Larry Summers ‘lost confidence’ in Harvard as ‘place where Jews can flourish’ after task force pick

Harvard President Emeritus Lawrence Summers said he has “lost confidence” in Harvard’s leadership “to maintain Harvard as a place where Jews and Israelis can flourish” in the wake of the university’s anti-semitism task force decision.

The Ivy League university announced on Friday that it was establishing two “presidential task forces: one devoted to combating antisemitism and one devoted to combating Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias.” While they have different focuses, both groups are tasked with examining recent history and “current manifestations of bias,” finding foundations for “bias-based behavior on campus,” considering evidence, and putting forward solutions. Professor Derek Penslar was named co-chairman for the Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism, much to the frustration of Summers.

“I believe that given his record, he is unsuited to leading a task force whose function is to combat what is seen by many as a serious anti-Semitism problem at Harvard,” Summers, who was Harvard’s president from 2001 to 2006, wrote on X on Sunday.

“Prof Penslar has publicly minimized Harvard’s anti-Semitism problem, rejected the definition used by the US government in recent years of anti-Semitism as too broad, invoked the need for the concept of settler colonialism in analyzing Israel, referred to Israel as an apartheid state and more,” he added.

The former treasury secretary conceded that he has no doubts that Penslar is a “profound scholar of Zionism and a person of good will without a trace of personal anti-Semitism who cares deeply about Harvard.” He even wrote that he finds no issue with such a person being a professor at the university or being named to the board. However, in his estimation, it is the fact that Penslar is on a task force “being paralleled with an Islamophobia task force” that “seems highly problematic.”

Harvard came under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel for allegedly not doing enough to combat antisemitism on its campus, with students and professors condemning Israel. The severe backlash led to then-President Claudine Gay, as well as the presidents of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, speaking before Congress about campus antisemitism.

The controversy surrounding Harvard continued when Gay was reported to have plagiarized several texts in her published academic works, leading to many demanding her resignation. Though she eventually resigned, criticism of the university has not disappeared.

“I also hope Harvard’s leadership will recognize that they have exacerbated Harvard’s credibility problems on anti-Semitism with the Penslar appointment and take steps to restore their credibility,” Summers wrote Sunday. “As things currently stand, I am unable to reassure Harvard community members, those we are recruiting or prospective students that Harvard is making progress in countering anti-Semitism.”


He suggested Penslar, who is listed on the Harvard History Department’s site as the “William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History” and the “director of undergraduate studies within the department and directs Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies,” step down as co-chairman of the task force.

Raffaella Sadun, Charles E. Wilson professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, is listed as the other co-chairwoman of the task force.