A Presidency’s End

Claudine Gay steps down.

Claudine Gay testifying before Congress December 5

Claudine Gay testifying December 5 at the pivotal U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing on campus antisemitism and free speech, at the heart of the autumn controversies | Photograph © Michael Brochstein/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

Claudine Gay’s truncated 185-day term as Harvard’s thirtieth president came undone with astonishing speed from October 7—when Hamas terrorists attacked Israel, setting this and other campuses aboil—through her resignation on January 2 (see harvardmag.com/gay-resigns-24). It will fall to historians to detail precisely what happened, particularly in the three weeks after December 12, when the Corporation unanimously backed Gay, seconded by the University’s five living former presidents. At a minimum, historians will have to grapple with the headline issues—how Harvard handled allegations of antisemitism (which became entwined with clashes about free speech) and plagiarism—and, underlying both, a no-holds-barred cultural battle over the character of elite universities, their cultural commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and more.

Alan M. Garber speaking at podium
Provost Alan M. Garber, serving as interim president since January 2  |  photograph by niko yaitanes/harvard magazine

Those challenges persist, now in the hands of Provost Alan M. Garber, who was named interim president. Whether he and other University leaders can help mend divisions among students, faculty, and alumni (and between Harvard and some donors, Congress, and a large portion of the public) after weeks of scathing news coverage matters immeasurably more than anyone could have imagined at Gay’s September 29 installation.

 

As reported (“The Dogs of War,” January-February, page 14), a statement by student groups declaring “the Israeli regime entirely responsible” for Hamas’s murders and hostage-taking immediately polarized campus discourse, shone a harsh light on Harvard, and set off a weeks-long series of denunciations of the student authors and of University leaders for their initial reaction to the crisis—and increasingly of Gay herself for her successive statements. The latter included her October 13 video message defending free speech but declaring that doing so “is a far cry from endorsing” contested ideas, and rejecting “the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.” Two weeks later, she unveiled an advisory group to devise an agenda for “combating antisemitism at Harvard,” and followed that with a message reminding community members of their free speech rights and their responsibility to uphold those rights for others.

In a November 9 message, Gay explicitly condemned the phrase “from the river to the sea.” That language, associated with Hamas’s eliminationist rhetoric aimed at driving Jews from Israel, has been invoked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators on campus and elsewhere—prompting heated disagreements about whether protests against Israel’s government and the war in Gaza are themselves antisemitic. Some faculty members voiced concern over this presidential step toward defining acceptable expression on campus, and advocated a parallel advisory group on Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism in the community.

Thus were the lines about discourse drawn as members of the U.S. Congress probed how, in the current context, campus authorities distinguish speech that unacceptably harasses others or threatens to harm them versus legitimate protests. No one should have been under any illusions about the purpose of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on December 5: a committee news announcement was headlined, “College Presidents to Answer for Mishandling of Antisemitic, Violent Protests,” and the hearing itself was titled, “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.” Gay and MIT and University of Pennsylvania presidents Sally Kornbluth and M. Elizabeth Magill were the marquee witnesses; before Gay’s testimony, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06, a member of the Republican leadership, called on her to resign.

For most listeners, the reference to “context” was explosive, overshadowing the language that followed.

During the hearing (see harvardmag.com/gay-testifies-23), in response to Stefanik’s questions about whether phrases such as “from the river to the sea” violate Harvard’s code of conduct, Gay maintained repeatedly that such speech is hateful, but that violations of policy depend on speech crossing over into conduct. In a decisive afternoon exchange, when Stefanik demanded an answer to her query about whether calling for genocide of Jews violated universities’ speech codes, both Magill and Gay said, as Gay put it, the issue “depends on the context” and that, when speech crosses into conduct that “amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation,” it becomes an actionable offense. For most listeners, the reference to “context” was explosive, overshadowing the language that followed.

As free-speech advocates explained later, Gay’s formula is legally right. As Watson professor of law Jeannie Suk Gersen put it in a subsequent New Yorker commentary, “The claim that the answer depends on context is correct; any responsible determination of a policy violation is context-dependent.” But, as she continued, the presidents’ argument was out of place: they had “prepared for a deposition (where counsel advises minimalist answers) rather than for [a] political” proceeding, “And the moment plainly needed a moral statement rather than a legally precise reply.” That points to an important, unanswered question: given the worldly, experienced members of the Corporation and Board of Overseers, how was the decision made to approach the hearing the way Gay did?

Across the political spectrum, the presidents’ response was excoriated. Hedge fund executive Bill Ackman ’88, M.B.A. ’92, among the fiercest critics of pro-Palestinian students and of Gay, was merciless in his online posts, attracting more than 50 million readers during the hearing as he called for her dismissal.

Left unresolved was the fundamental issue of how to foster speech, rather than to inhibit it, so that opinions and errors (even those that revolt others) can be challenged and changed by further, clarifying speech. In the upside-down aftermath of Hamas’s terrorism and the ensuing war, conservatives who normally chafe at what they see as “woke” campus inhibitions on speech now seemed to advocate further constraints: conflating anti-Israel protests with antisemitism or even advocacy of genocide.

 

In the wake of the hearing, MIT’s trustees issued a statement backing Kornbluth on December 7, the same day that Gay apologized for her phrasing in a Crimson interview. Two days later, Magill, who had been under attack from donors before October 7, resigned, as did the head of Penn’s board of trustees.

The Harvard Corporation broke its silence on December 12, announcing that the fellows “reaffirm our support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard,” while making further comments. First, given Hamas’s brutality, “the University’s initial statement should have been an immediate, direct, and unequivocal condemnation.” Second, “Calls for genocide are despicable” and “President Gay has apologized for how she handled her congressional testimony and has committed to redoubling the University’s fight against antisemitism.” And third, foreshadowing a fateful development, “With regard to President Gay’s academic writings, the University became aware in late October of allegations regarding three articles.” An independent review, subsequently reviewed by the fellows, “revealed 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.” (Read the full statement at harvardmag.com/corporation-gay-23.)

Not until January 19, when it filed a response to a congressional investigation (https://www.harvard.edu/media-relations/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2024/01/Harvards-Detailed-Description-of-its-Review-Process.pdf), did the University disclose what lay behind that measured statement. In brief, on October 24, a New York Post reporter inquired about 25 passages from some of Gay’s published work that appeared nearly identical to other scholars’ writing. Three days later, the law firm of Clare Locke responded forcefully on Harvard’s and Gay’s behalf, asserting that the claims of plagiarism were “demonstrably false,” and that proceeding would subject the newspaper to “legal liability for defamation.” On October 29, the University account continued, the Corporation voted to review the allegations, and Gay requested an independent review, too. To avoid conflicts that might arise from the usual University bodies (nominally under the president’s authority) conducting the review, it was done by three (unnamed) political scientists. They delivered a two-page report flagging nine possible matters of concern, and recommended a review of all of Gay’s work. A panel of four Corporation members reviewed that and her other work, and with the full board concluded that corrections were required in two journal articles.

The Corporation’s December 12 message explained little of this, naturally prompting community questions about the review methodology and standards applied, on a matter of acute academic concern. And although the Post deferred its reporting, its source could get its material to other channels of publication—and did. Further claims about possible improper citation appeared online, notably on December 10, courtesy of Christopher Rufo, A.L.M. ’22, and subsequently through the Washington Free Beacon. The next week, Gay made three additional changes to properly cite work in her Harvard doctoral dissertation.

As in the debates over encouraging or constraining speech, the allegations of plagiarism sparked sharp disagreements. A Crimson op-ed titled “I Vote on Plagiarism Cases at Harvard College. Gay’s Getting off Easy,” written anonymously by an undergraduate member of the College Honor Council, made the case for punishment forcefully. Other advocates, from students to scholars, maintained that the codes of conduct for students and faculty members are not strictly synched, and that their application sometimes differs: matters for correction. Whatever soul-searching those differences might prompt, the outcome will be too late for Gay: a president weakened by withering public controversies was not going to withstand recurrent claims of falling short of citation standards.

 

The plagiarism allegations themselves require context. None involve violating the foundations on which academic scholarship stands—by fabricating data, for example, or manipulating analyses, or inventing outcomes. Gay’s research (assembling and validating large data sets, subjecting them to sophisticated quantitative analysis, and drawing carefully bounded conclusions, as described in “A ‘Scholar’s Scholar,’” September-October 2023, page 24) has been supported, before this past fall and after, by expert social scientists. In a New York Times op-ed the day after her resignation, Gay acknowledged the instances where her writing lacked “proper attribution” and the ensuing corrections. But she also asserted that “the citation errors should not obscure a fundamental truth: I proudly stand by my work and its impact on the field.” (In contrast, the scientific analysis of past research conducted under then-Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, published last summer, found errors of supervision, prompted major corrections to and the retraction of multiple published papers, and resulted in his resignation; one of the five reviewers was Princeton president emerita Shirley Tilghman, now a Corporation fellow and a member of the panel that vetted the independent review of Gay’s work.)

[Clarification and amplification, February 16, 2024, 11:10 a.m.: The review of Tessier-Lavigne’s work exonerated him of research misconduct, and noted that a reasonable scientist would not have been in a position to detect manipulation of research data. It did find that he “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record” when concerns were raised about his papers and that the culture of the laboratories he ran could have benefited from “improve[d]…oversight and management,” given that “multiple members of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s labs over the years appear to have manipulated research data and/or fallen short of accepted scientific practices.” The full report is accessible here.]

And of the four dozen or so examples of Gay’s work alleged to represent using others’ scholarship without proper credit—a serious lapse—few were ultimately determined by the Corporation to be violations. Some did not merit correction because they were examples of commonly used technical language. Other allegations were not flagged by the independent reviewers, or by the Corporation members, perhaps because they paraphrase identified authors, refer to sources identified in notes, or are sourced elsewhere.

As far as is known, the allegations did not arise from any scholarly critique of the validity of the research. Rather, they are in the form of anonymous submissions to University authorities comparing passages from Gay’s work with other scholars’ in minute detail, which were then picked up by the Beacon and Rufo: the anti-critical race theory, anti-DEI advocate who has provided much of the firepower for the attack on “woke” institutions of higher learning enacted by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, J.D. ’05.

Is the issue repealing policies “that cannot be publicly justified”—or tearing apart institutions that are “rotten to the core”?

There are debates to be had about DEI programs. To cite only one campus voice, Johnstone Family professor of psychology Steven Pinker, a founder of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, has argued that “Many of the assaults on academic freedom…come from a burgeoning bureaucracy that calls itself diversity, equity, and inclusion while enforcing a uniformity of opinion, a hierarchy of victim groups, and the exclusion of freethinkers.” Hence his call for “disempowering DEI” and repealing DEI policies “that cannot be publicly justified.”

But that differs radically in tone and intent from Rufo’s characterization of “the diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracy—constructed to perpetuate progressive dominance of higher education by keeping conservatives out of the professoriate,” in his celebratory Wall Street Journal op-ed, “How We Squeezed Harvard to Push Claudine Gay Out,” published January 3. In his own post the same day, Bill Ackman denounced DEI as “inherently inconsistent with basic American values,” an “ideology” and program that are in their essence “racist” and which resulted in the election of Gay as president through a “search process which had a predetermined objective of only hiring a DEI-approved candidate.” Gay, once in office, was “untouchable” in Rufo’s formulation, because it was assumed Harvard “couldn’t possibly transgress a core tenet of modern progressive politics—the idea that a leader’s immutable qualities, such as race or sex, should matter more than character, merit, and academic achievement.” He outlined ways to pursue “the great conflict between truth and ideology…a conflict that, if we are to preserve America’s core principles, conservatives must win.”

As noted, historians will have to document how these streams of thought were braided together to form the flood that swept Claudine Gay from Massachusetts Hall. One arose in response to October 7 and ensuing campus reactions, which many community members interpreted as antisemitic and morally bankrupt—under a leader they came to distrust. Another, surely, evolved from debate over the citation standards to which a university president must be held. But a third—underpinned by opposition to Harvard’s use of affirmative action in admissions (overturned by the Supreme Court last June), animosity to elite institutions and their presumed politics, and broad efforts to roll back any consideration of racial or other distinctions in diversifying institutions—occurred when outside advocates took advantage of the circumstances to pursue aims far beyond tweaking current policies or criticizing the institution’s then-leader. If the first black president of Harvard (whose scholarship itself concerned race) could be impugned and made to be seen as a “diversity” appointment, damage would be done to the heart of a culturally malign empire: a signal blow in a wide cultural war.

There will be still other eddies to explore—for instance, the influence of donors small and large (Ackman’s multimillion-dollar gifts are overshadowed by today’s nine-figure benefactors) on the Corporation’s intelligence-gathering. All these narrative lines will somehow be colored by a moment and in an environment where powerful people with access to the media, like Rep. Stefanik, characterize Gay’s resignation as “only the beginning of the reckoning that’s coming for the ‘woke’ left-wing college administators” whose “institutions are rotten to the core!”

 

For now, Gay returns to the faculty. Garber, as interim president, has to try to foster productive discourse on campus, and has organized task forces to combat antisemitism as well as Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias (see “Talking about Talking,” this issue page 19 and harvardmag.com/rules-protest-24). Harvard, like other universities, will have to defend itself in U.S. Department of Education investigations and at least one lawsuit alleging that it failed to protect Jewish students, on one hand, and their Palestinian and Muslim peers, on the other, from harassment and discrimination. The House of Representatives continues to investigate Harvard’s handling of antisemitism and the plagiarism review.

After the traumatic transition, with a cloudier future, the Corporation has to begin figuring out how to identify Harvard’s next leader. An unusually large cohort of alumni, opposed to Gay’s leadership or animated by other concerns, sought a place on the Overseers’ ballot for this spring (although none ultimately was able to qualify, see harvardmag.com/overseers-petition-24).

In the meantime, campus activity resumed on a much quieter note with the opening of the new semester on January 22. But perhaps the fires were only banked: Garber’s appointment of Derek J. Penslar, Frost professor of Jewish history, as co-chair of the antisemitism task force ignited further protest, given his past criticisms of Israel; and in late January, anonymous claims of plagiarism were directed at the prior academic work of Sherri A. Charleston, Harvard’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. And of this writing, in the world far outside the ivory tower, the hostages remained hidden in their abductors’ hands, and the deadly war continued in Gaza and beyond.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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