Harvard President Warns Of ‘War’ On ‘Pillars’ Of Society

Claudine Gay ― the Harvard University president who announced her resignation this week amid a right-wing campaign accusing her of antisemitism and plagiarism ― said Thursday that her ouster is part of a “broader war” to undermine public faith in the “pillars of American society” like academia.

Gay, who was Harvard’s first Black president and also serves as a professor of government and African American studies, penned an op-ed in The New York Times two days after she sent a letter to the Harvard community announcing she would step down as president and remain part of the faculty.

“For weeks, both I and the institution to which I’ve devoted my professional life have been under attack,” she wrote in the Times. “My character and intelligence have been impugned. My commitment to fighting antisemitism has been questioned. My inbox has been flooded with invective, including death threats. I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count.”

“My hope is that by stepping down I will deny demagogues the opportunity to further weaponize my presidency in their campaign to undermine the ideals animating Harvard since its founding: excellence, openness, independence, truth,” she continued.

Claudine Gay of Harvard University testifies before the House education and workforce committee on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C.
Claudine Gay of Harvard University testifies before the House education and workforce committee on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C.

Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

Gay’s resignation came after weeks of pressure on the university to punish the president for not directly answering a question from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) about whether calls on campus for the genocide of Jewish students ― or even the use of controversial pro-Palestinian expressions like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” ― would violate Harvard’s rules.

Gay, along with two other university presidents, said in a congressional hearing that the acceptability of any on-campus speech regarding the violence in Gaza would depend on the context. The remarks by the various presidents drew an immediate firestorm of criticism.

In her op-ed, Gay acknowledged that she has “made mistakes,” citing her initial response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants against Israel. She wrote that during the congressional hearing, she should have condemned antisemitic behavior more forcefully. The Harvard Corporation, the school’s governing board, supported Gay during the controversy by saying she was defending the university’s academic freedom.

More recently, Gay ― who was president for less than a year ― came under fire after right-wing voices accused her of plagiarizing other scholars in her own peer-reviewed academic writings on the significance of people from marginalized communities holding office in American politics.

According to Gay, her research found that “when historically marginalized communities gain a meaningful voice in the halls of power, it signals an open door where before many saw only barriers,” resulting in a strengthened democracy.

Harvard acknowledged some instances of inadequate citation in Gay’s work, but said that she quickly corrected them. Gay said the process of correcting duplications was “consistent with how I have seen similar faculty cases handled at Harvard.”

“I have never misrepresented my research findings, nor have I ever claimed credit for the research of others,” she wrote on Thursday. “Moreover, the citation errors should not obscure a fundamental truth: I proudly stand by my work and its impact on the field.”

The resignation makes Gay’s tenure the shortest of any Harvard president, and comes at a time when academic institutions increasingly face threats of censorship from mostly right-wing figures who seek to stifle speech from people who come from marginalized backgrounds.

“It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution,” Gay wrote. She urged the public to be “more skeptical than ever of the loudest and most extreme voices in our culture.”

The outgoing president also said that the campaign to push her out of her role was “merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society.”

“Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda,” she wrote. “But such campaigns don’t end there. Trusted institutions of all types ― from public health agencies to news organizations ― will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility.”

You can read Gay’s full op-ed here.

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