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The Polarization of the American Polity

The anxieties and anger of conservatives can partly be attributed to the fact that public opinion has progressively drifted in favor of liberal values. Several wedge issues illustrate the growing chasm. On abortion, a public opinion survey by the Pew Research Center shows that “While public support for legal abortion has fluctuated some in two decades of polling, it has remained relatively stable over the past several years. Currently, 61% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% say it should be illegal in all or most cases… Six-in-ten Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party (60%) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. By contrast, 80% of Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.”

A Pew survey on immigration demonstrates that “Conservative Republicans are the most likely to express strong support for more restrictive immigration goals such as increased border security and increased deportations, even when compared with others in their party. Liberal Democrats, by contrast, are the least supportive of these restrictive goals while being the most supportive of establishing a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants in the country.” The survey found gaps between Republicans and those leaning Republican and Democrats and Democratic leaners was 91% to 59% on increasing security along the U.S.-Mexico border as an important goal; 79% to 39% on increasing deportations of illegal immigrants; 37% to 80% on establishing a way for most immigrants currently in the country illegally to stay in the U.S. legally; and 58% to 85% on taking in refugees from countries where people are fleeing war and violence.

Similarly, “there has been a dramatic increase in public support for same-sex marriage over the past two decades,” says another Pew survey. “As recently as 2004, nearly twice as many Americans opposed than favored allowing gay and lesbian people to marry legally; by 2019, public opinion had reversed, with 61% in favor and 31% opposed. The differences between Democrats and Republicans and independents leaning towards the two parties are pronounced. Eight-in-ten of the former “say it has been good for society, while 19% say it has been bad,” while the latter “are more divided: 43% view the legalization of same-sex marriage positively, 55% negatively.”

On transgender rights, Pew reports that 76% Democrats and 35% of Republicans “say there is a great deal or a fair amount of discrimination against trans people… One-in-four Republicans see little or no discrimination against this group, compared with 5% of Democrats.” Acceptance of trans gender people is higher among younger than older people. “Half of adults ages 18 to 29 say someone can be a man or a woman even if that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. This compares with about four-in-ten of those ages 30 to 49 and about a third of those 50 and older. Adults younger than 30 are also more likely than older adults to say society hasn’t gone far enough in accepting people who are transgender (47% vs. 39% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 31% of those 50 and older).”

Even on the contentious Israel-Gaza war public opinion shows splits along political and generational lines. In a Pew survey conducted November 27-December 3, 2023, it was found that “more disapprove than approve of Biden administration’s response to Israel-Hamas war” by 41% to 34% (24% are not sure). “Republicans disapprove of the administration’s response by about two-to-one (51% disapprove, 28% approve). Democrats are more divided: 44% approve of the administration’s response, 33% disapprove and 22% are not sure. Adults under age 30 are particularly disapproving of the administration’s response to the conflict. Just 19% approve, while 46% disapprove. The administration’s response is viewed less negatively among older age groups.”

Writing in The Washington Post, Francis Vinall attributes the divide between younger and older Americans to the fact that “Each age group has a different ‘generational memory’ of Israel… In the decades after its founding, Israel was a relatively lower-income and vulnerable country. Its military victories against its neighbors, in 1948, 1967 and 1973, were generally admired in the West…But by the time millennials began forming their understanding of global events, the violence of the second Intifada had concluded in the mid-2000s with enhanced walls and barriers constructed between Israel and the West Bank, and then Gaza. This generation formed its idea of Israel from reports of Palestinians denied access to water, freedom of movement and fair trials, under the military control of what was by then a relatively rich, nuclear-armed power.”

The generational divide, write Emma Goldberg and Marc Tracy, is also evident in Jewish families, some of which are experiencing “a clash between an older generation of American Jews, who believe Israel has a right to defend itself and that its very survival is at stake, and a younger generation more likely to view Israel as a great military power and an occupying force. That’s not the case in every family, of course. Many Jewish college students have been vocal and firm in defending Israel; plenty of Jewish Americans in the Boomer generation have criticized Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Many American Jews are united in a fear of rising antisemitism, and last month, tens of thousands of them attended the March for Israel in Washington, D.C. Yet some Jewish families are grappling with internal divisions, in the heart of a holiday season that is forcing difficult conversations… Even before the war, younger American Jews were generally less attached to Israel than their elders, according to a 2021 Pew Research survey.”

In its survey conducted December 1-20, Gallup showed similar divides. “Americans lack consensus in their views of the United States’ involvement in the Israel-Hamas conflict and its overall support for Israel and the Palestinians. Partisans are divided, with Republicans more sympathetic to Israel and Democrats to the Palestinians. While Netanyahu’s image has worsened in the U.S., a majority of Republicans continue to view him favorably.” On December 19, Weisman, Iguelnik, and MacFadden reported that “Voters broadly disapprove of the way President Biden is handling the bloody strife between Israelis and Palestinians, a New York Times/Siena College poll has found, with younger Americans far more critical than older voters of both Israel’s conduct and the administration’s response to the war in Gaza.” A poll published on January 12, 2024 in The Nation by John Zogby Strategies found “high levels of enthusiasm for a Gaza cease-fire, especially among young voters and key Democratic constituencies… likely voters are substantially more likely to back candidates for Congress if they know those candidates favor de-escalation.”

Clearly, there are sharp differences of opinion among Americans on almost every issue of public interest along political, generational, class, racial, gender, and other social markers. Typically, almost everywhere and throughout history, political and social revolutions have largely been led by young people. Most of the activists and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and Africa’s nationalist movements for independence were young men and women in their late teens, twenties, and thirties. With their concentrations of young people, and as centers of intellectual discourse, it is not surprising that universities are hotbeds of passionate debate and sometimes protest, which older people and partisans on both sides of the ideological divide often find disconcerting and even dangerous, which they expect university administrators to silence. But as marketplaces of ideas universities should promote vigorous and informed conversations on difficult issues. If universities can’t have such discussions, then where? In the words of Louis Menand, “The academic’s job in a free society is to serve the public culture by asking the questions the public does not want to ask, by investigating the subjects it cannot or will not investigate, by accommodating the voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.”

It could be argued that the shifts in public opinion towards a more tolerant society, especially among young people, provide a critical background for America’s rising angry rightwing populism whose fallout include the escalating attacks against higher education and its cherished traditions of academic freedom. The liberalizing forces tend to coalesce around the broad, sometimes unwieldy, Democratic coalition that includes activists and sympathizers of the unfinished and threatened gains of the Civil Rights Movement, and more recently the Occupy Wall Street, MeToo, and Black Lives Matter movements. In opposition, conservative forces have mobilized to maintain the socioeconomic order of the receding past. The two social and ideological formations found their articulation in the election of Barack Obama as America’s first Black President, which provoked both the tantalizing hopes of a post-racial future and resurrected the reactionary populism and virulent White supremacy of Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement.

The fact that popular opinion is often overridden by political leaders supported by a minority of the American electorate underscores the country’s troubled democracy. America likes to portray itself as the world’s beacon on the hill of democracy. The reality says otherwise. According to Democracy Index 2022 published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the U.S. is classified as a flawed democracy, and ranked thirtieth in the world. It is not among the world’s 24 full democracies. The index “is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then classified as one of four types of regime: ‘full democracy’, ‘flawed democracy’, ‘hybrid regime’ or ‘authoritarian regime’”.

American democracy suffers from several structural deficits, which I discussed at length in an essay I wrote following the 2020 election that resulted in the victory of President Biden and defeat of President Trump, which the latter and his followers still baselessly dispute as stolen. I said, “The broad signs of political decay are familiar – and alarming – to comparative scholars of democracy: the growing polarization, distrust, and intolerance among supporters of the main opposing parties; the increasing tendency to view partisan attachments as a kind of tribal identity; the intertwining of partisan affiliations with racial, ethnic, or religious identities; and the inability to forge political compromises across partisan divides – and hence to mount effective policy responses to national issues.”

I identified four dimensions of America’s democracy deficit. “First, the electoral college is an instrument of minority rule that has primarily benefited Republicans over the last twenty years… Over the past 30 years, only once, in 2004, did a Republican president win the popular vote, but they have been elected three times. Republican minority rule by the presidency and Senate are baked into the system… Add up the actual votes received in the winning election of every sitting US senator, and you will see that Republicans haven’t won a Senate majority since the mid-1990s. Yet they’ve controlled the Senate for 10 of the last 20 years and used that advantage to shape the ideological balance on the federal courts.

Second, American democracy is haunted by the specter of voter suppression, which goes back to the nation’s founding. In the US constitution, enslaved Africans were not only deemed three-fifths of a human being, but they could also not vote, nor could women of any race. After the right to vote was extended in the Fifteenth Amendment that enfranchised all men (but not women), culminating in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, new voter suppression strategies were devised, which were especially targeted at African Americans. During Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy tests were used to disenfranchise African Americans in the South. In the post-Civil Rights era, voter suppression encompassed the disenfranchisement of ex-felons in some states, the purging of voter rolls, the placing of limitations on early and absentee voting, disinformation, and the imposition of discriminatory voting identification requirements.

Third, the establishment of electoral boundaries and constituencies through gerrymandering is deployed as a powerful weapon to dilute the voting power of an opposition party and concentrate that of the ruling party in a district. In America’s first-past-the-post electoral system, gerrymandering has been used by the two main political parties to reduce competition by maximizing the voting power of supporters and minimizing that of opponents often segmented based on race, class, religion, or ideology… Gerrymandering is designed to bolster the electoral prospects of incumbents and undermines descriptive or proportional representation.

Fourth, the American judicial system is highly politicized. At the federal level, the president makes judicial appointments, which are reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee before a vote is taken by the Senate. Presidents nominate individuals who fit and are likely to promote their party’s ideology and interests, while the balance of power in the Senate among the two parties often determines who is appointed. Fights over the appointment of Supreme Court justices are fierce because of the court’s extensive powers of judicial review.” Add to that, justices of the Supreme Court are appointed for life. The three justices appointed by President Trump decisively tilted the court to the right, which soon proceeded to gut abortion rights and affirmative action, which emboldened conservative forces to push on other contentious issues opposed by most Americans.

As I warned in that essay, the Biden victory did not entail the demise of the Trump project, whose drive was likely to be refueled. “All too often, condemnation of the Trump presidency becomes a deflection when he is depicted as an aberration rather than an embodiment of the profound and long-standing disabilities and deficits of American society and democracy. The fact that about 40 percent of the population consistently supported him throughout his presidency, and that he won 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, shows he represented a large swathe of American society.”

The widespread anxieties and warnings that democracy in the United States is imperiled if the forces of de-democratization prevail should be taken seriously. Many thoughtful commentators fear the 2024 election will be, to quote Thomas Edsel, the The New York Times columnist, “held at a time of insoluble cultural and racial conflict; a two-tier economy, one growing, the other stagnant; a time of inequality and economic immobility; a divided electorate based on educational attainment — taken together, a toxic combination pushing the country into two belligerent camps.” Out of the ten leading scholars he contacted, nine expressed deep pessimism that the country was lurching to a point of no return although they gave different reasons including: “the decline in a common American identity”; “the growing inability of politics to give voice to disparate interests”; the deepening divergence between output and wages; “the great misalignment between the institutions we have and those we need to deal with most of these problems”; “the erosion of national support for the mediating role of key institutions” including elite higher education; fragmentation and weakening of media, political parties, and the rise of identity politics; “income inequality and cultural resentments of those left behind”;  “social and political instability due to globalization, automation and social media”; intensifying “dissension between Democrats and Republicans;” and “multiple elite-driven institutional breakdowns across the board, opening the door to a national and global maelstrom.”

In this era of heightened political strife and despair, educational institutions are collateral damage, as part of the delegitimization of the institutional pillars and guardrails of the nation’s democracy, notwithstanding its systemic limitations. University students, faculty, and leaders are no match for the powerful constellation of forces they increasingly face coalesced around disconnected elites, entitled donors, partisan politicians, opinionated pundits, and fearful boards. Gay was caught in this hazardous vortex. Her racial and gender identity as the first Black woman president of America’s most storied university added to her inevitable peril.

The Burdens of Black Women

Black women have been in the forefront of struggles for progressive social change for generations and the backbone of the Democratic Party since the extension of voting rights to African Americans following the Civil Rights Movement. More recently, an African American activist from New York, Tarana Burk, created the MeToo movement against sexual abuse and assault, and in 2014 three other Black women civil rights activists, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 after well-publicized killings of unarmed African Americans by police.

Black women activists have also played a crucial role in struggles for reproductive health. In her interview with  Dorothy Roberts, one of the leading scholars on the subject, following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade that had guaranteed abortion rights since 1973, Fabiola Cineas states that “If you’re wondering how we got here, look to Black women’s long fight for reproductive justice.” A paper on Black women, reproductive justice and environmental justice shows they see the former as the “human right to control one’s body, sexuality, gender, and reproductive choices. That right can only be achieved when all women and girls have the complete economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, our families, and our communities in all areas of our lives.”

From a social justice framework, the environmental justice movement seeks to advance “the human right to safe, sustainable, and healthy living environments.” The reproductive and environmental justice movements are interconnected because they “work together to address both environmental racism and harmful policies and practices that contribute to adverse health outcomes that stem from toxic emissions, chemical exposures, climate change, and the degradation of life-sustaining natural resources like clean air and water. Black women and their families and communities are disproportionately impacted by exposure to toxins and a range of connected injustices that jeopardize environmental wellness, access to basic resources, and their overall health and quality of life.” Not surprisingly, Samantha Wills writes in Essence, the Black women’s magazine, that “Black women nationwide are boldly leading a growing effort to heighten public awareness of how environmental issues like pollution and climate change affect African Americans and other people of color, and galvanizing the push for environmental justice in their communities.”

African American women are the most reliable block of the Democratic coalition. They vote for Democratic candidates at higher rates than Black men and White women. Electoral data clearly shows this in the elections over the past four decades. According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, “In every presidential election since 1980, a gender gap has been apparent, with a greater proportion of women than men preferring the Democrat in each case. The magnitude of the gender gap has ranged in size from four to twelve points since 1980.” The persistence of this gap, argue Jane Junn and Natalie Musuoka, “has nurtured the conclusion that women are Democrats.” They upend that conventional wisdom by analyzing “data from the American National Election Study to demonstrate that white women are the only group of female voters who support Republican Party candidates for president. They have done so by a majority in all but 2 of the last 18 elections.”

CAWP data shows that in the 2016 election, Hilary Clinton received 54% of the women’s vote, and 41% of the men’s vote, compared to 41% and 52% for Donald Trump, respectively. In the 2020 election, the gender gap was 57% (women) to 45% (men) for Joseph Biden and 42% to 53%, respectively, for Donald Trump. However, among White voters in 2016, Trump won the majority votes of both men (62%) and women (52%) compared to Clinton’s 31% (men) and 43% (women). In contrast, Clinton garnered 94% of the Black women’s vote and 82% of the Black men’s vote. In the 2020 election, Biden was supported by 90% of Black women and 79% of Black men.

Paula England et al explain that the gender gap in U.S. elections “arises in part because Black women constitute a higher percentage of women voters than Black men do of men voters. This tips women’s votes toward Democrats. Other research shows that premature death, incarceration, and disenfranchisement remove Black men from the population and/or the electorate…  These disparities reduce the share of men voters who are Black. We show that the gender difference in racial composition explains 24% of the gender gap in voting Democratic.”

Thus, in the 2016 election more White women voted for Donald Trump than for Hilary Clinton, the first woman nominee for the presidency representing one of the two major parties. Biden understood his debt to Black women and proceeded to appoint Kamala Harris as his running mate, and as vice president she became the highest ranking woman in government in American history. He also promised to appoint the first Black woman associate justice of the Supreme Court, which he did with Ketanji Brown Jackson in 2022 when a vacancy became available.

African American women have made advances in many other sectors including education. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that “The overall college enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds decreased from 41 percent in 2010 to 38 percent in 2021. The college enrollment rate in 2021 was higher for 18- to 24-year-olds who were Asian (60 percent) than for those who were White (38 percent), Black (37 percent), of Two or more races (35 percent), Hispanic (33 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native (28 percent).” The total college enrollment rate for males declined from 38% in 2010 to 33% in 2021 and fell only slightly for females from 44% to 43%. For Black males it declined from 35% to 31% and for White males from 41% to 33%, while it rose modestly for Black women from 41% to 42% and fell for White women from 46% to 44%.

However, women in general and women of color in particular remain underrepresented among university administrators as evident from the latest survey from The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources covering the 2022-23 academic year as reported by Rick Seltzer in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The data shows that “women were 53.4 percent of all administrators but just 48.2 percent of chief academic officers and 30.3 percent of presidents… Women of color are even less well represented among administrators. They were 10.8 percent of all administrators but just 9.2 percent of chief academic officers and 6 percent of presidents. The share of racial and ethnic minorities in administrative roles hasn’t kept pace with the demographics of those earning graduate degrees, even as it has risen over time.”

The gender and racial gaps were also pronounced among faculty. “Women and people of color are overrepresented in positions of lower rank and with low pay. Women held a higher share of non-tenure-track faculty positions than tenure-track roles. On the tenure track, women were 52.6 percent of all assistant professors but just 35.9 percent of full professors. People of color were 34.9 percent of assistant professors but 21.7 percent of full professors. Pay gaps persist, especially for women of color in non-tenure-track positions. That’s true even as pay gaps for assistant and associate professors shrank over the years.”

In contrast, women were overrepresented in professional positions, in which they comprised 61 percent, “up from 58 percent in 2017, due in part to gains in women of color. But women of all races and ethnicities received less pay than did men in similar positions.” For staff positions people of color held “a higher share of staff positions than they do positions in any of the other employee groups. Staff positions pay less than others do. And women staffers are paid less than white men.” The article concludes, “the data and recent news show a continued uphill climb for work-force equality. It shouldn’t escape notice that all three of the college presidents hauled before a hostile congressional committee last month were women who’d been in their jobs for a relatively short time. All-too-common racist and sexist vitriol can prevent qualified people from taking prominent positions.”

The Persecution of Claudine Gay

The underrepresentation of African Americans in the higher echelons of academe is one reason why Gay’s ascendancy to the presidency of Harvard was greeted with such euphoria in many circles, especially among Black women, and her fall provoked an outpouring of anguish. Kyla Golding, an editorial writer at The Harvard Crimson captured the horror of many: “Today is not just about a Harvard president and the position’s shortest historical tenure. It is not about disagreements over geopolitical correctness nor honor in scholarship. The resignation of Claudine Gay is a heart-wrenching display that at the mountaintop for the Black woman, there is no promised land. No liberation, no forgiveness, no love, no protection.”

Isaac Bailey, also writing in The Harvard Crimson, expressed distress. “Gay’s resignation signals that not even Harvard — with its unparalleled prestige and enormous endowment — could purchase the kind of spine that higher education needs in the face of vitriolic external pressure and extremist interests. Make no mistake: Her departure opens the door for increased attacks. There’s blood in the water, and the sharks are circling.” He feared it was open season on Black academics. Keisha Williams, another editorial writer, expressed resolve. “As I watched you [Gay] walk across the stage and accept the keys to Harvard, I couldn’t help but live through your success. To taste the unadulterated happiness as I felt our ancestors cheer you on… I thank you for what you’ve done. Thank you for what you’ve meant to Black women everywhere. And in humble recognition of your persistence and resilience, I will continue your legacy as a Black woman.”

Since her resignation there has been debate on the role played by the Harvard Corporation that is summarized by Josh Moody in Inside Higher Education. Critics have questioned the search and vetting process of Gay and the plagiarism allegations, and the failure of the university to prepare her properly for the congressional hearings. Maureen Farrell and Rob Copeland revealed in The New York Times how “Facing intense pressure,” the Harvard Corporation “went from standing behind her as the university’s president to pushing her out within weeks… Along with the public declaration of support they offered on Dec. 12, the board members privately asked Dr. Gay to help come up with a plan to turn things around… But before Dr. Gay could send the board additional details, more trouble erupted,” as more allegations of plagiarism appeared.

Cracks in the board’s support began to appear. “The board members had received plenty of advice and criticism by others in their wealthy circles, Harvard alumni and donors… More than one board member had children studying at Harvard. At least one worried that other students would harass them because of their parents’ roles on the board and the bad press, according to two people who spoke with corporation members. It was clear that the controversies were not dying.” Efforts to keep her dissipated. “The board members agreed that they were dealing with a crisis of leadership and that the best path forward for Harvard was without Dr. Gay in the president’s chair.” In a phone call on December 27, with the board chair, Penny Pritsker, the billionaire heiress and businesswoman and former Cabinet secretary in the Obama Administration, “Dr. Gay said she would resign. Ms. Pritzker gave her the weekend to sort out her exit.” The announcement of her resignation came on January 2, 2024.

For many commentators race and gender were central to the intensity of the attacks on Gay, which were not faced to the same degree by her two colleagues who were hauled before that fateful congressional hearing. While Elizabeth Magill of U Penn resigned, she was not subjected to the personal and professional vitriol that Gay faced. Sally Kornbluth of MIT remains standing at the time of writing. She “has so far not faced the kind of concerted effort from angry donors and alumni that helped bring down the other university presidents,” says Jeremy Peters. “Notably, an organization of Jewish alumni at M.I.T. that has been critical of the university for not doing enough to address antisemitism on campus — and criticized the congressional testimony as ‘disastrous‘ — has not called for Dr. Kornbluth’s resignation.” He argues that “Several other factors have worked in Dr. Kornbluth’s favor. From the outset, M.I.T. has been unwavering in its public support for its president… Dr. Kornbluth, who is Jewish, answered more directly under questioning from Ms. Stefanik about whether protest chants calling for genocide of Jews would constitute harassment under school policy.” Still, “some alumni and faculty members have been pressing for Kornbluth to resign,” reports Maggie Hicks in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “A petition for her resignation has now garnered more than 3,000 signatures (the petition is open to the general public).”

In her resignation letter, Gay pointed out that “it has been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor — two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am — and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.” A day after her resignation she penned a more forthright opinion piece in The New York Times. She admitted that she had “made mistakes. In my initial response to the atrocities of Oct. 7, I should have stated more forcefully what all people of good conscience know: Hamas is a terrorist organization that seeks to eradicate the Jewish state. And at a congressional hearing last month, I fell into a well-laid trap.” On the plagiarism allegations, she said that when she “learned of these errors, I promptly requested corrections from the journals in which the flagged articles were published, consistent with how I have seen similar faculty cases handled at Harvard… Despite the obsessive scrutiny of my peer-reviewed writings, few have commented on the substance of my scholarship, which focuses on the significance of minority office holding in American politics.”

She complained that “Those who had relentlessly campaigned to oust me since the fall often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned argument. They recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament. They pushed a false narrative of indifference and incompetence. It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution.” She warned that “The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader. This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda. But such campaigns don’t end there. Trusted institutions of all types — from public health agencies to news organizations — will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility. For the opportunists driving cynicism about our institutions, no single victory or toppled leader exhausts their zeal.”

Following Gay’s resignation, debate ensued on the role race played in her exit, which reflected the predictable ideological fault lines of American politics and punditry. Kurt Streeter argued, “The painful and startling story of Dr. Gay’s brief presidency is igniting discussions of plagiarism, fairness, antisemitism and leadership. But also at its core is the unavoidable American question of race, and what role it plays in who gets ahead and how they are judged. Her appointment came as the country was debating how to balance racial diversity and academic merit, frame history lessons about slavery and racism, and address the needs of Black and poor students. Just as Dr. Gay took over at Harvard in July, the Supreme Court banned race-conscious admissions at colleges and universities, a decision that sprung from a lawsuit aimed at Harvard.”

Her ascension to the presidency was welcomed by some as representing what “Natalie Sadlak, a medical student who spoke at the September inauguration” called “a blending of the university’s ‘future and its past, a mixture of the legacy of the university and the promise of new perspectives.’ But from her earliest days in her new role, Dr. Gay operated under heightened scrutiny, with critics eager to question her qualifications and embrace of diversity and equity programs. Opponents of efforts to diversify American campuses reacted to her promotion scornfully. Yes, since 2015, she had been a powerful administrator at the school, most recently the dean of the sprawling Faculty of Arts and Sciences. But critics argued that her scholarship was relatively thin compared with former Harvard presidents.” Streeter concludes that on her return to faculty Gay “may well carry a weight familiar to many African Americans. She is now a symbol — scorned by some, hailed by others, caught in a whipsawing argument over merit, rights and race that seems to have no end.”

Others dismissed charges that Gay was a victim of racism. Writing in Newsweek, Winkfield Twyman, said following the election of Barack Obama, he “was done with race. But too many Americans can’t seem to quit race. Fifteen years after President Barack Obama’s triumph, some feel it noteworthy to remark that Claudine Gay is the first Black President of Harvard University. Worse, in the face of numerous mounting scandals, many are defending Gay by claiming that the attacks against her are racial in nature. They are not. They are all well deserved.” He said she displayed lack of “moral competency” in her “testimony before Congress” and “There is also now evidence of serial plagiarism.” He pointed out that “As Dean of the College, Gay terminated Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. as Faculty Dean of the Winthrop House” because he “deigned to represent the disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein—an act of moral conscience, since all are entitled to legal representation in our legal system.” Then she went after Roland G. Fryer, a highly regarded economics professor whose research “into the killings of Black men in Houston, Texas… found no racial disparities”, undercutting the racial narrative that the Left has adopted, and as a result, “Gay did her best to remove all of his academic privileges, coordinating a witch hunt against him.”

John McWhorter also contended that he didn’t “think the notion that racism was substantially to blame for Claudine Gay’s trouble holds up. As both Gay and Harvard note, she received openly racist hate mail. This is repulsive. But however awful it must have been for Gay to endure their abuse, those people did not force her resignation… No, the charge that ultimately led to Gay’s resignation was plagiarism, of which more than 40 alleged examples were ultimately unearthed. And plagiarism and related academic charges have of course also brought down white people at universities many times.” He agrees that “For many, the central issue seems to be that Gay’s plagiarism would not have been uncovered at all were it not for the efforts of conservative activists, which is true.  The question then is whether the people who led the charge to oust Gay from her job — principal among them the right-wing anti-critical-race-theory crusader Christopher Rufo and the billionaire financier and Harvard donor Bill Ackman — were acting out of racial animus or even an opposition to Black advancement.”

He proceeds shakily. “And here things get slightly more complicated. Rufo and Ackman are unabashedly opposed to what both perceive as an ongoing leftward drift at elite universities such as Harvard. And both are opposed to the D.E.I. — or diversity, equity and inclusion — programs that are increasingly prominent on campuses, within corporations and elsewhere.” But he insists, “To put it succinctly: Opposing D.E.I., in part or in whole, does not make one racist. We can agree that the legacy of racism requires addressing and yet disagree about how best to do it. Of course, in the pure sense, to be opposed to diversity, opposed to equity and opposed to inclusion would fairly be called racism. But it is coy to pretend these dictionary meanings are what D.E.I. refers to in modern practice, which is a more specific philosophy… The lessons from what happened to Professor Gay are many. But cops-and-robbers thinking about racial victims and perpetrators will help answer few of them.”

Charles Blow, the insightful columnist at The New York Times, has no doubt that the campaign against Gay was never truly about her testimony or accusations of plagiarism. “It was a political attack on a symbol. It was a campaign of abrogation. It was and is a project of displacement and defilement meant to reverse progress and shame the proponents of that progress… When Gay and the presidents of M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania botched their responses before Congress, some on the political right sensed a weakness, and it quickened them. This was their chance not only to burn a witch but to torch a coven… Diversity, equity and inclusion, or D.E.I. — the effort to assist and support the underrepresented — turns out to be the ultimate target.” The attack on Gay is part of an orchestrated attack not just on Black advancement, but against Black women whose “presence in positions of power represents a threat to the power traditionally clustered in the hands of a few. As such, Black women see their credentials relentlessly attacked, their characters impugned, their lives scoured… And these attacks are unceasing.” Blow discusses how the qualifications of both Kamala Harris and Ketanji Brown Jackson were also disparaged and their eligibility to their positions questioned. But he asks, “Where is that energy when it comes to Clarence Thomas’s multifarious ethical issues?”

The Myths of Merit and Diversity

It is ironic that merit and diversity are seen as opposites when neither defines the reality of the American academy. Tessie McMillan Cottom, an academic and columnist for The New York Times, states categorically that “The Claudine Gay Debacle Was Never About Merit… the attacks against Dr. Gay have been cut from whole cloth, from a historical narrative about merit and diversity that is a hallmark of America’s higher-education prestige hierarchy… Rufo explained his plan for ginning up controversy about higher education’s most prestigious universities in an interview on the heels of Dr. Gay’s resignation, explaining that it was a coordinated, strategic attack that used narrative, financial and political leverage. His partners included members of Congress, wealthy donors, journalists, media and a bloodthirsty audience. Riding high on success, Rufo said his strategy could push the conservative movement back into what he considers its rightful place: the top of America’s most powerful cultural institutions.”

Cottom believes that the message resonated with a public primed to believe that affirmative action is intended to help undeserving Black people. “It is most galling at the most prestigious institutions, where status granted without concern for merit breeds resentment. Consequently, academic rigor and culture have receded from Western civilization’s high-water mark.” Gay was weighed down by “The specter of D.E.I. [which] made her presidency sound like a voucher program for a welfare recipient and not the internal promotion of a long-term employee to leadership… It is not genius. It is a powerful rhetorical strategy because it merged the political craftsmanship of the 1988 Willie Horton ad with the moralism of federalism.” The debate is not about merit “because merit, itself, cannot be defined. That is why the concept is so useful for slippery slopes. It cannot be proved or disproved. It can only be argued. Academicians and practitioners know that you cannot operationalize merit… Whenever politicians, activists and investors agree that there is a merit crisis at Harvard, it signals that a battle rages, not over rigor, but over power.

As discussed in Chapter 8 my forthcoming book, Re-Envisioning the African and American Academies, the debates about diversity, equity and inclusion at elite institutions are fundamentally a struggle, both substantive and symbolic, over the racial composition of the American ruling class. That is why all the major legal challenges against affirmative action since the 1970s that rose to the level of the Supreme Court focused on elite public and private universities in California, Texas, Michigan, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. Most American higher education institutions are not selective. Overall, higher education increasingly has become a privilege of richer households as enrollment data shows. Enrolment rates vary considerably for students from high-income families (top 20%), middle-income (middle 60%) and low-income families (low 20%). A 2015 report by NCES states that “A smaller percentage of students of low socioeconomic status (SES) than students of middle SES attained a bachelor’s or higher degree within 8 years of high school completion (14 vs. 29 percent) and percentages for both groups were smaller than the percentage of high-SES students who attained this level of education (60 percent).”

A recent damning study by Chetty, Deming and Friedman published in July 2023, Diversifying Society’s Leaders? The Determinants and Causal Effects of Admission to Highly Selective Private Colleges, shows that a dozen of the US’s most elite institutions, which accounted for less than 1% of college students but 15% of Americans in the top 0.1% of income distribution, were “more than twice as likely to admit a student from a high-income family as compared to low- or middle-income families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.” Their admissions were driven by “legacy preferences for children of alumni, higher non-academic ratings and athletic recruitment”. Attending such colleges “instead of a flagship public college triples students’ chances of obtaining jobs at prestigious firms and substantially increases their chances of earning in the top 1%”. If these colleges changed their admissions policies, “they could significantly diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of America’s highest earners and leaders.”

The diversity of faculty in America’s PWIs is also greatly exaggerated according to a study conducted by Education Trust, Faculty Diversity and Student Success Go Hand in Hand: So Why Are University Faculties So White? published in December 2022. It rated institutions on three metrics from 0 to 100: faculty diversity, hiring equity, and tenure equity. Letter grades were then applied, using a 10-point grading scale from A (90 or higher) to F (below 60). “The results weren’t great”, the report states. “Our findings show that Black and Latino faculty are severely underrepresented at most public, four-year colleges and universities. When we compared Black and Latino faculty against student enrollment in 2020, we found that more than half (57%) the institutions had failing grades for Black faculty diversity, while nearly four out of five (80%) had F grades for Latino faculty diversity.”

Another report by Matias, Lewis and Hope, U.S. Universities Are Not Succeeding in Diversifying Faculty, also published in December 2022, said, “Looking at data from the US Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we find that the diversity of tenure-track faculty in the USA is not increasing any faster than the diversity of the American public. Across 1,250 higher education institutions, the percentage of underrepresented tenure-track faculty increased by 0.23 percentage points each year on average between the 2013 and 2020 academic years; the US census projects that the percentage of these same demographic groups will increase by 0.2 percentage points per year. At this rate, US higher education will never achieve demographic parity among tenure-track faculty.

American colleges and universities tend to blame their tepid faculty diversity efforts on a pipeline problem. The study vigorously dismisses the argument. “Conversations about faculty diversity often invoke a leaky pipeline, despite conflicting empirical evidence”. The leaky pipeline model encourages institutions to “seek to make progress by plugging these leaks”, while underestimating the existing availability of potential faculty of color and measures to strengthen the diversity pool. Between 2013 and 2020, an estimated “45,309 people from underrepresented groups who had PhDs granted by US higher education institutions were not hired into tenure-track positions”.

There is a growing literature on the persistent challenges that Black faculty and administrators face at the PWIs. “Due to hostile racial climates created by institutions,” argues Bridget Turner Kelly et al., “Black faculty are also placed in positions to prove their worth, or legitimacy of academic discipline and professional practice.” So, they find themselves always trying to prove their academic worth. Moreover, they meet racist hostility and microaggressions from some White students, faculty, and administrators. Their research interests related to topics of social justice are often derided. Support for research and tenure promotion is either inadequate or compromised by the burdens of service to students of color and administrative tokenization in terms of being appointed to a disproportionate number of committees for racial representation. For many, the final straw is often the feeling of bait and switch, “of being duped, manipulated and cajoled into coming to a PWI that seems to value you for your unique research acumen, but does nothing to foster an inclusive environment.”

Black administrators in the PWIs are not immune to the adverse racial climate. Some of the problems lie with the search firms, others with search committees or the appointing board of trustees. Executive search firms often approach Black and other candidates of color primarily to check the affirmative action box, not for serious consideration. A 2022 report by College Futures, Whiteness Rules: Racial Exclusion in Becoming an American College President, begins by noting that despite sixty years of demands by Black, Latinx and Asian American, Indigenous, and Pacific Islanders students, who comprise roughly half of today’s student population, presidents of America’s PWIs remain predominantly White and male. The report identifies the various dynamics that sustain racialization in leadership appointments. Reflections by several Black presidents show the extraordinary challenges they face, and the institutional and political tightropes they walk, from which any misstep can lead to an unceremonious fall, as Gay discovered at Harvard.

The Impossible Job of a College President

The discourse about academic qualifications that Gay’s ouster triggered tends to oversimplify the diverse and changing pathways to the college presidency. It is no longer unusual for politicians, CEOs, or military leaders who have no academic experience whatsoever other than that they were once college students to be appointed university presidents. The American Council on Education (ACE) produces periodic reports that are quite informative on the characteristics and challenges of university leadership.

The American College President 2012 report showed that “In 2011, 20 percent of presidents’ immediate prior positions were outside academe, up sharply from 13 percent in 2006 and 15 percent in 2001. Generally, however, less than half of all presidents have some experience outside higher education during their careers. Nearly one-third (30 percent) of presidents in 2011 had never been a faculty member.” The American College Presidency 2022 report showed that the number of presidents from outside academe had declined to 9 percent. “The most commonly selected career path was faculty or academic (54 percent), followed by career administrative leader (e.g., student affairs officer, auxiliary services, finance) (28 percent) … When presidents were asked to share their educational trajectory, their highest degree earned was most likely to be a doctorate (84 percent), followed by a master’s degree (6 percent), and a juris doctor (6 percent).”

According to the report, in 2022 the “population of current presidents was still not representative of the students served. As seen in earlier iterations of ACPS, the college presidency remains older, White, and male… men still outnumbered women two-to-one in the presidency. In the survey, presidents of color accounted for a little over one out of four presidents, and women of color accounted for a little more than one out of every 10 presidents. Presidents were newer to their current position than in previous surveys, especially among women and presidents of color. In 2022, presidents had been in their position an average of 5.9 years, 2.6 years less than in 2006. On average, men had been in their current position about one year more than presidents of color or women presidents.”

Declining presidential terms is often attributed to the rising challenges of these positions, buffeted as they are between insistent and often incompatible and intolerant demands by internal and external constituencies. As he was concluding his term as chancellor of the University of Texas system in 2018, Admiral William H. McRaven, “best known for overseeing the nation’s special operations forces and for leading the raid that killed Osama bin Laden,” told the university’s Board of Regents, “The toughest job in the nation is the one of an academic or health institution president.”

Commenting on this statement, John Kroger, said “that being a president is hard today because of the unique times in which we live: times defined by limited resources, protest, conflict, and social media controversy. In truth, however, leaders across all the public and private sectors of the economy face equally great challenges right now, from global competition to constant pressure for quarterly profit, and protest and upheaval are nothing new in higher education.  So, what makes the job of university president so uniquely difficult?   After serving as a college president and talking with dozens of colleagues over the years, I have concluded it is due to structural institutional leadership challenges faced by no other CEOs. To begin, college and university presidents answer to a very large number of constituencies: students, staff, faculty, trustees, alumni, and, in the public sector, political leaders.  None of these constituencies can be ignored. All are outspoken. And most of the time, they desire radically different outcomes.

Five years later, Doug Lederman reports that McRaven stood by the statement, and he asked him “Why? ‘The complexity of being a president and all of the constituents you deal with on a day-to-day basis,’ McRaven explained, listing donors, alumni, the faculty, students, state legislators and regents, among others. ‘The president has got to be able to manage all of that, and nobody ever seems completely satisfied. You’re making hundreds if not thousands of small decisions a day,’ he added. ‘You hope you get 80 percent of them right, but of course the 20 percent you don’t get right you get criticized for.’”

For a Black president in a harshly visible fishbowl, one doesn’t even get the luxury of making any mistake. That is the tragedy and predictable fate of Claudine Gay as the first Black woman president of Harvard University.

This article was first published here.