The European Conservative – To much popular outrage, Harvard announced that Gay will remain employed as a professor, apparently in good standing and at a salary of about $900,000 per year.
“The next president of Harvard University MUST be a black woman,” posted the black commentator Marc Lamont Hill on January 3rd, the day after that institution’s disgraced president Claudine Gay resigned. Hill’s statement has been widely echoed by racial activists across the media in recent days, suggesting that Gay was, in fact and possibly illegally, appointed leader of America’s premiere university because she is a black woman (quotas-based hiring, and more recently, the use of race in higher education admissions, is prohibited by U.S. law). Gay, Harvard’s first black and second woman president, had been under fire since October 7, 2023, when she failed to make any statement on Hamas’s brutal attacks on Israel, which killed over 1,200 civilians and saw over 200 others hauled off as hostages.
The next day, 34 Harvard student groups signed a letter “entirely” blaming Israel for its fate. Gay eventually issued a series of equivocal statements claiming free speech rights for pro-Hamas protestors while also condemning the attacks with greater conviction. She later apologized for her hesitant response, but angry Harvard alumni and donors, many of them Jewish, denounced the university and Gay personally, demanded her resignation, withheld donations, and declared they would not hire Harvard graduates who made or supported pro-Hamas statements, among other consequences.
Gay was already a controversial figure. When her appointment as Harvard’s president was announced in December 2022, many scholars winced at her research record, which consisted of just eleven academic journal articles in a 26-year academic career. That relatively small volume is dwarfed by the research output of Gay’s predecessors. As one observer pointed out, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who had previously served as U.S. treasury secretary, published more in the year 1987 than Gay has published in her entire life.
Gay’s research record also appears to stand far outside the normal output of university professors who are promoted at all, let alone those who reach the highest administrative ranks. In the humanities and social sciences, in which Gay was employed as a Harvard political science professor before her ill-starred administrative career, prestigious U.S. institutions generally require a well-received and vigorously peer-reviewed scholarly book published by a reputable press for promotion from the entry-level rank of assistant professor to the next level, associate professor—a promotion that almost always comes with a de facto lifetime job protected by tenure. Further promotion to the rank of ‘full’ professor usually requires a second such book. Holding an endowed chair, to which Harvard appointed Gay in 2015, requires still more. Lesser institutions, such as small liberal arts colleges or minor state universities that often focus more on teaching than research, sometimes grant initial promotion for articles, but in recent decades the practice has become uncommon even in them, to say nothing of any institution of national repute. With the exception of Claudine Gay, I am unaware of even one case in the past few decades in which an Ivy League university advanced a person with a record even close to equaling hers to a deanship or its presidency, both of which she received in surprisingly short order at Harvard. Despite academic platitudes about ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability,’ university hiring and promotion processes are confidential to the point of absolute secrecy, and it is both widely believed and entirely possible that Gay’s race and gender were decisive factors in her career advancement.
In her time as Harvard’s dean of Arts and Sciences, Gay also raised eyebrows for an initiative to reduce the ‘visibility’ of white males in her school, and for her apparent role in disciplinary proceedings against the renowned black economist Roland Fryer, a Harvard faculty member whose research concluded that police brutality in America is significantly less common than many black activists maintain. During Gay’s deanship, Fryer was found to have told sexually-themed jokes in his workplace. His initial sanction was a reprimand, but a panel that included Gay reportedly overruled it and imposed on Fryer a two-year administrative leave without pay and the loss of his influential research laboratory. Harming Fryer in this way is suspected to have been a pretext to punish him and delegitimize his research findings because they do not conform to standard leftist anti-police narratives. Just before Gay became president, the United State Supreme Court found in a landmark case that Harvard’s admissions system, including for Arts and Sciences applicants, was unconstitutionally biased against white and Asian applicants, and further ruled that the use of race as a factor in college admissions is illegal.
Needless to say, throughout her career Gay has been an outspoken proponent of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), a dominant ideology on American campuses. Rooted in Marxist critical theory, its major theorists posit that all whites (including children and babies) are racist, that the solution to past and present discrimination against people whom they define as ‘the oppressed’ is current and future discrimination against those whom they identify as ‘oppressors,’ and that the United States and virtually all of its institutions are ‘structurally racist’ and should be reconstructed according to an ‘anti-racist’ model determined by DEI theorists themselves. Proponents of DEI often argue that Jews are an integral part of a privileged white ‘oppressor’ class and, in their view, legitimate targets of violence and intimidation by Palestinians, whom they believe to be an ‘oppressed’ group. As one might imagine, committed adherents of DEI who lead institutions that have adopted DEI as a guiding philosophy could very well have a cognitive problem denouncing the Hamas attacks.
“Harvard’s horror,” as I have described it elsewhere, stewed until December 5, when Gay, along with her fellow prestigious university presidents M. Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, humiliated themselves before the U.S. Congress under tough but direct questioning about what types of speech would constitute impermissible harassment under their institutional policies. The questions included whether calling for the genocide of Jews would fall beyond the pale of acceptable speech. All coached by attorneys from the same high-priced law firm, which has also outspokenly embraced DEI, and barely concealing their disdain at having to testify before elected representatives of the American people, all three women gave nearly identical—and identically supercilious—responses, claiming that their answers would depend on “context.”
In addition to the obvious moral and common sense dimensions, however, all three universities maintain sophisticated policies governing ‘harassing’ and ‘discriminatory’ speech and behavior and impose serious sanctions for violations. In one particularly galling example, even as the president of the University of Pennsylvania struggled with the permissibility of calling for genocide on her campus, her institution currently maintains that it will impose “major sanctions” on law professor Amy Wax for voicing controversial views about race and academic achievement.
The pronounced outrage brewing since October 7 exploded after the failed Congressional testimony. More alumni withdrew donations, in one case up to $100 million. At Penn, where some trustees were already angered by a pro-Palestinian literary festival held in September 2023, an organized movement of board members gathered steam and forced Magill and board chairman Scott L. Bok to resign a few days after her Congressional testimony. Many critics had the same hopes for the leadership of Harvard and MIT. As Magill’s fate swung in the balance, MIT’s board of trustees immediately closed ranks behind Kornbluth and declared its unanimous support for her leadership, though student protests there remain pronounced. At Harvard, a faculty letter supporting Gay began to circulate, eventually attracting over 500 signatures—a relatively small portion of Harvard’s total number of faculty members but a significant number nevertheless. A separate letter of black alumni and ‘allies’ also expressed support, as did the executive leadership of Harvard’s powerful alumni organization, and, it was later revealed, former U.S. president Barack Obama, whose father was black.
At the same time, according to one calculation, Harvard lost a total of $1 billion in donations as a direct result of Claudine Gay’s mishandling of the crisis. On December 10, the day after Magill resigned from Penn, conservative journalists Christopher Rufo and Christopher Brunet released a dossier of material provided by a third-party source alleging that Gay had plagiarized some of her academic work. The material had formed the basis of a complaint going back to October, which Harvard proceeded to investigate confidentially. Despite these revelations, Harvard’s top governing body, the Harvard Corporation, unanimously backed Gay and retained her in leadership. Notably, the Corporation’s president Penny Pritzker—herself a major Harvard donor—had led the job search that led to Gay’s hiring and had been Obama’s secretary of commerce. As to the plagiarism—a serious academic offense for which dozens of Harvard students have been sanctioned in recent years—the Corporation claimed that it had consulted with a panel of unidentified ‘experts’ who allegedly concluded that Gay’s transgressions amounted to little more than a handful of “inadequate citations.” Gay promised to submit corrections to implicated materials, but it is widely accepted—both in academia generally and, apparently, under Harvard’s code of conduct, that citations failures of the type noted in her investigation does constitute plagiarism.
In the weeks that followed, two more sets of plagiarism allegations against Gay surfaced, some disclosed by Rufo and Brunet and others by their fellow journalist Aaron Sibarium, who worked independently. These allegations were far more serious. Direct textual comparisons widely published in the media suggested that Gay had copied entire paragraphs from other scholars and plagiarized in a wide pattern that extended over much of her career. Over the Christmas holiday, a fourth tranche of allegations revealed that the practice had involved a total of nearly 50 incidents of plagiarism in more than half of Gay’s published works and in her doctoral dissertation. It was also revealed at that time that in October, when the first allegations were received, the New York Post was made aware of them and contacted Harvard for comment. Harvard’s response, almost certainly issued at Gay’s direction, was a 15-page letter from a law firm that works prominently in defamation law demanding that the Post not publish the story on pain of a lawsuit seeking “immense” damages. It also maintained that the allegations were “demonstrably false,” even though its internal process was ostensibly in process at the time of the threatening letter and later concluded that Gay had, indeed, erred.
The mounting scandal proved too much. Thoughtful contributors even to leftist mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic, among others, argued that Gay’s position was untenable. On January 2, the first business day of the new year, Gay resigned. Tellingly, her letter did not admit or apologize for wrongdoing, but rather claimed that it was in Harvard’s best interest for her to go and that she had been victimized by “racial animus.” She amplified that position in a New York Times op-ed published the next day, in which she admitted to “mistakes” but railed against her critics, whom she again accused of acting out of racism rather in response to the overwhelming issues at hand—that her leadership fell far short at a critical moment, and that her academic work was riddled with what appeared to be massive ethical failings.
Gay’s matter is far from over. Almost immediately, leftist media and sympathetic commentators embraced her playing the race card. Some ignored the professional issues altogether and insisted that she fell victim to a racist and sexist smear campaign, even though some of her prominent critics—and the most prominent scholar whose work she is believed to have plagiarized—are other black women. Others attempted to argue for the first time on any mass scale that plagiarism is not a serious matter, despite rigorous standards of academic honesty that are still on the books and universally enforced in other cases. Still others have argued that punishing Gay is a violation of her academic freedom and First Amendment right of free expression. Yet others have attacked Harvard, castigating it as a “racist” and even “fascist” institution, even though it had appointed Gay to its presidency on a slim record and then stood by her in the face of increasingly incriminating evidence even as Magill, a white female Ivy League president, was forced to resign without an academic scandal. The black leader Al Sharpton led a protest in front of the offices of the hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, the most outspoken Harvard alumnus demanding Gay’s resignation, who is accused of no wrongdoing other than airing his criticism of Gay. Activists then targeted Ackman’s wife, art historian Neri Oxman, who holds no academic post, accusing her of plagiarism violations in her doctoral dissertation similar to the most minor ones Harvard’s investigation found Gay to have committed. And, to much popular outrage, Harvard announced that Gay will remain employed as a professor, apparently in good standing and at a salary of about $900,000 per year.
Americans who oppose DEI—a position largely identified with the Right but increasingly shared on the Left—have two major victories to celebrate. University administrations are notoriously resistant to pressure from without and well as within. Their donors and governing boards tend to be tame rubber stamps that approve the whims of the administrators they hire rather than true sources of leadership that supervise how their institutions work. Ackman admitted as much in a long essay reflecting on the nature of the problem of higher education, in which he candidly revealed that he had no idea what DEI really was even as he handed over millions of dollars to Harvard and, he says, celebrated Gay’s appointment as its president as a triumph for diversity. Surely, he is not alone. Now, however, he realizes that DEI is in fact the problem and that dismantling it should be the leading priority in restoring American higher education to the great heights it achieved in the last century. Doing that work will take time, energy, and resources unlike anything conservatives have ever before devoted to social and cultural issues. But devote them they must. As the case of Claudine Gay shows, they can win.