Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The American Conservative on January 14, 2024 and is crossposted here with permission.
One might think the world had tilted an additional 40 degrees on its axis on January 2. Judging from news accounts, the northern hemisphere was plunged into darkness, and an even more bone-chilling cold than usual settled over Massachusetts. The icicles of accusation that hang from cornices of Dunster House ceased their slow drip and looked downward with deadly despair.
Because Claudine had closed shop. On that day, Harvard’s 30th president, Claudine Gay, gave back the title Harvard conferred on her six months before. “It is with a heavy heart but a deep love for Harvard,” she said, that she was “stepping down.”
Anyone with an atom of interest in American higher education knows this story: how the newly appointed president sat on her hands when 34 of Harvard’s student organizations organized a rally to celebrate the do-it-yourself “decolonization” of Israeli kibbutzes and a dance festival with mass rape, dismemberment, slaughter of civilians, and kidnappings. When pressed, Gay offered a temporizing statement that carefully avoided any support for Israel or reassurance for Jews at Harvard, which had just been identified as a useful site for bringing the “intifada” home to Cambridge. In the days and weeks that followed, Gay continued her fruitless search for the right formula that would reassure the Jews without irritating the friends of Hamas.
And on December 2, in testimony before the House Committee on Education and the workforce, Gay joined with Sally Kornbluth, the president of MIT, and Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, to explain to the American people that calls for genocide were perfectly in keeping with their universities’ codes of student conduct, “depending on context.” Their locked and repeated insistence on this formula did not go down well. Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who posed the fateful question, immediately told them they should resign. A few days later, Magill did exactly that. Yet Harvard’s governing board, the 12-member Harvard Corporation, promptly announced their full confidence in Gay’s leadership.
Then things got worse. On Sunday, December 10, Christopher Rufo and Christopher Brunet published on Substack an article titled, “Is Claudine Gay a Plagiarist?” They provided examples from Gay’s 1997 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation that strongly suggested the answer is “yes.”
I was among a dozen or so people who already knew the answer; months earlier I had seen the results of an investigation that had turned up even more substantial examples of plagiarism in four of Gay’s eleven published journal articles. Rufo and Brunet had scooped the folks who were about to publish that story, which came out the next day in the Washington Free Beacon.
In the normal academic world, plagiarism is among the most serious charges of academic misconduct and almost always leads to a formal investigation and, if the offense is sufficiently serious, loss of tenure and dismissal. Harvard had long played by those rules, but not this time. The Harvard Corporation instead provided a farrago of excuses and evasions and stood by Gay. But the floodgate was open. By Christmas, more than fifty instances of Gay’s plagiarism had been documented, and the triviality of her scholarly record was manifest. She had been appointed to the presidency of Harvard with the equivalent of a backstage pass. The usual standards were waived.
It was not hard to guess why. Gay was the embodiment of academic wokery. Her career had consisted of nothing but championing the diversity-equity-inclusion movement, and her announced program as president of Harvard was to destroy “white supremacy”—the “second pandemic” as she called it—and to replace this phantom with the reality of hard-core race preferences in every classroom, every committee, every corner of the bureaucracy. As part of this she called for the renaming of buildings and the replacement of art works, if they failed to meet the new DEI ideals.
The Harvard Corporation knew who they were getting when they hired Gay and were loath to turn away from the splendid bonfire of Harvard’s standards and traditions that Gay was building. But as the members of the board jetted off for Christmas to destinations around the world, they discovered that the institution for which they had such burning love was becoming an international joke. A Harvard that turned a blind eye to Hamasian fanaticism and atrocity, that indulged anti-Semitism, and that cosseted a pseudo-scholar and plagiarist to keep the game going was a university auditioning for Olympic-level volcano diving.
Harvard can brush aside many forms of criticism, but it cannot bear to burn up its prestige.
So December 27, Penny Pritzker, an Obama protégé and chairman of the Harvard Corporation vacationing in Aspen, called Gay, vacationing in Rome, and let her know that the board was done with her. (We owe the New York Times a debt of gratitude for these details. No doubt we have been spared the more troubling bits.)
Gay walked away from this as lightly brushed by the flames of her own disaster as could possibly be. She evaded any serious examination of her plagiarism. She kept her tenured faculty position in the Political Science Department. She retained her $900,000 annual salary. She also retained the ardent support of DEI cheerleaders such as Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram X. Kendi, who could see nothing in the dismissal except racist hatred of a strong black woman in a position of leadership. Virtually the entire apparatus of left-wing punditry is on board with the idea that Gay was brought low by a conservative “trap” based on old-fashioned white racism.
That interpretation is so far from reality that those who are proclaiming it are doing incalculable damage to their own cause. If DEI comes down to defending a leader as weak, dishonest, and destructive as Gay, who among the persuadable would want to have anything to do with it? Acolytes of the 1619 Project and Kendi’s so-called “anti-racism” are already signed up, but even some of them may be having second thoughts.