The swift fall of Claudine Gay as president of Harvard University after barely six months in office sent shockwaves and unleashed fears about the institutional autonomy of American colleges and universities from partisan politicians, entitled donors, unaccountable boards, and beleaguered administrators. Gay’s ascendancy to the presidency of Harvard University, the pinnacle of American higher education, signified both the possibilities and perils of Black advancement in America’s white and elite citadels of power and privilege.
Her achievement was celebrated by many as a potent symbolic crack in the racialized and gendered glass ceiling of American higher education that was increasingly reeling from the ferocious assaults against affirmative action. But it also enraged and galvanized the opponents of the deracialization of American society and polity, and especially Black progress, who targeted Gay for academic lynching. They were determined to use any means necessary to oust her as part of a much larger agenda to remake American higher education and restore the nation’s fraying social order to its past.
As a student of higher education and political economy, and a longtime university administrator including as a former college president, I was dismayed but not surprised by Gay’s ouster. It became predictable after what was widely regarded as her lackluster performance at a congressional hearing on antisemitism in early December, 2023 that brought three presidents of elite universities (Harvard, MIT, and University of Pennsylvania), all of whom were women and new to their positions; the president of Columbia, also a woman and new, escaped the premeditated trap by pleading a prior engagement at the COP 28 Conference in the United Arab Emirates. Gay had only been in office for five months when the demise of her tenure was turbocharged by the weaponization of antisemitism and plagiarism by the fierce opponents of affirmative action and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), for whom she was patently unqualified for the presidency of America’s oldest and most prestigious university.
Following her resignation, those who had engineered her persecution in Congress, among donors, and rightwing strategists cheered, competed to claim credit, and felt emboldened in their unrelenting crusade to remake American higher education and rescue it from what they regard as the pernicious hegemony of leftwing ‘wokism’ and the stranglehold of the anti-meritocratic ideology of DEI. Many in higher education worried that it would reinforce external interference through politicized investigations, magnified donor pressure, intense scrutiny of university leaders, and egregious intimidation of faculty and students.
Gay’s ouster reflects much larger forces jostling for supremacy in America’s troubled universities, deeply fractured society, and increasingly toxic politics. It is instructive that her presidency was bookended by two events, one domestic, the other international. She assumed her position two days after the Supreme Court issued its decision banning affirmative action, and the drumbeat of her ouster became louder following the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel over three months later. The two events proved a deadly brew, requiring her and other university leaders to navigate the vicious battles over free speech. Her saga also brought into sharp relief the role of donors in university governance, the increase of external interference, and erosion of public confidence in the value proposition of higher education.
Selective Free Speech
In the treacherous quicksands of America’s polarized politics, university leaders have been thrust into a no-win situation over the Israel-Hamas war. As Stanley Fish puts it, “Condemn one side and express sympathy with the other, a sure loser; Condemn both sides, an even surer loser; all parties will feel aggrieved; Support the legitimate aspirations of both sides and reject violence; you will be faulted for occupying a perch so lofty that the pressing issues of the day disappear; Issue a general statement in support of peace and diplomatic negotiation; you will be accused of trafficking in pious platitudes that provide no firm guidance.”
The dueling protests over the war have been framed in terms of protecting free speech and campus safety for Jewish and Muslim students as anti-semitism and Islamophobia have skyrocketed. Battles over free speech in American universities and colleges began to intensify in the late 20th century. The principle of free speech is protected under the U.S. constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. However, it is not absolute in so far as it is limited by standards and laws against such things as hate speech, incitement, libel, and perjury, and the protection of public security and intellectual property.
In the 1960s, American college campuses were rocked by massive protests triggered by the Vietnam war and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. But university presidents were not hauled before Congress to defend the activities of their students and lose their jobs over it. The same was true during the anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s. Similarly, in South Africa during the FeesMustFall movement, or Kenya where I taught in the 1980s during the Moi dictatorship and in the six years that I served as president of a Kenyan university from 2016-2021, university leaders were not answerable for student protests on their campuses. This is because the America of the 1960s and 1970s had yet to be infected by the poisonous cultural wars and populist assaults on democratic freedoms. In African countries like Kenya and South Africa student protests are part of a long and prized tradition of struggles for decolonization and democratization.
To be sure, American and African governments have sometimes responded brutally to student protests. Examples in the US include the killing of four students on May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, a predominantly white institution (PWI) by the Ohio National Guard, which was followed eleven days later at Jackson State University, an HBCU, where 2 students were killed and 12 injured by the Jackson police department and Mississippi highway patrol. However, even then few thought university presidents were culpable for the protests of their students. University presidents do not have the magic power to silence students, and those who understand or run universities know student protests are normal, even expected, as part of political socialization and the irrepressible energies of youth. Pretending otherwise is cynical at best, and a ploy for political repression at worst.
As American politics became more polarized, the culture wars heated up, and the struggles over free speech took an incendiary turn. The Supreme Court, Republican governors and state legislatures, and right wing pundits have unleashed a torrent of reactionary laws, policies, invective, and populist discourses to reverse the limited but real gains of the civil rights settlement. This revanchism expresses itself in the educational realm through assaults on affirmative action, DEI, and what I call educational gerrymandering to sanitize American history by banning books on the Black experience that make a mockery of the nation’s self-delusions, as well as texts that seek to incorporate the lives and struggles of gay and transgender people. The conflicts over free speech are part of a larger story: the disintegration of a binding national narrative as Americans seek belonging and affirmation in their own sectarian and solipsistic echo chambers, a process fanned by the anger machines of social media and the country’s descent into an illiberal democracy.
Much of the acrimony centers on the boundaries of free speech, which intensified in American universities as they became more socially and ideologically diverse as a result of the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements. This was accompanied by insurgent intellectual demands for epistemic inclusion and the dismantling of Eurocentric, androcentric, and heteronormative paradigms, perspectives, and practices. Heated disputes that erupt over campus protests often revolve around speech codes, and restrictions on certain speakers or topics deemed controversial, offensive, or harmful for various groups. Navigating the tensions between preserving free speech and creating inclusive and safe environments is quite challenging for university administrators.
Generally, conservatives tend to emphasize protecting free speech on campuses, arguing against perceived liberal bias and what they call ‘political correctness’ or more recently ‘cancel culture’. Liberals emphasize open dialogue and diverse perspectives, while also prioritizing inclusivity and addressing harmful speech. Both sides claim to cherish the idea of free speech, but in reality they support speech that favors their side and seek to silence their opponents. Thus, the defenses of free speech are often applied inconsistently. Selective speech becomes an instrument for silencing the speech of ideological opponents. This is amply evident in the current disputes over the Israel-Palestinian conflict as so many have observed.
Michelle Goldberg notes that “Some elite schools now cloaking themselves in the mantle of the First Amendment to ward off charges of coddling antisemites have, in the past, privileged community sensitivity over unbridled expression.” Conservatives who are fond of attacking liberals for restricting free speech have no problem curtailing the speech of those who attack the actions of the government of Israel. “‘Double standards are frustrating, but we should address them by demanding free speech be protected consistently — not by expanding the calls for censorship. Unfortunately, that is not what’s happening… many of the people pointing this out ‘are not doing it to stand up for free speech; they’re just doing it because they want to shut down speech they disagree with.’”
In America’s political morass, conservatives and liberals are not averse to trading places when it comes to free speech. “Cancel culture is back,” observed Tobi Raji in The Washington Post. “The difference this time is that the targets are on the left. Republican officials and right-wing commentators are working overtime to criminalize and punish pro-Palestinian speech they disagree with, indiscriminately charging anyone who is insufficiently supportive of Israel’s war in Gaza with antisemitism. In this expanded understanding of the word, something as simple — and moral — as support for basic Palestinian rights is suspect.” He lists a range of efforts to “broadly delegitimize pro-Palestinian sentiments… The irony should not be lost on anyone. For years, Republican officials have portrayed themselves as free-speech champions when it came to hard conversations on gender identity and race.”
Also writing in the same newspaper, Claire Finkelstein, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania said the statements by the three presidents brought before Congress “shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Congress could have assembled two dozen university presidents and likely would have received the same answer from each of them. This is because the value of free speech has been elevated to a near-sacred level on university campuses. As a result, universities have had to tolerate hate speech — even hate speech calling for violence against ethnic or religious minorities. With the dramatic rise in antisemitism, we are discovering that this is a mistake: Antisemitism — and other forms of hate — cannot be fought on university campuses without restricting poisonous speech that targets Jews and other minorities.” She claimed “University presidents are resisting this conclusion.” She ended with a question: “The crisis of antisemitism in our universities mirrors the crisis in our democracy. Isn’t it time for university presidents to rethink the role that open expression and academic freedom play in the educational mission of their institutions?”
There has been no shortage of suggestions on how to get out of the quandary universities find themselves in. Danielle Allen, a Washington Post columnist and political theorist at Harvard contends that “On campuses these days, too few people understand basic concepts of academic freedom and free expression and how they interact with the equally important commitment to making sure that students can ‘learn free of discriminatory harassment’ … Because of that, we do not know how to protect intellectual freedom and establish a culture of mutual respect at the same time. But this must be our project.” While universities are reasonably good at handling protests that disrupt classes or when controversial speakers come to campus, they’re less sure how to handle a generalized culture of intimidation, which is “the very opposite of the culture of mutual respect necessary for learning and, for that matter, a healthy democracy.” She believes this is the problem that universities are facing, which raises the “core question: How do we reverse a culture of intimidation without violating commitments to academic freedom and free speech? Avoiding violations of academic freedom should be the easier part… We correct students’ math; we can correct their reasoning, and that includes correcting moral errors.”
She concedes that “Avoiding violations of free-speech rights while correcting a pattern of generalized intimidation is much harder. But it’s not impossible. We should not just protect students’ speech rights but also insist that they exercise those rights in accordance with campus norms for a culture of mutual respect.” She believes this “is also essential for promoting diversity,” which simply means “social heterogeneity, the idea that a given community has a membership deriving from plural backgrounds, experiences, and identities… to achieve a higher level of excellence powered by intense engagements across a vast range of viewpoints.” As a member of a taskforce on her campus on this issue she says, “We knew this endeavor would require addressing challenges of emergent conflict. We recommended cultivating ‘Skills for Difficult Conversations’ to ‘equip everyone on campus — students, staff, and faculty and academic personnel — with skills to engage across difference, support freewheeling debate, productively navigate difficult conversations, and make space for minority viewpoints (whether of religious students, conservative students, or students from underrepresented identity groups or backgrounds).’” However, focusing on the future in the name of building a positive vision, which she advocates, without also trying to rectify the legacies of the past amounts to historical and ethical deflection that undermines restorative justice.
Still, in the incendiary performative politics that disdains reasoned discourse in America’s increasingly polarized political culture, there is no place for nuance, an appreciation of the role of universities as spaces where discussion and debate should be held over difficult issues. A.O. Scott says that Gay’s fate during the congressional hearing “was sealed by a single word… It wasn’t ‘plagiarism’ or ‘genocide’ — the fearsome fighting words most publicly associated with her case — but rather a careful, neutral piece of language that struck some listeners as outrageous for precisely that reason: an attempt at anti-inflammatory rhetoric that had the opposite effect. The word was ‘context.’”
Commenting on the congressional hearings in The Washington Post, Jason Willick argues that “justified concern about American campus radicalism cannot obscure the fact that the presidents were objectively right on the free-speech merits. Universities that claim to be forums for free inquiry should not promise Congress that they will punish students or faculty for constitutionally protected speech.” However, “the university presidents’ professed commitments to First Amendment principles rang false. U.S. higher education, especially over the last decade, has become increasingly intolerant of views that do not conform to progressive ideology.” The hearings also made it clear that “there is a failure of leadership in American institutions” as their testimony was “ruled by their lawyers, by their fear that their universities might be sued, and their need to placate internal interest groups.” He believes, “The academy’s decline will continue until it can produce leaders with the strength to break the ideological frenzy that has taken hold. That will mean rejecting identity politics, cracking down on mobs that disrupt and vandalize, but defending protected speech to the hilt.”
The Israel-Hamas war had a chilling effect even among scholars who specialize on the Middle East. According to a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education as reported by Marc Lynch and Shirley Telhani. “The findings were stark: Eighty-two percent of all U.S.-based respondents, including almost all assistant professors (98 percent), said they self-censor when they speak professionally about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Just over 81 percent of those self-censoring said they primarily held back their criticism of Israel, while 11 percent said they held back from criticizing Palestinians. Only 2 percent said criticizing U.S. policy was the biggest issue… The policing of campus discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nothing new, of course… But, according to the scholars surveyed, things have gotten significantly worse since October 7. Almost three-quarters of U.S.-based respondents said that the Israel-Hamas war had generated more need for self-censorship.”
The authors concluded that the stakes were high and pleaded with university leaders to vigorously defend academic freedoms. “The experience of Middle East scholars since October 7 illustrates the risks of the repression of academic freedom when it comes to Israel and Palestine. The very experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding the region feel the least able to speak about it. Academic administrations, which never tire of expressing their devotion to academic freedom, either go silent or actively contribute to the suppression of discourse on the topic. Israel and Palestine are often the canary in the coal mine for attacks on academic freedoms. Sure, the issues at stake in Israel/Palestine seem particularly challenging and fraught. But if scholars cannot provide honest analysis of challenging conflicts even in their professional settings, our societies are doomed to repeat the mistakes that lead to cyclical eruptions. It falls on campus leaders to defend the integrity of the academic enterprise. The stakes go well beyond Israel and Palestine.”
A day after the congressional hearings that provoked widespread outrage for her equivocating, lawyerly responses, Gay tried to clarify her remarks. “There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students… Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.” But the storm only gathered momentum. The next day she apologized. “I am sorry,” she said. “Words matter. When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret… I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures… What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.” This did little to assuage her critics, who smelled blood.
The Weaponization of Anti-Semitism
In the meantime, The Harvard Crimson published a series of articles by a diverse group of Jewish affiliates that are worth quoting at length for their nuance so often elided in the mainstream media and among politicians and pundits. Bernie Steinberg, who served for eighteen years as Executive Director of Harvard Hillel, wrote that he felt “compelled to speak to what I see as a disturbing trend gripping our campus, and many others: The cynical weaponization of antisemitism by powerful forces who seek to intimidate and ultimately silence legitimate criticism of Israel and of American policy on Israel. In most cases, it takes the form of bullying pro-Palestine organizers. In others, these campaigns persecute anyone who simply doesn’t show due deference to the bullies. The recent effort to smear our new University President, Claudine Gay, is a case in point.”
He was particularly alarmed, he continued, by the “McCarthyist tactic of manufacturing an antisemitism scare, which, in effect, turns the very real issue of Jewish safety into a pawn in a cynical political game to cover for Israel’s deeply unpopular policies with regard to Palestine.” He was also troubled by “the power differential: Billionaire donors and the politically-connected, non-Jews and Jews alike on one side, targeting disproportionately people of vulnerable populations on the other, including students, untenured faculty, persons of color, Muslims, and, especially, Palestinian activists.” He advised Jewish students to be “boldly critical of Israel — not despite being Jewish, but because you are. There is no tradition more central to Judaism than prophetic truth-telling, no Jewish imperative more urgent than bravely criticizing corrupt leadership, starting with our own.”
He stressed that he knew “what antisemitism looks like and I do not take the issue of violence against Jews lightly. I have monitored, with vigilance, the kinds of speech that Israel-aligned parties are calling ‘antisemitic,’ and it simply does not pass the sniff test. Let me speak plainly: It is not antisemitic to demand justice for all Palestinians living in their ancestral lands. The activists who employ this language, and the politics of liberation, are sincere people; their cause is a legitimate and important movement dissenting against the brutal treatment of Palestinians that has been ongoing for 75 years… If Israel’s case requires branding its critics antisemites, it is already conceding defeat. Let me be clear: Antisemitism in the U.S. is a real and dangerous phenomenon, most pressingly from the alt-right white-supremacist politics that have become alarmingly mainstream since 2016.”
Derek J. Penslar, a professor of Jewish History and the director of the Harvard Center for Jewish Studies, noted that “Since Oct. 7, Harvard has been buffeted by controversy over the relationship between antisemitism, criticism of Israel, and the assertion of Palestinian rights. There are two intertwined but separate components to the controversy: When criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic, and if and how a university should restrict speech on its campus. A better understanding of what is — and is not — antisemitic will improve how we discuss both.” Examining three key documents defining antisemitism, he said “They generally share the view that antisemitism is, in the words of the JDA [Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism], ‘discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).’ They agree that attributing malevolent qualities to Jews as a group, depicting Jews as disloyal or treacherous, and caricatures of Jews as grotesque are all antisemitic.”
But the three documents disagree “when it comes to the relationship between antisemitism and critique of Israel. Following the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition, calling Israel racist or subjecting it to criticism not directed toward any other democratic country is antisemitic. The JDA and ND [Nexus Document] definitions, however, leave more room for criticism of Israel, and in that sense they are more conducive to the essential, though difficult, conversations happening within the Harvard community… Both the JDA and ND agree that, in the words of the ND, ‘even contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic.’”
He stressed that these “definitions are guidelines, not binding codes of conduct, but Harvard should be mindful of them as it strives to balance the right to self-expression with respect for others in its community.” It was understandable, he finished his essay, “that many Jewish students at Harvard are on edge. But the enormous media attention paid to antisemitism at Harvard has obscured the vulnerability of pro-Palestinian students, who have faced harassment by actors outside of the University and verbal abuse on and near campus… Conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism magnifies divisions within our Harvard community and stymies a common struggle against hatred. Addressing antisemitism at Harvard will require a holistic approach to fostering substantive, informed, and civil conversation about contentious issues.”
Two Jewish students, Violet T.M. Barron and Charlotte P. Ritz-Jack took Gay to task for not meeting with “anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, or Zionist-questioning Jewish students despite our continuous requests that she do so, including our 24-hour occupation of University Hall.” They said they were “hyper-aware of antisemitism’s evils. Our ancestors fled extermination in Europe and their experiences are anything but unique. To be Jewish is to inherit the generational trauma of constant persecution. Today, this trauma is reinforced: There has been a nationwide rise in antisemitic crimes following the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. Yet discussions about fighting antisemitism are neither honest nor effective as long as they conflate criticism of the Israeli state with such hate. Just as we fear rising antisemitism, we fear how claims of antisemitism have been weaponized to excuse other forms of bigotry.”
They lamented seeing their “pro-Palestinian peers and friends ruthlessly silenced, doxxed, and harassed. These attacks have largely targeted Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and Black students, and they have been shamefully justified under the guise of combating antisemitism. Yet while antisemitism has received an abundance of media coverage, government inquiry, and administrative response, anti-Palestinian hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism have only seen a fraction of that attention… The twisting of calls for Jewish safety — at the expense of other marginalized groups’ speech and security — mirrors the ongoing destruction abroad.” They concluded their essay that “In truth, Jewish safety — in Israel and the diaspora — is inextricably intertwined with Palestinian liberation… We hold fast to this vision of peace not in spite of, but precisely because of our Jewish identities, which we cherish. We are guided by the concept of tzedek — justice — and a rich tradition of Jewish protest and dissent. Most of all, we are guided by our own history of oppression: We cannot allow centuries of trauma to trap our people in eternal panic, grant the state of Israel total impunity, and sow agony for still more generations of Palestinians.”
Writing in The New York Times, Hala Alyan, a Palestinian-American writer poignantly captures the anguish of the Palestinian in the United States. “The task of the Palestinian is to be palatable or to be condemned. The task of the Palestinian, we’ve seen in the past two weeks, is to audition for empathy and compassion. To prove that we deserve it. To earn it. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched Palestinian activists, lawyers, professors get baited and interrupted on air, if not silenced altogether. They are being made to sing for the supper of airtime and fair coverage. They are begging reporters to do the most basic tasks of their job… If that weren’t enough, Palestinian slaughter is too often presented ahistorically, untethered to reality: It is not attributed to real steel and missiles, to occupation, to policy. To earn compassion for their dead, Palestinians must first prove their innocence… It is, of course, a remarkably effective strategy. A slaughter isn’t a slaughter if those being slaughtered are at fault, if they’ve been quietly and effectively dehumanized — in the media, through policy — for years. If nobody is a civilian, nobody can be a victim.”
The renowned African American writer and essayist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaks of the fear many feel speaking about the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories where he spent ten days. “But I have to measure my fear against the misery that I saw. I have to measure my fear against the promises that I made to the Palestinians who welcomed me into their homes and gave me the facts, to the Israeli Jews who welcomed me into their homes and gave me the facts, to the Holocaust survivors who welcomed me into their homes and gave me the facts. I have to measure it against my own ancestors, against Frederick Douglass, against Ida B. Wells, who certainly faced off against things that were much, much more perilous than going someplace, coming back and telling people what you saw. This is the minimum… And the fact that people are trying to suppress speech is not an excuse for you not to speak. It’s always been this way for Black writers and journalists. This is our tradition, you know? And so, I feel — as I do feel the fear, I also feel that I am in good company, because I’m in the company of my ancestors.” He says, what he saw during his visit was not ‘complexity’, or ‘complicated’ to understand, because it was all so familiar to him as an African American. “I was in a territory where your mobility is inhibited, where your voting rights are inhibited, where your right to the water is inhibited, where your right to housing is inhibited.”
As the pressure for Gay to resign continued, more that 500 faculty members at Harvard “rallied to support her, arguing that she was being railroaded for a moment of poorly worded remarks about antisemitism.” Their petition urged the Harvard Corporation, the governing body, in “‘ the strongest possible terms’ to ‘resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom.’” The board initially heeded calls to save Gay’s job and reaffirmed their “support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard University… In this tumultuous and difficult time, we unanimously stand in support of President Gay.”. But this proved a temporary reprieve. Gay’s detractors pulled a new weapon from their ruthless arsenal: plagiarism.
The Sanctions of Plagiarism
The plagiarism charges were circulated by Christopher Rufo, a rightwing education activist, and The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative media outlet. The Harvard Corporation indicated they had become aware of the accusation in October. After reviewing the results of an investigation they had commissioned, they concluded there were “a few instances of inadequate citation… While the analysis found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct, President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.”
The plagiarism allegations proved perilous for Gay as her opponents went after her professional identity and integrity after the political and ideological attacks over antisemitism had apparently failed to dislodge her. Conservative politicians and pundits seized the new weapon with unbridled alacrity. Plagiarism provided a powerful intellectual pretext for her diehard critics and lukewarm supporters to demand her ouster. Calls for her resignation came from across the political spectrum. In The Atlantic, Graeme Wood urged her to resign as an act of honor, demonstrating “her willingness to own that error, to acknowledge it publicly and unselfishly.” When Gay resigned, Tom Nicholson, also in The Atlantic, declared “Claudine Gay engaged in academic misconduct, Everything else about her case is irrelevant, including the silly claims of her right-wing opponents.”
Ruth Marcus, a columnist in The Washington Post, began her column, “She plagiarized her acknowledgments. I take no joy in saying this, but Harvard President Claudine Gay ought to resign. Her track record is unbefitting the president of the country’s premier university. Remaining on the job would send a bad signal to students about the gravity of her conduct. This was not my original instinct. I thought, and continue to believe, that Gay’s accusers and their allies were motivated more by conservative ideology and the desire to score points against the most elite of institutions than by any commitment to academic rigor. This was, and is, accompanied by no small dose of racism and the conviction that a Black woman couldn’t possibly be qualified to lead Harvard. In addition, the initial reports of plagiarism seemed small-bore… And yet. The instances of problematic citation in the work of Gay, a political scientist, have become too many to ignore.”
Eugene Robinson, another Washington Post columnist, wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time. Yes, the first Black president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, was forced out by a right-wing pressure campaign orchestrated by bitter opponents of diversity. And yes, she gave her enemies the ammunition they needed to destroy her… I don’t know what the result would be if all the writings of all the former presidents of Harvard were subjected to the kind of minute scrutiny that Gay’s work faces. I doubt all would hold up. I do know that Gay appears to have been ungenerous in her use of quotation marks and footnotes. But I also know that no one has questioned the originality or scholarly value of her research findings.”
The Economist weighed in saying that she was done by “A combination of plagiarism and selective empathy. When it comes to scandals, the drip-drip-drip kind can prove deadly. Embarrassments accrue; the mess metastasises. So it was with Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University. Revelations of plagiarism in her academic work were first publicized weeks ago. But more kept surfacing.” The magazine conceded, “None of Ms Gay’s transgressions alone appears all that egregious—nothing like, for example, the data fabricated in the lab led by Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist who resigned as president of Stanford University in July. (Stanford’s board determined that he was unaware of the falsification.) But any Harvard student who copies others’ work without citing it, as Ms Gay appears to have done, would incur penalties ranging from academic probation to expulsion. The university could not credibly warn students about plagiarism and talk up academic integrity when its own president had been so sloppy.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Douglas Belkin claimed the forces against Gay were long in the making. “From the time she began carving her path through the most elite private schools in the nation to the presidency of Harvard University, Claudine Gay earned plaudits and promotions. She also amassed detractors who were skeptical of her work and qualifications and outraged by what they saw as the political decisions she made as an increasingly powerful administrator.” Her critics seized the opportunity provided by the plagiarism allegation to bring her down. “For years people who identify themselves as academics have aired their resentments and grievances toward Gay on publicly accessible chat boards like the econjobrumors blog and Political Science Rumors. As Gay rose in prominence the posts about her became more frequent and negative—but they also held some truth. Opportunities in academia are limited, and universities attract bright and competitive scholars who often don’t land the job they wanted or think they have earned.”
Some Black academics and commentators joined the plagiarism bandwagon. John McWhorter of Columbia University wrote wearily that Harvard has “a clear policy on plagiarism that threatens undergraduates with punishment up to the university’s equivalent of expulsion for just a single instance of it,” so it was “a matter of scholarly ethics, academic honor and, perhaps most of all, leadership that sets an example for students” for Gay to be held accountable and resign. It didn’t matter that her plagiarism was more about sloppiness in failing to acknowledge sources “not about her actual ideas.”
Some of the scholars whose work Gay plagiarized also weighed in. Carol Swain, a conservative African American political scientist, wrote a scathing op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “I write as one of the scholars whose work Ms. Gay plagiarized. She failed to credit me for sections from my 1993 book, ‘Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress’ and an article I published in 1997, ‘Women and Blacks in Congress: 1870-1996.’ The damage to me extends beyond the two instances of plagiarism identified by researchers Christopher Rufo and Christopher Brunet. Ms. Gay’s damage to me is aggravated because her early work was in the area where my research is considered seminal. Her scholarship on black congressional representation, electoral districting and descriptive representation builds on terrain where I plowed the ground.”
Swain faulted Gay for not being more deferential to her work. “When one follows in the footsteps of a more senior scholar, one is expected to acknowledge the latter’s contribution to the field and how one’s own research and ideas refute, affirm or expand knowledge in the area. Ms. Gay ignored the substantive importance of my research, which she should have acknowledged and engaged. A single citation or two wouldn’t usually be considered intellectually honest.” Swain then pivots to attacking the culture of elite universities. “Many of those whose work she pilfered aren’t as incensed as I am. They are elites who have benefited from a system that protects its own. Even aside from the documented instances of plagiarism, Ms. Gay’s work wouldn’t normally have earned tenure in the Ivy League… In a world where the privilege of diversity is king, Ms. Gay was able to parlay mediocre research into tenure and administrative advancement at what was once considered a world-class university.”
In an interview in The New Yorker, Stephen Voss took a different tack, “When I first was told that Claudine may have committed academic dishonesty at my expense, I took it seriously… I’ve been stolen from in serious ways. What Claudine did was not it.” He was emphatic that the “plagiarism in question here did not take an idea of any significance from my work. It didn’t steal my thunder… Once I saw that no significant plagiarism had actually taken place, my gut reaction was to jump to Claudine’s defense.” He insisted that “the difference between plagiarism among academics and plagiarism in journalism or undergraduate papers is that what matters is less a few words or phrases and more the bigger scholarly ideas.” To the charge that Gay’s record of publications was thin, he said, “Claudine had several papers at the two top crossover journals in our field, authored solely by her, which represents a major accomplishment. One way to put it is: Maybe she didn’t write as many songs. But the ones she did write were chart-toppers.”
Voss noted that what Gay did “was technically plagiarism, but this is no big deal. And then the right-wing activist Christopher Rufo plucks out the beginning of that sentence and says, Another scholar accuses Claudine Gay of plagiarism. Now, he didn’t lie. I did call it ‘plagiarism.’ I hadn’t framed it as an accusation, but I guess the verb sort of fits. But he was able to get leverage out of something I said, taken out of context, that I then spent two days on Twitter rebutting.” He stressed, “the problem with using language that’s customary within academic institutions in a public setting is that outsiders will warp what we say.” He had “no doubt that part of the hostility toward Claudine results from racism. That being said, I was even more struck by the amount of misogyny… Also: Claudine has short hair. The number of people who assumed she was lesbian, even though she is married to a guy I went to graduate school with, was also striking.”
Much of the public uproar about Gay’s plagiarism ignored the fact that, as McWhorter himself noted, “There are indeed degrees of plagiarism.” Gay’s plagiarism “qualifies less as stealing argumentation than as messy… this is not about her actual ideas.” Charles Seife, a professor at NYU contends, “Plagiarism is perhaps the mildest academic sin, as well as the easiest to detect. There are innumerable cases of more serious forms of misconduct — such as the falsification and fabrication of data — that have stained the reputations of universities all over the world. If academia really wants to tackle the problem, it’s got to rethink the way it judges and rewards research — and tell good from bad. In Claudine Gay’s case, the plagiarism — and I think it qualifies as plagiarism — seems a venial sin rather than a mortal one.” He notes that despite the relentless scrutiny on Gay’s work, her “critics never really challenge the core ideas that she put forth in her research; instead, they only chipped away at the edges of her work, leaving the fundamentals intact… If anything, this suggests that her work is not merely credible, but solid.”
He argues that Gay’s plagiarism sheds light on prevalent problems in the academic review system. “The coin of the realm in academia is typically the peer-reviewed paper; an academic gets credit for the research she performs when she publishes the results in a scholarly journal… But peer reviewers have little incentive to do a thorough job. While universities richly reward a professor’s own research output, they care almost nothing about their professors’ role in checking others’ work.. As a result, countless professors, when asked to perform a peer review for a journal, fob the work off onto their hapless grad students, so it’s often not the seasoned academic judging the quality of research but the greenest in the field. And given the proliferation of academic journals — and the increase in the number of academic papers being published — the academic review process is getting more threadbare by the year.” He concludes somberly, “But even as academics find themselves increasingly caught inpolitical battles, there’s no movement to incentivize better quality control. Software won’t come to the rescue; plagiarism detectors (and artificial intelligence detectors, for that matter) don’t work very well, and, especially in a specialized field, it takes human eyes and human brains to untangle knotty questions of provenance and attribution.”
Gay is of course not the first American university president to be forced to resign because of plagiarism allegations. According to Josh Moody writing in Inside Higher Education, “In more than a dozen instances where presidents were accused of plagiarism, the outcomes followed similar patterns. In some cases, the presidents were cleared of the charges. But when plagiarism was proven, presidents retired or resigned, or their contracts were not renewed; some decamped for another job… After Gay, the most high-profile presidential plagiarism case in the past few years is arguably that of Robert Caslon, who stepped down from the University of South Carolina in 2021 after he admitted to swiping a quote for a commencement speech without proper attribution… Similarly, Gregory J. Vincent resigned as president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2018 after the institution opened an investigation into claims he had plagiarized his dissertation.”
Several presidents accused of plagiarism who didn’t “have their contracts renewed include West Liberty University president W. Franklin Evers in 2021 and LeMoyne-Owen College president Andrea Lewis Miller in 2019—though both were also plagued by other issues. And some presidents simply retired when accused of plagiarism. Malone University president Gary Streit retired in 2010 ‘in response to recent concerns about the use of unattributed materials in some of his speeches,’ the university announced at the time. Blandina Cárdenas retired as president of the University of Texas–Pan American in 2008, making no mention of a plagiarism investigation into her academic work. Central Connecticut State University president Richard Judd also retired in 2004after his superiors determined he had plagiarized an op-ed for The Hartford Courant.”
Some survived the plagiarism allegations, such as “William Meehan [who] was hit with plagiarism accusations in 2007 and again in 2009 when he was president of Jacksonville State University, a position he held until he retired in 2015. Saint Louis University’s president the Reverend Lawrence H. Bondi was accused of borrowing significant portions of a homily he delivered in 2005, only to shrug off the allegations and serve until 2013… Weymouth Spence, president of Washington Adventist University, was accused of plagiarism in 2019 but later cleared by the Board of Trustees after an outside investigation. Glenn Poshard, who served as president of Southern Illinois University from 2006 to 2014, was accused of plagiarism in 2007. A faculty panel found Poshard was careless with citations but ultimately stopped short of declaring him a plagiarist.” In 2022, the president of Stanford, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, resigned “after an independent review of his research found significant flaws in studies he supervised going back decades.”
Moody laments the weaponization of plagiarism. “Some scholars and news organizations have warned that the attack on Gay’s scholarship is likely just the beginning of the coming plagiarism wars. Bill Ackman, a billionaire Harvard graduate who repeatedly called for Gay to step down over her citation issues, has signaled an appetite for toppling other academics over similar missteps. Ackman threatened to review the academic work of the entire faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after his wife, Neri Oxman, a former MIT professor, was exposed as a plagiarist.”
Robert Reich, the former Cabinet Secretary in the Clinton Administration, and since then a professor at Berkeley, called it “plagiarism fundamentalism”. He argued in The Guardian, “Many of the plagiarism allegations against Gay seem archly pedantic, a thinly veiled effort to undermine Gay’s social justice-focused scholarship and discredit her as a leading Black scholar. That Ackman, Rufo et al would use plagiarism to take Gay down seems a throwback to the days of Reconstruction, when conservative lawmakers leveraged vagrancy laws to funnel free Black people into chain gangs.” Also worrying for him, he wrote in another column in The Guardian, is the way donors orchestrated Gay’s removal. To “use their influence to force the ouster of these university presidents is an abuse of power. It sets a dangerous precedent of mega-donor intrusion into university life.They’re not supposed to have any say over the day-to-day operations of the universities they oversee, although they routinely veto candidates for university presidents harboring views they find offensive… As a Jew, I also cannot help but worry that the actions of these donors – many of them Jewish, many from Wall Street – could fuel the very antisemitism they claim to oppose, based on the age-old stereotype of wealthy Jewish bankers controlling the world.”
Gay’s ouster is the most publicized and consequential in what it portends for higher education. It reflects the significant symbolism of both her appointment as the first Black and second woman president of America’s most storied university, and the rarefied space Harvard, the Ivies and other elite institutions occupy in American society and imagination. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard from 1971 to 1991, contends Americans love to hate Harvard and other elite institutions. “The public shaming and subsequent resignations of the leaders of some of America’s top universities may shock some observers. After all, these institutions dominate every list of the world’s finest universities.”
Despite, or because of their prestige, “these same institutions are under intense attack from both ends of the political spectrum. Liberals berate them for not doing more to enroll low-income students, pressure them to divest from companies that pollute the environment, and urge them to pay reparations for their complicity with slavery centuries ago. Meanwhile, conservatives — chiefly governors, legislators, and right-wing pundits — accuse them of indoctrinating students with liberal beliefs and paying excessive attention to the welfare of minority and LGBTQ students.” Many fear that the resignations of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard following blistering interrogations and criticisms of their responses threatens to fan the cultural wars and the precipitous erosion of institutional autonomy for universities.
The Erosion of Academic Freedom
Bok attributes the animus to the elite institutions to changes that have taken place in American higher education and society. One is the exponential growth of endowments. When he was president Harvard had an endowment of $1 billion, compared to the current $50 billion. “Among liberals, such accumulations of wealth led to demands on these universities to use their money to achieve social goals such as increasing social mobility, fighting global warming, and pressing companies that did business in Israel to cease their operations to induce the government to stop oppressing Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.”
The growing importance of philanthropy in American higher education reflects the soaring stock market that has generated unimaginable wealth for the rich and declining public funding. The privatization of higher education, a worldwide phenomenon engendered by the regime of neoliberalism that was imposed with fundamentalist zeal from the turn of the 1980s, led to the transfer of the costs of education to students and their families. In the United States, it resulted in student debt rising to an astronomical $1.6 trillion by 2020, which was higher than credit card debt.
Undoubtedly, philanthropy brought universities much needed financial resources and benefits. However, Bok believes in prominent universities it has “also led some megadonors to believe that their generosity should give them considerable influence over university policies. Since the start of the war between Hamas and Israel, several major donors have threatened to stop giving to their university if its leaders were not more resolute in supporting Israel and protecting Jewish students from intimidation by supporters of Palestinians and other expressions of antisemitism.”
Mamy academics expressed alarm at the way the Israel-Hamas seemed to empower donors who “pushed administrations to denounce the Hamas attacks more zealously, as well as anti-Zionism and antisemitism on campus,” says Lila Berman and Benjamin Soskis in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Much of this has occurred behind closed doors… But what may seem distinctive about the present moment is how much of the pressure has been applied out in the open, with a growing number of major donors announcing they would no longer support institutions that had become accustomed to their handsome donations, and urging their wealthy peers to do the same… These more aggressive philanthropic interventions have been termed a ‘donor revolt.’” They argue that the growth of megadonors is “the culmination of several trends in large-scale giving and higher education over the last several decades. Over the course of the 20th century, American law and policy created the phenomenon of the megadonor… Colleges were among the greatest beneficiaries of these changes. Thanks to gifts from megadonors, endowments spiked, named chairs proliferated, and gleaming new buildings sprouted. In 2022, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) calculated that institutions of higher education took in $59.5 billion in charitable gifts and found that the top 1 percent of givers accounted for at least 80 percent of all donations.”
Much of these funds, 68 percent, were restricted. “The donor revolt has brought to the surface long-simmering debates about philanthropic power, much as the conflict itself has exposed deep fault lines about American power, antisemitism, and Islamophobia. At the very least, we should take it as an opportunity to ask whether the philanthropic system as it exists is worth defending, or whether a public revolt against the philanthropic status quo is in order.” They see the power imbalance between universities and donors growing which is “even more distressing. If colleges are cowed into compromising their missions, constricting the space for public debate, this too will happen before a watchful public. Alternatively, institutions may attempt to wean themselves from megadonors, effectively changing the rules upon which the donor revolt has depended. Fund raisers have expressed growing consternation about overreliance on the major gift — megadonors, after all, are often as fickle as the economic climate, and they are the most likely to attach restrictions to their gifts. A donor revolt could hasten calls to tend to the rest of the donor pyramid, which many critics from within the profession believe has been left to atrophy.”
The President of CASE, Sue Cunningham, criticized the proposition that “major gifts should be viewed with suspicion.” She insisted that “Philanthropy has been an important source of revenue for many schools, colleges, and universities with an incredible blend of public and private investment that has been at the very heart of so much of societal growth and advancement. With diminishing funding from governments in many parts of the world, philanthropy has become of increasing import and while there is no question that the environment today is more complicated than in decades past and requires more from institutions and donors, we must address these new challenges with optimism and confidence, not suspicion.” She was emphatic that “this does not need to be a moment of lost hope in philanthropic engagement. Rather it is a moment for leadership in educational institutions to remain focused on mission and to invite counsel from advancement professionals who have the knowledge and expertise to provide support in navigating the complexity many of us are facing.”
Thus, some see the rising influence of donors in university affairs as a symptom of the erosion of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Academic freedom is variously defined in different countries, but generally refers to institutional autonomy and the ability of faculty and students to pursue knowledge including teaching and research without undue interference by government, politicians, and other parties outside the university. In the United States, conceptions of academic freedom follow the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure first issued in 1915 and revised in 1940 and 1970, which was adopted by the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges. Academic freedom means that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results,” as well as “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”
Furthermore, when faculty “speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations… Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” Academic freedom is tied to academic tenure, which is seen “as a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”
All key aspects of academic freedom have come under serious threat in the United States. The congressional hearings that set the stage for Gay’s resignation marked a watershed moment in the rising political assault against universities. Congress and the Department of Education have launched various investigations. According to Katherine Knott, in 2023 they included “hearings about free speech issues on campus, student loan policies, the influence of foreign funding and campus antisemitism, among other topics.” It culminated in the congressional hearing featuring the three presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania. Many see this as less about congressional oversight than congressional overreach.
Knott says, “Under federal higher education law, the government is barred from exercising ‘any direction, supervision or control’ of the curriculum, instruction, administration or personnel of an institution. However, the Education Department does determine whether institutions are eligible for federal funding, and there are a number of ways colleges can lose access to those funds. Those include violating federal civil rights law and losing accreditation, but the department has rarely pulled federal funding from institutions.”
These developments worry “experts who fear the investigations could undermine the system of higher education, infringe on the independence of colleges and universities and threaten their federal funding. The committee’s work represents a significant shift in how Congress deals with institutions, they say, and is part of a broader attack on higher education—though committee leaders say it’s not a radical departure… However, Republicans in both the House and Senate are increasingly threatening to punish colleges financially, either by restricting their access to federal financial aid or taxing their endowments.”
Another long standing pillar of academic freedom, academic tenure, has also frayed badly. According to a recent report by the AAUP, “The US academic workforce has shifted from mostly full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty to mostly contingent faculty, including full-time non-tenure-track, full-time with no tenure system, and part-time faculty: “Over two-thirds (68 percent) of faculty members in US colleges and universities held contingent appointments in fall 2021, compared with about 47 percent in fall 1987; Nearly half (48 percent) of faculty members in US colleges and universities were employed part time in fall 2021, compared with about 33 percent in 1987; About 24 percent of faculty members in US colleges and universities held full-time tenured appointments in fall 2021, compared with about 39 percent in fall 1987.”
The assaults on higher education are facilitated by the fact that it enjoys diminishing public support and standing as the value proposition of higher education declines, which is partly fueled by deepening partisan divides. According to the Pew Research Center, “From 2015 to 2019, the share saying colleges have a negative effect on the country went from 37% to 59% among this group.” Much of this decline was attributed to Republicans losing confidence in college and university professors to act in the best interests of the public, compared with Democrats (48% to 84%); that colleges and universities are open to a wide range of opinions and viewpoints (44% to 87%); higher education is going in the wrong direction (73% to 52%) because of high tuition costs (77% to 92%), professors bring their political views to class (79% to 17%), students are overprotected from views they might find offensive (75% to 31%), and universities lean more liberal than conservative (85% to 68%).
Conservatives attack universities for being bastions of liberal academics and indoctrination. Bok argues that “Careful studies have found that this tendency has not come about primarily through conscious discrimination in hiring professors but is chiefly a result of liberals’ being more attracted than conservatives to academic careers. This tendency seems to begin even before students reach college and is enhanced by the distaste of many highly educated people for a political party that opposes abortion, gun control, and efforts to cope with climate change. All of these trends have been aggravated by the growing discontent within the public over the state of the nation. Trust in almost every institution, including higher education, has been gradually declining for the past 15 years, even during times of prosperity and full employment. While all segments of the public have exhibited diminishing confidence in universities, the tendency has been most acute among Republicans.”
This article was first published here.