The Sobering Lesson of the Claudine Gay Ouster

Much ink and many gigabytes have been spilled on the topic of Claudine Gay’s defenestration from the presidency of Harvard University. The commentary ranges from the tedious and predictable gnashing of liberal teeth that racism and sexism somehow were the cause, orchestrated—naturally—by Republicans, who have made plagiarism a “weapon” in their “war on education.” More sober voices have laid out the objective case for Gay’s ouster: the plagiarism, the absence of moral clarity, her scholarly mediocrity, and her vigorous advocacy of a destructive ideology. And, it must be said, there is an air of unseemly triumphalism wafting through the air—“TWO DOWN.” Understandable, maybe, but still.

Gay’s ouster will not turn the tide on the illiberal rot that permeates our universities. Gay is a symptom, not the disease. The Gay affair was significant, however, because it brought a deeper problem into stark relief. Faculty—who are supposedly the academy’s raison d’etre—have become utterly irrelevant. Even worse, there is no credible way that faculty can pull the academy out of its malaise.

From start to finish, the Gay affair was an inside job.

It was not the faculty but Harvard’s board that appointed her. Following Gay’s inept performance before Congress, the board was digging in to defend her. They went out of their way to pre-empt the plagiarism allegations that had been swirling around Gay before they went public. The board threatened ruinous legal action against journalists who were reporting on Gay’s malfeasance. They retained high-priced spin doctors to make the allegations go away. And in the end, it was the governing board, not the faculty, that decided to pull the trigger.

Missing from the action? Faculty who might have opposed the Gay cat’s-paw. It’s not that opponents weren’t there; they were simply outside the— mostly performative—structures of faculty governance. Indeed, sentiment among the Harvard mainstream faculty appeared to solidly support Gay—a faculty petition calling for the board to defend her garnered more than 700 faculty signatories. Where contrary voices played a role at all was through two informal exchanges, one at a closed-door meeting at the Harvard Club, and another at a private dinner, involving a small group of dissident faculty and two skeptical board members who were initially supportive of Gay, but had their minds changed. The good news here is that integrity and respect for academic freedom still exist at Harvard. The bad news is that its win was a close-run thing—the dissidents were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the hundreds to one.

The irrelevancy of faculty is not limited to Harvard, nor is it a recent phenomenon—it has been growing for many years. The Gay debacle merely highlighted it. In 2011, for example, Benjamin Ginsberg ascribed faculty irrelevancy to the rise of the “administrative university.”[1] That project has continued without interruption, to the point where administrators now outnumber students at some campuses. The rise of the administrative university is a pricey endeavor, sucking up slightly more than $700 billion annually. Roughly half of that bill is covered by federal, state, and local governments.

The enormous revenue streams and the power they represent have dramatically changed the landscape of incentives and disincentives throughout the academic landscape. In the sciences, for example, incentives no longer reward discovery.[2] Rather, rewards flow to “scientific productivity,” assessed by metrics such as numbers of publications, grant dollars, and so forth, all of dubious relevance to scientific discovery. [3]

The incentives for college administrations and their governing boards have likewise changed but for different reasons—they have abandoned an important component of their fiduciary duty. In so doing, colleges are reverting to an older and deleterious conception of trustees’ fiduciary duty. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, college boards and administrations regarded their duty to be solely to the institutions they governed. Faculty irrelevancy was part of this—faculty were regarded primarily as employees of the institution, which meant they could be fired at will. The contemporary term for this was the “hired man” concept of the faculty.

This changed in the early 20th century when an influential group of prominent professors argued that college trustees and administrations had not only an institutional fiduciary duty but also a unique duty to the public. Colleges were not like any other institution, like a corporation, primarily because colleges conferred public benefits that derived from their faculties’ intellectual and administrative autonomy. Out of this emerged the regime of faculty autonomy, academic self-government, and tenure protection that prevailed through much of the 20th century. Faculty autonomy was not simply a perquisite for a privileged class of scholars. It was a public good, and failure by trustees to take that public good into account constituted a violation of a public trust.

In recent years, this public fiduciary duty has eroded, so boards are reverting to their traditional focus on institutions rather than the public. Along with this has been a reversion to the “hired man” concept of the faculty, although perhaps it should now be called the “hired diverse and inclusive persons” concept. The result is a university where faculty are essentially compliant tools implementing the political agendas of their administrations and trustees—those “700” signatories being a case in point.

The drama swirling around Gay’s departure exemplified this shift of focus. When the head of Harvard’s board, Penny Pritzker, called Gay with the bad news, she asked whether there was a “path forward” for Harvard with Gay as president. Not, “How did Gay’s occupying the presidency advance intellectual freedom of the Harvard faculty?” It was what was good for Harvard, not what was good for its faculty.

The sobering question posed by the Gay affair is how the loss of public trust came about. Like everyone else, college trustees, administrations, and faculty respond to a landscape of incentives and disincentives. The loss of public trust did not change on its own—it was forced by money and power, lots of it, and growing every year. A host of perverse incentives spin from this, including trustees losing sight of their unique role as public trustees. Once that is understood, the diagnosis is clear—the present regime of disincentives will persist as long as we are subsidizing it, to the tune of several hundred billion dollars annually.

Once the diagnosis is clear, the treatment also becomes clear—treat the landscape of perverse incentives that are driving our universities to their present sorry state. There’s bad news all around on that, I’m afraid, because no one gives up power and money voluntarily. Governing boards won’t change, and neither will faculty because there’s simply no rewards to return to universities’ primary mission of scholarship. Those that hold to that ideal, like the small group of faculty that met furtively with those two skeptical board members, are rare, and often powerless.

This is likely to become worse over time, not better.

As demographics and the actuarial tables cut their merciless path through college faculties, older faculty who sustain the academic ideal are being replaced by younger faculty who have grown up in the climate of perverse incentives and see no reason to change it. After three generations of subsidized perversity, the transformation of college faculties is nearly complete.

Does this mean that reform must be imposed from outside?

There are many such proposals floating around, the most recent being Christopher Rufo’s call for a “new right activism.” I suggest those will not fix the problem. Restoring the universities will be a multigenerational project, and it is doubtful that political activism will have more than a transitory impact. Given our tumultuous politics, the temptation will be to impose “solutions” that are draconian in their own ways.

What is needed, rather, is the academic equivalent of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option.” Academics who still value free inquiry and autonomy should recognize that universities are no longer friendly places to be, nor will they likely be for the foreseeable future. Rather, the essential virtues of the intellectual life will be better defended when its adherents can find and build sanctuaries. This will mean scholars taking their destinies back into their own hands, building sanctuaries for intellectual integrity and freedom. Let the universities wallow in their pointless dramas. Drop the illusion that universities are a friendly place for scholarship. Stop being driven by the relentless search for the next big fix of fiscal cocaine. Figure out other ways to be scholars again, recognizing that intellectual independence always carries with it a responsibility to sustain it and that no one will give it to you but yourselves.

We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.


[1] Ginsberg, B. (2011). The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Oxford University Press, USA.

[2] Turner, S. P. and D. E. Chubin (2020). The Changing Temptations of Science. Issues in Science and Technology 36(3): 40-46.

[3] Park, M., E. Leahey and R. J. Funk (2023). Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature 613(7942): 138-144.

Photo by Jared Gould — Text to Image — Adobe

Author

  • J. Scott Turner

    J. Scott Turner is the author of The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (Harvard University Press, 2000). He is also director of the Prometheus Project at the National Association of Scholars.

12 thoughts on “The Sobering Lesson of the Claudine Gay Ouster

  1. While it involves Yale and not Harvard, here is an interesting article on its secret societies:
    https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/the-culture-war-comes-to-skull-and-bones/ar-AA1mNRCf

    Taking politics completely aside, which is difficult, one could argue that these clubs became what they are because of who the members were and what they went on to do. One can argue that it was on the basis of their individual merit and one could argue it was because of who their parents were — and it’s probably some of both.

    But when new members are selected on an affirmative action basis — not because of their personal merit and not because of who their parents are (with both groups of students being excluded), what will this do over time?

    Yes, alumni will hire the affirmative action members and give them an entry level chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have. But they are not going to be promoted much above that if they are incompetent, not in the private sector which depends on competence — or if they are promoted, they may bring the whole enterprise crashing down around them. Studebaker, Sears & Roebucks, and General Motors come to immediate mind…

    Hence 40 years from now, these currently graduating affirmative action members won’t be in a position to help those members then graduating. What’s often overlooked is that it is “one is a Bonesman because” instead of “because one is a Bonesman.” Without the underlying merit, the current generation is not going to have the capital to pass on to the next generation — they aren’t going to be able to give anyone a job…

    Writ large, this is why I believe that institutions such as Harvard & Yale are actually dying. In no longer rewarding merit and excellence, its titles and accolades still mean something because of what they once meant, and because people currently receiving them have the merit of those who received them in the past. But the institution is hollow at the core.

    It’s like the family-owned sausage company producing a highly-regarded quality product that gets bought out. Over time the new owner starts using cheaper cuts of meat and otherwise reducing quality — a little bit at a time and initially no one really notices. But eventually people realize that this isn’t the quality product it used to be, and they stop buying it.

    The brand name ceases to mean anything because it is no longer associated with quality. That is where Harvard & Yale are going, and they very well may have already passed the point of no return…

    1. With respect to clubs, these are effective ways to bring people together with common (and sometimes heterodox) ways of looking at the world. Key to this is a freedom to discriminate, that is freedom of association is meaningless without the corresponding freedom NOT to associate. Among the perverse effects of civil rights legislation is saying that certain forms of non-association are illegal, while others are legally sanctioned (usually on the basis of race). The Civil Rights Acts have thereby made us less free, not more so. This is the existential problem facing our universities, they have made freedom of association (and freedom of interests) conditional. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, which is why I argue that the universities (as they are presently configured) are doomed, and that scholars need to leave the universities to be able to be scholars again.

  2. As a retired college instructor myself, supporter of NAS, and alumna of an “elite” former women’s college, one comment about Scott Turner’s piece:

    I object a bit to his phrase that “Faculty—who are supposedly the academy’s raison d’etre……” While faculty and their scholarly pursuits are indeed important elements of higher education, it is ultimately the quality of students that is most significant in higher ed. Without qualified students, the greatest faculty in the world can still fail at its job. Students are the raison d’etre, the reason for being, of education. In fact, without students, what is there for faculty to do except pursue their personal research and publications? Admission of the most meritorious students is the single most important indicator of institutional success.

    This is why affirmative action, among other admissions policies such as legacies and sports recruits, as well as institution-wide grade inflation have been so damaging to the higher ed industry in recent years.

    1. “Students are the raison d’etre, the reason for being, of education.”

      That needs to be said far more often than it is.

      Students are also the ONLY reason that vast sums of money are currently flowing to higher education, money from them and their parents, money from state & Federal taxes, and money from the lost revenue of tax exemptions on everything from real estate to endowment income.

    2. Absolutely agree that it is a symbiosis, that faculty are pointless without students to teach. But what is the condition for that association to thrive? Traditionally, the academy has been regarded as the natural place where it thrives, and this depends upon protecting the intellectual independence of the faculty. Universities have forgotten that they exist to be havens of intellectual independence of the scholars who gather there.

    1. I think it’s actually be worse than that. I read somewhere that the average grade at Harvard and other Ivies is no longer the “gentleman’s” C+, but something more like A-, and that students expect these grades. Not sure if that’s the exact change over time, but something of that magnitude. When I graduated from my elite former women’s college (now co-ed) in 1964, I barely made it into the “cum laude” category, which at that time was an overall B+ (3.3) average, and I recall working pretty hard for that over 4 years. I don’t know what the cum laude GPA is today. But I suspect that it may be lower than B+, and/or that earning B+ grades is easier than in my day…..and, of course, you also realize that I walked 5 miles to school in 8-foot snow drifts wearing only a thin winter coat in my day…..:–)

      1. No, but what you did do — or would have done had you graduated a decade earlier — was attended a 17 week semester with final exams after Christmas. That’s what a “Carnegie Unit” technically was — 50 minutes per class and 17 weeks exclusive of final exams. (Hence a three credit class met thrice weekly for 17 weeks.)

        Most institutions still had classes on Saturdays — the 75 minute Tuesday/Thursday classes are a legacy of that. You almost certainly went to class on holidays such as Columbus Day and it goes without saying that the college didn’t close when it snowed.

        Many colleges today have a fall semester as short as 13 weeks — and two holidays. There is NO WAY that one can learn as much as one could have in 17 weeks — it isn’t possible — and this really is where gradeflation started.

        Conversely, there is what I openly refer to as the “Conservative Tax” on GPAs. If a student is an out-of-the-closet conservative (and a lot aren’t), the student will wind up with a GPA that is 1.0 to 1.5 points lower than what it would otherwise have been.

      2. Achievement has been considered hurtful for a long time. Long ago, when I graduated from college, cum laude distinctions were given, but they were not recognized in the graduation ceremony. That set few students’ teeth on edge.

    2. Grade inflation is the inevitable consequence of the consumerist mindset, where students are customers of knowledge, and faculty are the providers of the product. That is totally contrary to the master-apprentice relation that is the proper foundation for professors and students.
      But we can’t say “master” anymore, I guess …

  3. First and foremost, Claudine Gay was not “ousted” in the sense most people understand that word — she still is being paid $900,000 a year and she is still in possession of a doctorate that she appears not to have earned. When she is no longer on the payroll, no longer on campus, and no longer in possession of her doctorate, then she will have been “ousted” and I doubt that any of that will ever happen.

    Second, where is the accountability for the Harvard faculty who awarded her that doctorate in 1998? Where is the accountability for the Harvard faculty who were on the search committee that hired her to be a Professor of Government in 2006 and a Professor of AfroAm Studies in 2007? Where is the accountability for the Harvard faculty involved in naming her Dean of Social Sciences in 2015, and then Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences in 2018?

    Not only is Gay not being fired, but no one else is being fired either. Harvard isn’t even talking about rescinding her degree — there’s a process for that, a convoluted one and she’s entitled to all the due process it entails, but it appears that she’s not entitled to her degree and if the Harvard faculty had a scintilla of integrity, it would be loudly proclaiming that fact. And it would be asking serious questions about its members who were on both her doctoral committee and all the aforementioned search committees that enabled Gay’s rise to prominence — which it isn’t.

    The Harvard faculty can’t police itself — although I’ll give then credit for not being unionized as most faculty are.

    Academic freedom involved the freedom to state unpleasant truths if that’s where the facts led one — not the freedom to fabricate facts or to steal the work of others — and personally, I think that fabricating facts is far worse, but I digress….

    It involved a Stanford economics professor who pointed out that Leland Stanford had exploited Chinese laborers in the building of his railroad, which he had and which his widow didn’t appreciate hearing about. And while I don’t know about the perceived halcyon days of the first two thirds of the 20th Century, I know quite a bit about the latter third and let’s look at where faculty governance has gotten us.

    It was a faculty committee at UMass Amherst that made the decision to pipe live steam nearly two miles downhill before running it through turbines to generate electricity, and while there were a lot of other things that went wrong, the power plant could never be used and has now been demolished. A quarter century later, a different faculty committee concluded that “the world wide web is a passing fad” and that a shared 9600 baud internet connection between two roommates (only one of whom could use it at any given time) would be sufficient for future student needs…

    Other examples abound including what almost became the UMass Campus in Space — UMass Boston was built on the old city dump and neither the faculty committee supervising its construction nor anyone else had thought of venting the Methane (natural gas) generated by the old dump, and it had started to accumulate underneath the building in near explosive quantities….

    And then let’s talk curriculum. When my grandmother graduated with a degree in elementary education a century ago, she knew Latin, Greek, and how to play the piano. We once had a core curriculum in this country — it varied from institution to institution, differing both by the nature of the institution and the degrees it offered, but such a thing once existed. And it was faculty governance that eliminated it.

    Likewise it was the faculty who created all of the various “studies” courses and they are the ones who hired the “tenured radicals” who have now hired two more generations of even more radical faculty members. (Can anyone name an out-of-the closet conservative professor under the age of 65???)

    It was the faculty who enabled the student radicals — a point Ronald Reagan made back in 1969: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-M_e2PmUPA The “the illiberal rot that permeates our universities” came from a faculty that either could not or would not police itself — it was the Harvard faculty that recommended that Claudine Gay be awarded a doctorate…

    Hence I can’t see faculty autonomy as a public good, and as to the violation of the public trust, it’s the faculty who are violating it. Our society gives higher education massive amounts of money, not only in terms of financial aid and research grants but also in terms of tax exemptions — and what are we getting for it? And who should have the right to determine what we should expect to get from it?

    (Anyone want to estimate how much Harvard would have to pay the city of Cambridge if its property was taxable, or what the city could do with all that money? Or what the Federal treasury could do with the taxes on Harvard’s endowment?)

    And the other thing is that professors today aren’t loyal to their institution. All the ones I know are essentially self-centered corporations with their own for-profit consulting agencies and the rest. While it may not be true everywhere, UMass permits professors to take one day (of five) for their own personal for-profit enterprises, even though the are technically on the state payroll for that day. (And some take more than just one day a week.)

    I could go on but the bottom line is that the faculty does not deserve the respect that it demands, that it somehow seems to think it is entitled to. They’re not creating the value that justifies their expectations, and without our current massive governmental subsidies, most of them would probably be unemployed. So I’ll not cry when competent businessmen come in and state that a university — any university — has a mission of providing value to its customers (its students) and those who are unable or unwilling to do so will no longer be employed.

    1. The Stanford case is an interesting one, in that the professor in question was quite racist himself. But then, I suppose he could be an example that even abhorrent views should be able to find expression on campuses. But then how do we deal with abhorrent views being expressed today? That is the problem with value-neutrality that Chris Rufo pointed out. To be frank, I’m not sure how one balances those ideas against academic freedom (“context” seems like thin gruel here, which was Claudine Gay’s failure).
      All that said, yes faculty should be accountable, and should be open to criticism from those who disagree. My point was that faculty seemed to be superfluous to the whole Claudine Gay debacle.
      And yes, you are correct that accountability seems to be missing here as long as Gay sits in her secure sinecure …

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