Claudine, we hardly knew ye. Gay’s tenure atop Harvard was the shortest in that university’s history. Yet it was still too long. In mere months, she did enormous damage to one of the world’s great universities.
Gay is not the only one who should be held accountable for this fiasco. The university’s governing board, the Fellows of Harvard Corporation, should be out, too. They chose her, and their choice did enormous damage to the institution. They should pay for it. Their statement accepting her resignation shows just how feckless they are. Don’t read it if you are glucose intolerant.
“First and foremost, we thank President Gay for her deep and unwavering commitment to Harvard and to the pursuit of academic excellence . . . we are grateful for the extraordinary contributions she has made — and will continue to make — as a leader, a teacher, a scholar, a mentor, and an inspiration to many.”
Barack Obama bears some of the blame, too, at least for keeping her in the position for which she was unfit. Several weeks ago, after Gay’s disastrous Congressional testimony, Obama intervened behind the scenes to keep her as president, even as calls for her resignation were rising. As the former president and a graduate of the Harvard Law School, Obama was bound to have enormous influence. It was amplified because he was closely tied to the woman who headed the university board, Penny Pritzker. A member of the billionaire family, she was Obama’s fellow Chicagoan and his secretary of commerce. Her brother, J.B. Pritzker, is the governor of Illinois with presidential aspirations. Firing the first black president of Harvard and opposing Barack Obama to do it is not the royal road to upward mobility within the Democratic Party.
Gay’s supporters had hoped to keep her for two reasons. The first is standard operating procedure for any organization. Don’t let outsiders interfere. That was the chief reason over a thousand Harvard faculty members signed a petition to keep Gay. The second is the optics of American racial politics. As the first black president of America’s oldest and most prominent university, Claudine Gay was an inspiring role model. One sad consequence of her failure is that she has now become a negative role model.
This racial dimension could be made even worse, and likely will be, if demagogues claim she was ousted because she was black. She wasn’t, any more than the University of Pennsylvania’s president, Elizabeth Magill, was ousted because she was white. They were ousted for cause. (Technically, both of them resigned, but we all know that was a fig leaf.)
Gay was ousted because she had failed in a job to which she should never have been appointed. Her administrative failures and the ideological basis for them were painfully evident as virulent antisemitism rose on her campus. She did nothing to stop it, ensure student safety, or punish the miscreants who were violating Harvard’s stated rules and intimidating their fellow students. When she was forced to defend those indefensible policies publicly, she humiliated herself and the institution she led.
Gay’s public failure led to more intense scrutiny of her qualifications for the job. Those, as it turned out, weren’t too great. Her academic record was a mere wisp compared to her predecessors. Indeed, it was probably too thin for tenure at one of the most competitive universities in the world, where very few are promoted from junior faculty to a permanent position.
She would never have received tenure or appointment to administrative positions if her multiple instances of plagiarism had been detected at the time, as they should have been. None of the individual instances found so far are large, but there have been far too many of them to excuse as inadvertent errors. If students or faculty members had made them, they would have been suspended or expelled. That’s still a problem for Gay since she is apparently returning to her job as professor. Independent experts will have to reassure her full body of work for academic honesty.
University leaders are expected to exemplify that honesty. It’s one of the most important tasks for any university leader. When Stanford’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, failed to meet it, he lost his position. He was “cleared of accusations of scientific fraud and misconduct,” as the New York Times reported, but an independent scholarly of his work, commissioned by the university, said his research had “multiple problems” and “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor.” So he was out.
The debate over Claudine Gay’s ouster goes beyond these immediate issues to raise four larger ones. Expect to hear more about each in coming days.
- The role played by race in her appointment and departure. Did Gay receive tenure and subsequent administrative appointments for what are essentially “affirmative action” reasons? Did her race help or harm her in discussions about leaving the Harvard presidency? Some black leaders will surely say she was fired because she was black. There is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
- Will the episode further damage all universities’ efforts to promote “diversity, equity, and inclusion”? Gay was not only a poster symbol for those programs, she was a powerful advocate for them in her previous as dean, before becoming president. Indeed, her strong support for that progressive agenda was one reason she was named president. Those programs are already under enormous pressure, following the Supreme Court decision against affirmative action admissions at universities. (Harvard was one of the defendants.) The Claudine Gay episode adds to that pressure.
- Will Harvard and other universities do more to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation? Will they punish students who intimidate fellow students (while still protected essential rights to speak freely)? Will they administer their own standards of conduct fairly and evenly? So far, administrators have sat on their hands instead of acting decisively to lessen the climate of fear that pervades all too many campuses. Gay’s inaction on these issues was one of her worst failures. Its exposure on national television precipitated her downfall, as it did for Liz Magill at Penn.
- Can universities clean up their acts on their own or will it take pressure from unhappy donors and parents? Faculty and administrators hate, hate, hate the idea of outside pressure. Still, donors are asking themselves why they should give money to institutions that not only don’t share their values but actively oppose them. Parents are asking why they should send their children into hostile environments, where ideological fervor reigns.
Presidents Gay and Magill may be gone, but these big issues will not be forgotten. Nor should they be. They go to the heart of education for citizenship in a tolerant, liberal democracy. If, as Benjamin Franklin said, we can keep it.