The Bitter Board Lessons of Harvard’s Disaster

Chart of factors for Harvard board's decision to remove Claudine Gay
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld/Yale Higher Education Leadership Summit
Groupthink pathology and classic mistakes crippled the university’s leadership and scorched the school’s brand and reputation. Takeaways from a cautionary tale.

The negative buzz over board challenges experienced by Harvard, Tesla and Boeing shows remarkably parallel problems over the same period. Harvard’s stumble is particularly educational for boards facing a governance crisis.

At a recent Yale Higher Education Leadership Summit, 87 percent of 70 college and university presidents attending concluded that it was right for Harvard’s former president, Claudine Gay, having lost the legitimacy to lead, to step down, with 60 percent also expressing support for Harvard in pushing her from office. 

How could this happen just a year after Gay’s installation as the first Black woman to lead Harvard University? In her own published statement, Gay referenced racial bias as a factor. However, there are many brilliant Black women educators and scholars triumphantly leading major colleges and universities, and Gay was not the first to blaze a trail in the Ivy League. Summit attendees largely concurred, with 86 percent saying that racial bias was not the reason Gay had to resign.

However, with the Harvard Corporation board silent at the time of the exit and for months afterward, it is not surprising that people were confused. Morning Consult survey data shows major reputational damage to the Harvard brand by the general public, with falling applications, job placement problems and a withdrawal of major donors.

Harvard’s board made classic mistakes during the CEO search process, with failed due diligence, falling victim to the influence of pressure groups and employing a parochial search process, as well as failing to review known danger signs in Gay’s leadership style and credentials. The board then faltered at providing forceful guidance to Gay in responding to an alarming surge of on-campus antisemitism with dismissive comments and inadequate responses to congressional questions about campus calls for genocide for Jews on campus and even went on a vacation, deferring, for months, a promised institutional response. 

The board then failed in its duty of care to investigate promptly and objectively the surge of examples of a massive pattern of plagiarism by Gay that profoundly violated the school’s own academic integrity standards. Instead, its first response was one of denial and disparagement of the whistleblowers who brought these charges to its attention.

Obviously, boards are not infallible, but how do they correct such errors? Sadly, this board—filled with experienced, brilliant, honorable leaders—fell victim to the same groupthink pathology that initially led to the festering of these problems. 

Just months earlier, Stanford University’s president had to step down over academic integrity violations, and a chancellor of the University of Wisconsin had to depart due to personal conduct matters. However, those schools rebounded quickly—as can the boards of corporations—after demonstrating professionalism in their response by:

1. Get the facts fast. Conduct an independent outside investigation free of internal politics and personalities, performed by expert, objective investigators.

2. Contrition—admit the truth. Accept the legitimacy of the criticism instead of issuing false denials and divisive finger-pointing attacks. 

3. Explain missteps. Show how they will be corrected, in what time frame and by what process..

4. Fortify the brand. Show that you recognize the threat to the mission and core brand of the enterprise, in this case academic integrity and a safe learning environment advancing truth.

5. To get out of a hole, stop digging. It is never too late to do the right thing. Frustrated board members broke ranks by going to outside parties for facts and clarifications.

H.L. Mencken once said, “Old universities tend to teach living languages as if they were dead and dead languages as if they were alive.” Even a 400-year-old institution can give governance the old college try—and so can companies in public crises.

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