Ellie Park, Photography Editor

This term will be University President Peter Salovey’s last in the role. Salovey, who announced on Aug. 31 — just one day into the academic year — that he would be stepping down, assumed the presidency nearly 11 years ago in 2013.

Amid Yale’s ongoing search, presidents at both Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania have faced controversies leading to their resignations.

The resignations followed a much-scrutinized Congressional hearing on campus antisemitism, during which the two presidents, along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth, were questioned on their institution’s disciplinary policies surrounding antisemitic speech among students. The hearing was called in response to national student protests and a rise in campus antisemitism since the start of the Israel-Hamas War. 

While Liz Magill ’88, Penn’s president, voluntarily resigned shortly following the hearings, Harvard president Claudine Gay’s resignation came later. Gay’s resignation also came after mounting evidence of plagiarism called into question the integrity of her academic record.

Stanford University announced last July that then-President Marc Tessier-Lavigne would resign the following August after a university-sponsored investigation found “manipulation of research data” and “serious flaws” in five of his research articles following reporting from The Stanford Daily.

As Yale is now one among many peer institutions searching for new leadership, the News explores how these recent events may influence the final hiring choice by members of the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.

1. Four top-20 universities are looking for a new president. How could that change the job market?

Alongside Yale and its ongoing search, Harvard, Penn and Stanford are all in the market for a new president. Of the eight individuals on the News’ presidential shortlist, five are external hires. These external candidates, many of whom already hold high-profile administrative positions, may draw attention from the three other schools in their presidential searches. Such candidates include Jennifer Martinez ’93, Stanford provost and former dean of Stanford Law School, and James Ryan ’88, president of the University of Virginia. 

But Yale may also be uniquely positioned as a stable horse in a turbulent race. Unlike Stanford, Harvard and Penn, Yale’s presidential vacancy is not the result of scandal or a pressured departure. Its last two presidents, Salovey and Richard Levin, each held their positions for over a decade.

This stability could make the position at Yale more appealing to possible candidates, especially given the increased media scrutiny at both Penn and Harvard.

University presidents manage fundraising and act as liaisons with donors. At both Harvard and Penn, pressure from donors has mounted in recent months, as many donors have cut ties with the institutions. On the other hand, reactions from Yale’s donors have been less severe. The News has learned of only one donor —  Nick Gaede Jr. ’61 — who publicly ceased his contributions, which he called “minor,” to Yale.

2. Do fewer people want to head an elite university?

The American Council on Education found, in its 2023 “The American College President” report, that the average tenure of college and university presidents decreased from around 8.5 years in 2006 to 5.9 years in 2022. The change also comes as the role has grown in complexity, in part due to growing political polarization and growing demands of the role. 

As Danielle Melidona, a senior analyst in the Education Future Lab at ACE put it, the job demands “a significant level” of business development and people-management skills in addition to concern for student experiences and outcomes. Salovey put it more succinctly, noting that the job “gets hard” when speaking to the News in October, just two days before the Israel-Hamas war broke out, prompting months of campus turmoil at colleges across the country. 

Salovey specifically referred to presidential travel requirements and scheduling demands when speaking about the challenges of the job.

The role of a university president has usually been a high-paying, widely respected position — yet, due to a mix of financial and political factors, it has become a difficult task of meeting many expectations, per reporting by the Washington Post. Ted Mitchell, ACE president, told the Post that there is “no question” that potential candidates are reconsidering their desires to be college presidents. 

The outbreak of controversy at Penn and Harvard comes amid growing political polarization, already causing some candidates to take stock and approach job offers with caution. 

Zachary A. Smith, executive partner in the education department at WittKeiffer, an executive search firm, told the Post that some candidates are even opting out of searches due to high political tensions on campuses. 

These pressures come only four years following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to financial pressures at universities across the country, as well as the growing sense that being president is a “24/7” job, per Mitchell. 

Additionally, many Americans have lost faith in higher education, contributing to the public scrutiny and pressures involved in the job. A June 2023 Gallup poll found that the public’s faith in the country’s bastions of knowledge has fallen to 36 percent, down from 57 percent in 2015. The poll also finds that while Democrats are largely concerned with the costs, Republicans have concerned themselves more with politics in higher education.

3. Will the vetting process change? 

Gay was first accused of plagiarism by conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo and journalist Christopher Brunet in early December, followed by further plagiarism reporting by the Washington Free Beacon and the New York Post.  In response, the Harvard Corporation, which learned of the allegations in October, expressed concerns but initially voiced its support for Gay’s continued leadership. 

The allegations spanned academic works including Gay’s 1997 doctorate dissertation at Harvard. Gay submitted corrections to two articles published in 2001 and 2017, adding quotation marks and citations. 

However, later that month, Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker called for a meeting that “made clear,” according to the Crimson, the board’s lost confidence in the president. Gay then told Pritzker that she would resign, and publicly announced her decision on Jan. 2, per the Crimson. 

Since his resignation as Stanford’s president, Tessier-Lavigne has retracted four of his academic papers in response to the university-sponsored inquiry into his record. Although Stanford’s investigation found that Tessier-Levigne “did not personally engage in research misconduct,” it concluded that of the five papers for which the former president was the principal author, four exhibited “apparent manipulation” by others. The report adds that Tessier-Lavigne “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record” when appropriate.

Academic plagiarism remains, in theory, widely monitored on Yale’s campus. Yale College’s Undergraduate Regulations on Academic Integrity call cheating a “serious offense,” with a standard penalty of two semesters’ suspension. 

In recent years, there have been few, if any, cases of faculty plagiarism in academic work at Yale known to the News. Yet, the scandal surrounding Gay may cause the current search committee vetting Yale’s next president to be even more careful — at a time not long after Tessier-Lavigne’s scandal at Stanford regarding research misconduct.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which conducted the antisemitism hearing, has expanded the scope of its initial investigation into campus antisemitism to also look into Gay’s plagiarism allegations. The Yale Corporation could now possibly opt to establish a formal method of inquiry into the academic record of the candidates it is considering to avoid becoming the subject of yet another public showdown against its ultimate presidential pick. 

It may be, too, that the Corporation will lean toward candidates with more extensive academic records, given that Gay was widely scrutinized for her spare scholarship, which consisted of 10 published articles and no books.

4. The role of race in the search  

In Yale’s 322-year history, all of its presidents have been white and male, with the exception of Hanna Holborn Gray, who served as interim president from 1977 to 1978. Yale’s student leaders and professors, as well as higher education experts, have publicly expressed hopes that the University will prioritize diversity in its search. Harvard leaders did the same before the university’s announcement that Claudine Gay would be Harvard’s first Black president.

On Sept. 29, when Gay stood before a crowd of community members on Harvard Yard to be formally inaugurated as the institution’s 30th president, she acknowledged in her inaugural address “the weight and honor of being a ‘first’,” while paying homage to the “collective courage” of those who came before her and “dared to create a different future.” 

The day after announcing her resignation, Gay wrote in a New York Times opinion column that the campaign that prompted the abrupt end to her historic tenure was part of a “broader war to unravel public faith” in colleges and universities. 

Per separate reporting by the Times, Gay’s resignation spotlights the topic of race “in who gets ahead and how they are judged.” From the onset of her tenure, the Times noted, the embattled president was met with “heightened scrutiny” by critics who focused on Gay’s support for DEI programs and questioned her qualifications. In a statement from the Harvard Corporation on the same day that Gay resigned, the group condemned “repugnant” and “racist vitriol” directed at Gay in “disgraceful” private communications. Gay was also backed by prominent civil rights activists, who said her resignation was an attack on Black people, especially women, in leadership.

Given the turmoil at Harvard, it remains unclear how the current crusade against diversity, equity and inclusion will influence Yale’s presidential search. However, the criticism that Gay and Harvard’s governing body received sheds light on the possible circumstances a person of color who helms such a public institution like Yale might face, regardless of a search process’s diligence in vetting candidates.

5. Who makes leadership decisions? 

In a September interview with the News, Yale senior trustee Joshua Bekenstein identified the decision to elect a new president as “one of the most important” duties allotted to all 16 members of the Yale Corporation, the University’s board of trustees.

Shortly following Salovey’s announcement to the Yale community that he would be stepping down, Bekenstein issued his own statement describing the creation of a 12-person Presidential Search Committee, which would initially include only eight trustees of the Yale Corporation and four faculty members, who were appointed on Sept. 27 after consultation with deans and suggestions provided through a web form. 

The names of the selected faculty members were announced to the Yale community less than two hours before the Search Committee’s first listening session. The listening sessions were initially described in Bekenstein’s Aug. 31 email and comprised part of the Search Committee’s larger effort to further incorporate input from the University’s constituencies, including alumni, faculty, staff and students.

After widespread outcry from students across Yale, the Corporation also announced the addition of a Student Advisory Council to its initial search committee on Oct. 2.

In light of the aftermath of the antisemitism hearing and plagiarism allegations against Gay at Harvard, attention turned to the institution’s secretive board. The similarly secretive Yale Corporation has also been the subject of criticism. In fact, Yale was sued in 2022 by two alumni after the Corporation scrapped its process of petitioning for a coveted seat on the Board of Trustees in 2021. The judge is set to decide the case in the coming weeks.

Yet, the Times reported, the mounting pressure from outspoken donors, such as billionaire financier and Harvard alumnus Bill Ackman, raises questions about who should run the country’s elite institutions. The concern comes especially as high-net-worth alums strive to reshape their alma maters’ free-speech values and topple their existing leadership. Donors have long threatened to withhold donations should their demands not be met. The novelty? The public nature of their pushback, the Times notes.

Yale has largely avoided public fallout for its response to campus events and student demands in the face of the ongoing war in the Middle East. But as the Search Committee nears the five-month mark of its search process, questions about Yale’s next president remain unanswered.

The Presidential Search Committee issued its last public update to the Yale community about its ongoing deliberations on Oct. 23.

Benjamin Hernandez covers Woodbridge Hall, the President's Office. He previously reported on international affairs at Yale. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, he is a sophomore in Trumbull College majoring in Global Affairs.