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An Old-Fashioned Scandal Fells a New Harvard President

An Old-Fashioned Scandal Fells a New Harvard President

For all the focus on recent changes in the political mood on college campuses, the downfall of Harvard President Claudine Gay turns out to be a story about some of the oldest values of academia.

Gay, a political scientist, resigned today, making her the second president of an Ivy League institution to bow out in the past month. University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill stepped down on December 9, but the cases are not as similar as they might initially seem. Magill’s departure stemmed directly from the shaky December 5 congressional testimony by a panel of college presidents about anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was viewed as a victory for Elise Stefanik, the Republican representative who led the questioning.

What appear to have doomed Gay were the allegations of plagiarism lodged against her. This is an important distinction. Penn’s board of trustees was spooked by pressure from donors and politicians. The Harvard Corporation, an equivalent body, was not. In a December 12 statement, it acknowledged that Gay’s testimony had gone poorly, but said she would remain in her post, describing its position as a defense of open discourse and academic freedom. Although Stefanik is already claiming credit, what ended Gay’s short tenure were not the hot-button issues of campus speech and anti-Semitism but was instead the kind of scandal that one might expect to fell the president of any educational institution, whether a member of the Ivy League or a community college.

Gay, who became Harvard’s president this past July, came in for criticism quickly after the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel. After more than 30 student groups released a statement blaming Israel “for all unfolding violence,” Gay and other leaders issued a bland letter expressing heartbreak at “the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now under way.” The next day, Gay wrote a second letter, adding, “Let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.” She also said, “While our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group—not even 30 student groups—speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

On December 5, Gay, Magill, and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth were hauled before Congress to speak about anti-Semitism on campus, though many GOP members really seemed to be upset about what they saw as inconsistent standards for deciding what speech is and isn’t acceptable on campuses. The hearing was remarkable, among other things, for how little intellectual agility the presidents showed in the face of questioning. A college president has to fulfill a dual role, serving not only as an academic officer but also as a sort of front woman for her institution. The failure of these presidents to represent their universities well in such a public setting was bound to raise questions about their leadership, regardless of the subject matter.

Gay survived the initial backlash to her testimony, but since then, the furor around allegations of plagiarism has grown. Many of the examples that have been made public represent extremely lazy rewriting of source material—Gay borrowed sentences or paragraphs, making minor changes to their wording or order of clauses without adding much analysis of her own. Some academics have described this as entirely unacceptable, while others have defended Gay—including some, such as David Canon, from whose work she repeatedly drew. “I am not at all concerned about the passages. This isn’t even close to an example of academic plagiarism,” Canon told The Washington Free Beacon.

A scholar can claim inadvertent sloppiness once or twice, but so many instances—even if they were all the product of benign carelessness—proved untenable, especially for the president of an institution as prominent as Harvard.

The origin of the complaints is still murky. Allegations of academic misconduct against Gay had floated around online message boards for some time, The Wall Street Journal reported. One unnamed individual claims to be the source of the current charges. On October 24, the New York Post contacted the university to ask about allegations against Gay. On December 10, the conservative agitator Christopher Rufo and the journalist Christopher Brunet published claims of plagiarism in Gay’s 1997 Harvard dissertation. The next day, The Washington Free Beacon added more reporting.

The Corporation was aware of some of these allegations when it made the December 12 statement in support of Gay. The letter said Harvard had commissioned an independent review that “revealed a few instances of inadequate citation” but “found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.” Since then, however, more allegations have popped up.

Conservatives have long had it out for Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, whose appointment they viewed as a sop to progressive diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The identity of the initial anonymous complainant against Gay is unclear, as is when he or she brought the complaints forward. The appearance of the allegations in conservative outlets and their timing, coming shortly after the war in Gaza thrust Gay into the spotlight, certainly suggest a politically motivated effort.

For some progressives, that sense was enough to dismiss the allegations as a witch hunt, typical of Rufo’s usual playbook of ginning up controversies for political profit. According to The Harvard Crimson, a law firm hired by Harvard asked the Post, “Why would someone making such a complaint be unwilling to attach their name to it?” One may view this anonymity as cowardly or as prudent, but it hardly matters. The proper intellectual response is to follow the evidence and assess claims judiciously, even if some of those spreading the allegations were acting in bad faith or out of political animus.

Once the allegations were considered, the proper response was clear, too. Neither Gay’s statement nor a letter from the Corporation specifically addressed the plagiarism; Gay wrote simply that “after consultation with members of the Corporation, it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.” If the December 12 statement was a defense of academic freedom, as the Corporation said, her ouster also stems from a fundamental principle of academe: Harvard could hardly keep a president credibly accused of repeated plagiarism.

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