgoing members help select their own replacements.
Ms. Pritzker has been the principal point of contact for major donors and others seeking to counsel Harvard on the path forward.
The board seeks to build a well-rounded group of people who have complementary expertise to help govern the university, said Richard Chait, a professor emeritus at Harvard who studied governance in higher education and was an adviser when the Harvard Corporation expanded in size over a decade ago.
Even after expanding, the panel is still smaller than the boards of many other leading universities, according to Dr. Chait, who said the average private university has about 30 or more board members.
Board members are not paid for their role. “Not only is it unpaid, but there is an expectation of a reverse cash flow — all trustees have an expectation that the institution will be a philanthropic priority consistent with their means,” Dr. Chait said.
The corporation has weighed in on key questions — for example, in 2016, it approved a change to the shield of Harvard’s law school, which was modeled on the crest of an 18th-century enslaver.
In the past several weeks, more faculty members, donors, alumni and outsiders have raised questions about the corporation’s apparent failure to vet Dr. Gay’s scholarship before promoting her to the presidency in July and for its subsequent silence in recent weeks.
“The corporation should have done their homework, and apparently they did not,” said Avi Loeb, a Harvard science professor who has been publicly critical of the school’s response after the Hamas attack on Israel in which about 1,200 people were killed.
“They don’t engage in criticism the way they should,” Mr. Loeb said of the corporation. “They don’t want the people who disagree with them to speak with them.”
Two days after the Harvard Corporation released its Dec. 12 statement reaffirming support for Dr. Gay, she met with law school professors, during which she said she was looking for suggestions on how to move forward.
During the meeting, one professor asked why the details of the investigation into her plagiarism weren’t made public. Dr. Gay said it was the Harvard Corporation’s decision to keep the report private, according to a person who attended and another who was told about the meeting.
The corporation, she said, was working with the publications where she had submitted her work to make corrections.
The professor then suggested that Dr. Gay consider releasing the report or details of the investigation herself. Dr. Gay said she would consider doing so.
Dr. Gay declined a request for comment. The Harvard spokesman said that Dr. Gay has met this fall with “many alumni, supporters and faculty in one-on-one conversations.”
The board’s secretive approach and opacity has made even those who earlier rallied around Dr. Gay uncomfortable. That is in part because the corporation did not disclose that it had been quietly investigating Dr. Gay’s academic work since October, when it was first contacted by a New York Post reporter about plagiarism allegations against her.
Faculty and donors say the board members, by declining to be more open, have left important questions hanging over the school and Dr. Gay. Among the most persistent: Why didn’t they disclose the investigation earlier, and when, exactly, did the corporation — and Harvard’s top administrators — first hear of the plagiarism allegations against Dr. Gay? How did a small group of conservative activists seem to know more about Dr. Gay’s scholarship than the governing body responsible for vetting her selection?
Asked on Saturday whether the board would publicly reaffirm its support for Dr. Gay, the Harvard spokesman said the corporation had nothing to add beyond the Dec. 12 statement in support of Dr. Gay, which preceded the latest wave of plagiarism allegations.
“It would be wise to take actions that could rebuild trust,” said Omar Sultan Haque, a lecturer on global health at Harvard Medical School. “Admit mistakes, avoid shadowy declarations, and open up the corporation’s evidence and adjudication process so any outcome is able to be understood by all, step by step, including timelines for what was known when and by whom.”
Dr. Pinker, the Havard psychologist who attended the dinner with corporation members, and has been critical of Harvard, said the board’s fiduciary duty “is to safeguard the reputation of the university over the long term, and under their watch that has not happened.”
“There are deep problems,” he added, “and they are the corporation’s problems.”
Sarah Mervosh, Dana Goldstein and Jennifer Schuessler contributed reporting.