Anemona Hartocollis, a New York Times reporter who covers higher education, was at a holiday party when she overheard revelers talking about Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University.
The people Ms. Hartocollis writes about are not typically fodder for holiday party chatter. But the Harvard controversy, Ms. 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 about antisemitism on college campuses. It was the third time in less than a year that the president of a top U.S. university had resigned under pressure.
“People are riveted,” said Ms. Hartocollis, who has covered the turbulence that has taken hold on campuses across the country since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
In an interview, Ms. Hartocollis reflected on her reporting during this contentious moment, how her beat has changed over the years and how Harvard has “evolved” since she studied there in the 1970s. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What have the past few months been like?
It’s been exhausting since early October. We’ve mobilized a cast of more than a dozen reporters with different areas of expertise from the business, politics, culture and education teams.
How much in-person reporting have you had the chance to do?
I’ve gone to Cambridge, Mass., twice. I went the week after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack — when Dr. Gay was criticized for not responding swiftly enough to the attack or to statements made by pro-Palestinian students — to report on pro-Palestinian students who were being doxxed. Photos of their faces were posted larger than life on trucks under the heading “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.” I spoke to students whose faces were on the trucks, and it resulted in a story. I made connections to both pro-Palestinian and Jewish pro-Israel students.
I went again Dec. 11 when Dr. Gay’s job was on the line and Harvard was considering whether to support her or let her go. I wanted to get a handle on what the Harvard Corporation, a governing body, was thinking. It was good to be there because the day after I arrived they announced they were supporting her, and I was able to pick up intelligence by meeting with people.
Have you talked to Dr. Gay?
I have not spoken to her during this period; she’s been very guarded. When I was in Cambridge in December, I attended a Hanukkah menorah lighting where I stood three feet from her and her husband. I kicked myself afterward for not having tried to talk to her, though I don’t think I would have gotten very far. She disappeared when the ceremony was over.
Were you and the rest of the education desk surprised by her 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’s the question; I don’t know the answer. That’s what Harvard has to worry about.
Only a tiny fraction of America’s population will ever attend an elite educational institution. So why are people so passionate about what happens at them?
All universities, not just Harvard, are reflections of the state of our society; they’re incubators of ideas that then spread out into the world. This particular story engaged with a lot of contemporary issues, like the Israel-Hamas war, the influence of big money on universities and race and its impact on our lives. I think people entered from a number of doors.
You were a student at Harvard in the 1970s — how has it changed in the decades since?
What has struck me is how much the same it is; it’s evolved in a consistent direction. Many of the debates are the same.
You’ve 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 a small story, the principles of reporting are the same. Maybe this resembled political reporting more than other kinds of reporting I do, but it’s not so different from running after a fire or a crime — you collect information, figure out who to talk to (and hope they’ll 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’s a sensitive story. It’s been a story where people have been reluctant to be open about what they’re thinking.
What are the big-picture questions people should be asking as this story continues to develop?
What do we expect of a Harvard president, the leader of probably the most prestigious university in the country? Did race factor into her selection and how much should it for any academic or administrative position? Should university presidents be making statements about world affairs? What are the appropriate limits, if any, of speech for students? Should a college president be judged by the same standards as students, or perhaps even a higher standard? What is plagiarism?
Higher learning is plagued by a litany of problems: opaque admissions policies, runaway tuition costs, grade inflation, cancel culture. How do we fix it? Can we?
There’s no disputing that tuition costs are out of reach for most people. There are growing questions about whether college is a decent return on investment. So the experience of going to college is one that many people can identify with and want to read about. Can those problems be solved? They’ve seemed fairly intractable.
Any final thoughts?
It’s an important story, one I urge people to follow. And it’s going to continue to be a story for a while, despite the wishes of many people involved that it would just go away.