Opinion | Why Harvard’s Claudine Gay Should Go

Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, should resign.

I don’t love thinking so and hoped we would not reach this tipping point in the controversy over whether she should be retained in her position. But a tipping point it is.

Harvard has a clear policy on plagiarism that threatens undergraduates with punishment up to the university’s equivalent of expulsion for just a single instance of it. That policy may not apply to the university’s president, but the recent, growing revelations about past instances of plagiarism by Dr. Gay make it untenable for her to remain in office.

As a matter of scholarly ethics, academic honor and, perhaps most of all, leadership that sets an example for students, Dr. Gay would be denigrating the values of “veritas” that she and Harvard aspire to uphold. Staying on would not only be a terrible sign of hollowed-out leadership, but also risks conveying the impression of a double standard at a progressive institution for a Black woman, which serves no one well, least of all Dr. Gay.

It has always been inconvenient that Harvard’s first Black president has only published 11 academic articles in her career and not one book (other than one with three co-editors). Some of her predecessors, like Lawrence Bacow, Drew Gilpin Faust and Lawrence Summers, have had vastly more voluminous academic records. The discrepancy gives the appearance that Dr. Gay was not chosen because of her academic or scholarly qualifications, which Harvard is thought to prize, but rather because of her race.

There is an argument that a university president may not need to have been an awesomely productive scholar, and that Dr. Gay perhaps brought other and more useful qualifications to the job. (She held the high-ranking post of dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard before the presidency, and so may have administrative gifts, but that job is not a steppingstone to the modern Harvard presidency.) But Harvard, traditionally, has exemplified the best of the best, and its presidents have been often regarded as among the top in their given fields — prize winners, leading scholars, the total package.

As such, the academic writings and publications of a Harvard president and other top university presidents matter, including the integrity of that work. It might seem counterintuitive that university presidents typically begin their careers writing dozens of academic papers and multiple academic books. One might see their current duties — as administrators, fund-raisers, troubleshooters, meeting-havers — as only diagonally connected to the publish-or-perish realm of being a college professor.

This is especially because the world of academic papers and books is a weird and often gestural thing. Beyond the work of the occasional star, this academic material is often read only by a few reviewers (if even them) and university library shelves groan under the weight of countless academic books engaged by essentially no one. As to one of my own academic books — my favorite one, in fact — I am aware of a single person who has actually read it. And that’s about normal in this business.

But the allegations of plagiarism leveled at Dr. Gay come on top of her thin dossier and present a different kind of challenge.

There are indeed degrees of plagiarism. The allegations against Dr. Gay do not entail promoting actual substantial ideas as her own, but rather lifting phrases for sections of dutiful literature review and explicating basic premises without using quotation marks, or changing the wording only slightly, and, at times, not even citing the relevant authors shortly before or after these sections. This qualifies less as stealing argumentation than as messy. Much has been made of the fact that even her acknowledgments section in her dissertation has phraseology transparently cribbed from those of others. Sloppy, again — but still, this is not about her actual ideas.

But there are two problems here. One is Harvard’s plagiarism policy for students, its veritas image and other standards of integrity and conduct. Second is the sheer amount of the plagiarism in her case, even if in itself it is something less than stealing ideas. If the issue were a couple of hastily quoted phrases in one article, it would be one thing. But investigations have shown that this problem runs through about half of Dr. Gay’s articles, as well as her dissertation. We must ask how a university president can expect to hold her head high, carry authority and inspire respect as a leader on a campus where students suffer grave consequences for doing even a fraction of what Dr. Gay has done.

That Dr. Gay is Black gives this an especially bad look. If she stays in her job, the optics will be that a middling publication record and chronically lackadaisical attention to crediting sources is somehow OK for a university president if she is Black. This implication will be based on a fact sad but impossible to ignore: that it is difficult to identify a white university president with a similar background. Are we to let pass a tacit idea that for Black scholars and administrators, the symbolism of our Blackness, our “diverseness,” is what matters most about us? I am unclear where the Black pride (or antiracism) is in this.

After the congressional hearing this month where Dr. Gay made comments about genocide and antisemitism that she later apologized for, and now in the aftermath of the plagiarism allegations, some of her supporters and others have argued that the university should not dismiss Dr. Gay, because doing so would be to give in to a “mob.” However, one person’s mob is another person’s gradually emerging consensus among reasonable people.

I, for one, wield no pitchfork on this. I did not call for Dr. Gay’s dismissal in the wake of her performance at the antisemitism hearings in Washington, and on social media I advised at first to ease up our judgment about the initial plagiarism accusations. But in the wake of reports of additional acts of plagiarism and Harvard’s saying that she will make further corrections to past writing, the weight of the charges has taken me from “wait and see” to “that’s it.”

If it is mobbish to call on Black figures of influence to be held to the standards that others are held to, then we have arrived at a rather mysterious version of antiracism, and just in time for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in less than a month. I would even wish Harvard well in searching for another Black woman to serve as president if that is an imperative. But at this point that Black woman cannot, with any grace, be Claudine Gay.

And if Harvard declines to dismiss her out of fear of being accused of racism — a reasonable although hardly watertight surmise — Dr. Gay should do the right thing on her own. For Harvard, her own dignity and our national commitment to assessing Black people (and all people) according to the content of their character, she should step down.

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