All is not going well south of the border in one of the top and oldest universities in the US, as Dr. Claudine Gay, (now) former president of Harvard University, has been forced to resign. This led her to become the shortest-tenured president the school has ever seen, only serving in the role for six months. Dr. Gay was Harvard’s first non-white person and the first Black woman to hold the position. Her resignation followed allegations of plagiarism that led to an investigation by the university. However, there is a larger story about her resignation and an underlying reason why Dr. Gay really had to leave.
Dr. Gay became president of Harvard on July 1, 2023. Before that, she was a professor of African and African American Studies and was named the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government at Harvard in 2015. She completed her Ph.D. at Harvard in 1998 and served as the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the university for some time. Suffice to say, Dr. Gay has been in academia for a long time. So, how did these plagiarism allegations suddenly materialize? Well, as we look at the events that led to her resignation, there seem to be many factors behind her resignation and the surfacing of these allegations.
According to CNN, these allegations were first levied by conservative activists and then reported by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication. Notably, one of those conservative activists is Christopher Rufo, the champion against critical race theory in US schools. The Washington Free Beacon, through two posts in December, claimed that Dr. Gay had plagiarized academic works over the span of 24 years, including her Ph.D. dissertation done at Harvard. Billionaire CEO Bill Ackman, a Harvard Alum, also took to social media to push the claim that Dr. Gay had plagiarized her work, and further accused her of being a diversity hire. Yet, this story did not start in December, but rather, on October 7, 2023.
Following the events of October 7 in Israel and Gaza, a coalition of Harvard student groups released a letter blaming Israel’s actions involving the occupation of Palestine as responsible for the violence that was unfolding. The letter also called on Harvard to “take action to stop the ongoing annihilation of Palestinians.” The letter drew condemnation from business leaders, including Ackman, who is a staunch supporter of Israel, with calls for the students who signed the letter to be named and blacklisted. Three days later, then-President Gay issued a statement condemning Hamas, stating that “no student group—not even 30 student groups—speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.” Yet, the perceived delay in President Gay’s response angered some donors and alumni, prompting several large donors who support Israel to cut their funding to the university. Calls for President Gay’s removal mounted, and they only grew louder after the December 5 congressional hearing regarding antisemitism on campus.
The presidents of three prominent universities were called to testify in Washington on December 5, those being Harvard President Gay, University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) President Elizabeth Magill, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President Sally Kornbluth. At the hearing, President Gay was asked by Republican Representative Elise Stefanik if Harvard would take disciplinary action against students who use the phrase “from the river to the sea” or the Arabic word “intifada,” meaning “uprising.” President Gay responded by saying that such speech is “abhorrent” and “at odds with the value of Harvard,” but that the university still has a “commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful.” She also stated that when such speech crosses into action that violate Harvard’s policies on bullying and harassment, incites violence, or threatens safety, then disciplinary action will be taken.
President Gay’s response to that question sparked a firestorm, stoking the calls for her resignation. Despite clarifying her position and then later apologizing for her response at the hearing, pressure mounted as a bipartisan group of 72 lawmakers sent a letter to the governing boards of Harvard, UPenn, and MIT urging them to remove their university leaders. Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Divinity School, also resigned from the university’s Antisemitism Advisory Group, outlining both antisemitic events on campus and Dr. Gay’s testimony as the reasons.
Four days after the congressional hearing, the allegations of plagiarism against Dr. Gay were revealed. It’s strange that these allegations came out of the blue, as Dr. Gay has been an academic researcher for many years. Harvard also launched an investigation into these allegations and found that there were a few instances of inadequate citations but “no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.”
Dr. Gay then corrected two academic articles on December 15. On December 20, an investigation was launched by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce (the same committee that summoned President Gay for the congressional hearing) into the plagiarism allegations. Following that investigation, Dr. Gay requested more corrections, now on her 1997 PhD dissertation. Officially, on January 2, 2024, after significant backlash and bullying, Dr. Gay officially resigned from her position as Harvard President.
Overall, the claim that then-President Gay resigned over plagiarism allegations does not fit well. Gay resigned because the conservative right-wing and pro-Israel supporters wanted her gone. Removing Dr. Gay based on the comments she had made in the House might not have been a justifiable reason for removing her. It was clearly shown here that bringing up these plagiarism allegations was a unique way through which Dr. Gay could have been removed from her position. The attention could then be shifted away from the congressional hearing response toward these allegations.
Yet, regardless of the reason for her resignation, I believe that Dr. Gay made a critical mistake in her approach to this issue. Through her statement in response to the coalition of Harvard student groups on October 7, then-President Gay had taken an opposing stance to those student groups as she condemned them and Hamas, trying to clarify that those statements do not represent Harvard. A similar incident took place here at the University of Toronto, Mississauga as well, where a particular statement from the university’s student union following the events of October 7 led to a counter statement from the administration through email.
Dr. Gay’s mistake, however, was choosing a side when she was acting as president of Harvard. I feel people of such authority within such institutions should take on an equal role and not take any side. They have every right to condemn violence, but they should support both cultures and religions. As such, institutions should never come under pressure from wealthy business individuals, such as Ackman.
Dr. Gay became the face of the university when she assumed the role of president. Thus, her personal beliefs should have been left at the door. When business leaders were outraged at the student groups’ letter, her statement was an appeasement for them. The reality is that many students might side with Israel and many students might side with Palestine.
A country such as the US, which prides itself in being a leader of freedom of speech with the First Amendment, should allow both to voice their opinions. But unfortunately, students and student groups who want to side with Palestine, cannot do so, as this goes against the beliefs of billionaire business leaders who have associations with Harvard, as well as certain lawmakers in the US. Dr. Gay should have remained neutral on this issue and protected both Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian students and their right to free speech.