On Sunday morning, five Black Harvard University alumnae jumped into a group chat to figure out how to build momentum around the school’s president, Claudine Gay, after she received backlash over her handling of antisemitism on campus.

The sound bites floating around social media and reported in news outlets didn’t accurately reflect who Gay is, several alumni told Worldacad. One, Sonji Jacobs, described Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, as someone who’s dedicated to creating a safe environment and sticking up for marginalized groups.

Liz Magill stepped down from her position as the president of the University of Pennsylvania on Saturday, days after she testified at a heated congressional hearing on antisemitism. Gay’s fate also was uncertain. But then, on Tuesday, the Harvard Corporation, one of the school’s governing boards, said that she would keep her job.

“As members of the Harvard Corporation, we today reaffirm our support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard University. Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,” the board’s statement read.

This announcement followed a passionate display of support from Black alumni.

The five alumnae — Jacobs, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Natosha Reid Rice, Janine Gilbert, and Dina Paul-Parks — quickly decided to write a letter to the Harvard Corporation to illustrate their “unequivocal support” for Gay. They circulated the petition to Black alumni at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. By 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, the letter had garnered more than 1,600 signatures.

“I feel heartened by the fact that there are people who are standing up for common decency, civility, and respect, and understanding that issues are complex and difficult,” Jacobs said. “The only way we’re going to move forward as a college, nation, and world … is if we’re able to have conversations with each other.”

Paul-Parks added, “This was a group effort on behalf of President Gay, and it reminds me of a Haitian Kreyol saying: ‘Anpil men, chay pa lou.’ or ‘Many hands make light work.’ Our voices matter when we lift them up together.”

The uncertainty that loomed over Gay was the result of a tumultuous five-hour hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week.

During the hearing, Gay, Magill, and Sally Kornbluth — the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — faced what many agree was bad-faith scrutiny about campus antisemitism in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

They received the most combative and intense questioning from Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a Harvard alumna. She asked Gay if Harvard would take disciplinary action against students or rescind admissions offers from applicants who say “from the river to the sea” or “intifada.”

The former is a decades-old phrase advocating for Palestinian dignity and equality in all territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, though some allege that it’s a call for violence. And the latter is a reference to uprisings that included anti-Jewish violence.

Gay responded that such “hateful, reckless, offensive speech” is “abhorrent” to her. She later apologized in an interview with Harvard’s student newspaper for not offering a more visceral and full-throated condemnation of antisemitic harassment.

“I am sorry,” Gay said. “Words matter.” She added, “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret.”

Stefanik was the center of controversy just last year. After a white gunman killed 10 people at a supermarket in a largely Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, it surfaced that the moderate Republican back-bencher turned MAGA enthusiast had previously echoed some of the same white nationalist “great replacement” theory rhetoric that the shooter had espoused.

This broader political context made many observers doubt the sincerity of Stefanik’s interrogation, and join together to back Gay.

“Claudine Gay answered 1 question in 5+ hours of testimony like a cautious lawyer in a deposition, not like the compassionate leader many know her to be,” the Harvard Kennedy School professor Cornell William Brooks noted on X.

He added that as the former president of the NAACP, a civil rights organization with roots in Black and Jewish solidarity, he believes that Gay is committed to protecting Harvard’s campus from every kind of bigotry and hatred: antisemitism, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, anti-Asian animus, homophobia, and on and on.

Mere days after the hearing, Magill resigned from her role at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a post on X that seemed to focus more on the modern Republican Party’s preoccupation with elite schools and “woke” culture than on the safety of Jewish students, Stefanik wrote, “One down. Two to go.”

But at least so far, she’s been wrong. Gay’s job is secure.

“I am 100% convinced that our letter mattered, along with the faculty and HAA (Harvard Alumni Association) support,” said Perkins-Valdez. “I was at President Gay’s inauguration in September, and my breath caught in my throat as she walked down that center aisle. I knew, without a doubt, the historic importance of that moment. I am glad Harvard recognizes she is the right leader for this moment.”

This story has been updated.

Aallyah Wright is Worldacad's rural issues reporter. Twitter @aallyahpatrice

Brandon Tensley is Worldacad's national politics reporter.