Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The American Spectator on December 14, 2023 and is crossposted here with permission.
Academic dishonesty strikes many people as boring. After all, it is academic. It is not like Sam Bankman-Fried, the “crypto king,” making $8 billion disappear into thin air. It is not like Florida dentist Charlie Adelson paying a hitman to kill his former brother-in-law. Academic dishonesty is typically just too small for the perpetrator to win admission to the criminal hall of fame.
Sometimes, however, it is worth paying attention to the mischief on campus. We owe much of COVID hysteria, and a good deal of climate hysteria, to professors who have lied their way to prominence, invented graphs out of whole cloth, and stigmatized legitimate questions as “disinformation.”
Now comes the case of Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University, who is credibly accused of plagiarism. “Credibly accused” in this case means flagrantly guilty but supported by people who find it inconvenient to acknowledge the facts. These are the same sort of people who say that Hunter Biden’s business ventures had nothing to do with old Papa Joe.
So what are the facts? Back in October, I was among a handful of people who had early access to a cache of documents that provided side-by-side comparisons of essays Claudine Gay had published over a 20-year span and earlier essays published by other researchers. The evidence was as plain as a red barn in a snowy field that Gay had appropriated the work of others and passed it off as her own.
It is important to add one of President Gay’s favorite words here: context. She has written very little over the course of her academic career — at least very little by the usual standards of someone in a professorial career, and extraordinarily little for someone granted tenure at Harvard University. In the controversy since the story about her plagiarism broke, there have been lots of references to her “scholarship,” but few if any descriptions of what publications comprise that body of work. So, let’s fill the gap.
According to her Harvard resume, Gay has published 11 journal articles in addition to her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation. These are:
- “Doubly Bound: The Impact of Gender and Race on the Politics of Black Women” (with Katherine Tate), Political Psychology, 1998.
- “The Effect of Black Congressional Representation on Political Participation,” American Political Science, 2001.
- “The Effects of Majority-Minority Districts and Minority Representation on Voting Participation in California,” Public Policy Institute of California, 2001.
- “Spirals of Trust: The Effect of Descriptive Representation on the Relationship between Citizens and their Government,” American Journal of Political Science, 2002.
- “Putting Race in Context: Identifying the Environmental Determinants of Black Racial Attitudes,” American Political Science Review, 2004.
- “Seeing Difference: The Effect of Economic Disparity on Black Attitudes Toward Latinos,” American Journal of Political Science, 2006.
- “Legislating Without Constraints: The Impact of Constituency Preferences on Policy Representation in Majority-Minority Districts,” Journal of Politics, 2007.
- “Moving to Opportunity: The Political Effects of a Housing Mobility Experiment,” Urban Affairs Review, 2012.
- “Knowledge Matters: Policy Cross-Pressures and Black Partisanship,” Political Behavior, 2014.
- “Americans’ Belief in Linked Fate: Does the Measure Capture the Concept?” The Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics.
- “A Room for One’s Own? The Partisan Allocation of Affordable Housing,” Urban Affairs Review, 2016.
She also co-edited one book, Outsiders No More? Models of Immigrant Political Incorporation, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.
Her work focuses on identity politics. While it has appeared in respectable academic journals, none of it could be counted as a major contribution to her field. She never established herself as a thinker whose views require serious reckoning by other scholars, and her cumulative work might never have warranted close examination were it not for her elevation first to the deanship of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and then earlier this year to Harvard’s presidency.
At that point, her meager record of scholarship began to attract some attention. How could someone with so little proven talent in her chosen profession have risen to the pinnacle of the American academic world? A simple answer was that she played the race card very effectively. That was true, but obviously not enough to vault her past numerous other black academics who have much better records of accomplishment.
The decisive difference was that during the summer of 2020, while the George Floyd riots were tearing apart American towns and cities, and liberal universities were in an orgy of self-incrimination for their histories of “systemic racism,” Gay had the Machiavellian cunning to put herself forward as the person who could “transform” Harvard into a place where the pursuit of “racial justice” would subordinate all other values. Her views on this were presented in a letter to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in August 2020. No one doubts that the letter was entirely her own work. It is a recipe for black privilege in every aspect of the university: faculty hiring, the appointment of administrators, fellowships, the curriculum, academic standards, fast-tracking promotions for minorities, and even a new “inclusive visual culture,” which probably meant tearing down statues and removing pictures of non-minorities, and replacing them with depictions of POC. (READ MORE: Backlash Against Harvard’s Claudine Gay Is Indictment of ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’)
Gay had well and truly embarked on this before Hamas launched its grisly Oct. 7 attack on Israel and before she came under ferocious criticism for defending the Harvard students who celebrated the Hamas atrocities. Forced to say that she doesn’t entirely approve of anti-Semitism, her stand was so unconvincing that the House Committee of Education and the Workforce summoned her, along with the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, to explain their positions on a national stage. But while this theater was happening, the plagiarism scandal was already playing out in the background.
The evidence of Gay’s wayward appropriations was provided to some journalists at the New York Post in October, one of whom interviewed me. The New York Post, however, then turned to some of the scholars whom Gay had plagiarized and asked them what they thought. This was a mistake. First, it tipped off the Harvard establishment that people were on Gay’s trail. Harvard immediately did two things. It threatened the New York Post by putting it in contact with its high-powered defamation lawyer, and it appointed a Potemkin committee to engineer a usable excuse, if not an outright exoneration for Gay’s dishonesty.
Some of the people Gay plagiarized were her friends and colleagues and not likely to turn their backs on arguably the most powerful person in American higher education. Naturally, they said they weren’t bothered by the copying and the Post returned to me with the question, “Is it really plagiarism if the source says it is OK?”
This is important. My answer then and now is: yes, it is still plagiarism, and it is still serious. The person who has been copied is not the main victim. The main victim is the academic community on whom the fraud has been imposed. The academy, for better or worse, is a community built on trust. When a scholar publishes something, the community assumes it is the original thought and words of the author unless it says otherwise. The writer can always say, “I am paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson.” Or, “This is my interpretation of what Malcolm X said on that occasion.” Or, “As Ibram X. Kendi has written, ‘My moment … coincides with the televised and untelevised killings of unarmed human beings at the hands of law enforcement officials,’ followed by a citation, in this case to Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning.
No one is saying that a scholar has to invent the world from scratch when writing a book or an article. Almost every work of any worth is a conversation with those who have gone before. And the merits of any new work of scholarship depend on how adroitly and with what wisdom the new writer brings to the task of recognizing and building on previous work.
Claudine Gay knows that, at least in some dim fashion. Her articles are festooned with citations to other people’s work — and in some cases to the very people she has plagiarized. What? If she has cited them, how can she be guilty of plagiarism?
In the course of the last 35 years, I’ve had the unpleasant duty of dealing with quite a few plagiarists and have grown used to this pattern. Plagiarists often play with fire. They steal sentences, whole paragraphs, or even pages of someone’s work; they cite none of that; and then elsewhere in the same document they cite the same author’s work on a more incidental point. Gay is a classic plagiarist in her use of these dodges.
Harvard has now successfully engineered a cover-up by ignoring its standing procedures for dealing with plagiarism and relying instead on a ghost committee reporting directly to the board. That committee couldn’t quite say there was no plagiarism, but it observed instances of “inadequate citation” and said there would be some after-the-fact corrections. The rhetoric of the Harvard Corporation aims at minimizing what it cannot entirely cover up.
Many Americans will give a cynical yawn to all this. What’s new? A cynical, self-serving elite has once again displayed its cynical, self-serving nature. The woke establishment is protecting its own.
That’s true, but forcing Harvard to face up to its mistake in appointing Claudine Gay as president has its rewards as well. Harvard is paying a tremendous financial and reputational cost for Gay’s performance before Congress and the American public. The plagiarism scandal amplifies that, and it is not likely to disappear. In my dealings with plagiarists, I have learned that plagiarism is a repetitive practice. Almost every plagiarist keeps plagiarizing, and Gay has plainly done so in at least four well-documented instances. What about her other publications? I predict Harvard’s ad hoc committee on covering up Gay’s transgressions will have a lot more work to do.
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