Dr. Claudine Gay was appointed president of Harvard University on Dec. 17, 2022. She became the first Black president in Harvard’s nearly 400 years of existence. Dr. Gay had been serving as the dean of the Edgerley Family Division of Arts and Sciences at Harvard.
In her acceptance speech, she stated that she was honored to be a child of Haitian immigrants and noted that her mother was a registered nurse and her father was an engineer. Because of her father’s work with the Army Corps of Engineers, Gay spent some of her earlier childhood years in Saudi Arabia.
In her teen years, she matriculated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, graduating in 1988. Her undergraduate education was at Stanford, with a degree in economics, and her B.A. thesis won the prestigious Anna Laura Meyers Prize. Gay earned her Ph.D. in government from Harvard in 1998, and her dissertation won the revered Toppan Prize. Later, she taught in that department as well as in Africana studies.
She became the dean in 2018 of the College of Arts and Sciences. During her time as dean, Gay achieved a reputation for being an innovative and remarkable leader, and those qualities served her well when she applied for Harvard’s presidency. She attained her new position in a competitive search with more than 600 applicants.
Before her presidency, in 2015, she became the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government. As dean of the largest College in the University, Gay developed a reputation for fairness and decisiveness in adjudicating unprofessional behavior of faculty. In one instance, she removed the emeritus status of a male faculty member accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and suspended two others for violating the faculty handbook on professorial decorum.
Dr. Gay’s research partially focuses on how diverse demographic neighborhoods are shaped by racial and political attitudes, especially in bordering Black and Latino areas. That interest parallels her research concerns about the roots of the adversarial and cooperative dialectics between cross-cultural economic interests.
In 2019, Gay became a leading campus advocate for a Black Latino faculty who was denied tenure. As dean, she continued to be an advocate for diversity and inclusion.
Earlier, in 2017, she created the Inequality in America Initiative, with more than 70 affiliated faculty. The initiative called for funding research in the areas of social and economic issues.
Gay had the responsibility to implement the recommendations of the Presidential Committee on “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery” and to market the “Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability.” As president, she was also addressing a lawsuit against affirmative action filed by the Students for Fair Admissions—SFAA v. Harvard.
The SFAA is part of the right-wing reactionary movement a la the Heritage Foundation, Fox News, Trump’s social media platform Truth Social, the Proud Boys, evangelicals, the right wing within the GOP itself and a plethora of motley, unorganized, hyper-politicized groups in every state, nook and corner of the United States. It was this amalgam’s attack that led, on Jan. 3, 2024, Dr. Gay to resign from the presidency of Harvard.
For most, this resignation was due to an answer she gave before a Dec. 5, 2023, Congressional committee, set up to investigate antisemitic rhetoric within a pro-Palestinian student rally at Harvard. Dr. Gay answered that Harvard’s free-speech code could prohibit such speech depending on the context.
That answer was considered unsatisfactory by reactionary Rep. Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.), who asked if “calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s code of conduct. Yes or no?” Gay, as with two other university presidents, gave answers that were weak and legalistic. These answers subsequently created a firestorm of controversy, with political conservatives across the nation calling for resignations of all three presidents.
Dr. Gay should have firmly stated that any reference to the “genocide of Jewish people” is morally abhorrent and should not be tolerated under any campus speech code. The contradiction is that the right wing itself has a history of antisemitism, and this question was just self-serving to their interest at the present.
However, one should reflect upon this essential point: If a right-wing MAGA faculty, a president or a student had said that “Negroes” should be lynched until none was left, the Liberal Left would have demanded the immediate firing or dismissal of this individual.
Sadly, the Harvard Board, in accepting Dr. Gay’s letter of resignation, did not say whether a revised speech code would now prohibit “genocide speech” in reference to Jewish people.
Shortly thereafter, various faculty at Harvard and scholars elsewhere called for her resignation based on evidence that she plagiarized some of her publications. One prominent conservative, Christoper Rufo, admitted that “we launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the political right.”
Gay, in her resignation letter, noted that her case is a “single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society.” And several of Gay’s colleagues felt she was “brought down by a mob” as noted by Professor Ryan Enos. In her letter of resignation, Dr. Gay said she is in the process of correcting errors in her published research, but she shined the spotlight on the right-wing, racist, reactionary cabal that orchestrated her dismissal.
One must keep in mind that the aim of right-wing racial conservatism, from the Confederate flag wavers inside and outside the Capitol to Elon Musk, is to preserve white over Black, Brown and all others. A little-known example of this racial conservatism is their attack on the Fearless Fund set up by corporations to assist the entrepreneurial efforts of Black women.
And for the matter of the Confederate flag and that hangman’s lynch noose at the Capitol, not one GOP politician from the very top to the bottom has denounced such racist symbols. Then these same Republican political leaders bemoan the low percentage of Black voters supporting their banner.
While chairing the History Department at Fresno State, this author was asked to be an advocate for a junior faculty member accused of plagiarism. That faculty, after a personnel committee reviewed and confirmed the accused’s publications were plagiarized, resigned.
However, at Harvard and at the University of New Orleans, two prominent cases of plagiarism involved famous scholars Doris Kearns Goodwin of Harvard and Stephen Ambrose. Neither was forced to resign after being caught plagiarizing.
Goodwin was a regular talking head on late-night television, and Ambrose’s book on Easy Company, entitled Band of Brothers, which fought Germans in WWII, became an award-winning hit on cable television. Goodwin gave a public, heartfelt apology but lost her late-night spot; she and Ambrose continued to teach at their universities.
Given this backdrop, the ultra-right has made clear that as they defeat the use of affirmative action in higher education, they will also defeat its intellectual child, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).” In fact, Fresno State just hired a full-time vice president to implement DEI.
Ironically, the now-accepted idea in higher education of “publish or perish” is of recent origins. Before the 1970s, for Fresno State and many state colleges, faculty tenure was driven by academic activities such as attending conferences and reading academic papers.
When this author was hired to chair the History Department, only one faculty, from my recollection, had published a book. The department was composed of all white men except for one Hispanic faculty who was hired from Chicano Studies. As the History Department and all others at Fresno State began to hire more women and minorities, the standard for tenure shifted, and new faculty were required to have at least three published articles in academic journals or a book.
A curious contradictory dilemma was created when older white senior faculty who had not published at all now sat in judgment to evaluate younger (DEI) publishing scholars. Therefore, the ultra-right attack on higher education, be it a Harvard president or others hired to diversify and include, is purely a political act to impede and stop the browning of American society at the white-collar level.
However, my experience in hiring qualified, new, young, diverse faculty who could step up their game and be publishing scholars reveals that DEI should be an acronym for Diversity, Excellence and Inclusion.