Few windows into today’s higher education leadership were as shocking as the testimony of three distinguished university presidents (from Harvard, Penn and MIT) before the star chamber hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last month. In their obtuse, overly lawyered statements on anti-Semitism on their respective campuses, they wrapped themselves in a tone-deaf defense of free speech with little regard to its implications.
All three affirmed their commitment to student safety but seemed oblivious to the security needs of Jewish (and Muslim) students threatened with harassment and intimidation by demonstrating extremists. No statement was more shocking than that of Harvard President Claudine Gay when she was asked whether it would violate Harvard’s code of conduct to call for genocide of Jews, and she allowed as how it would depend on context.
The hearing produced an enormous backlash across the institutional and political spectrum. Claudine Gay apologized. Right-wing critics of higher education had a field day mocking elitist colleges and universities’ single-minded emphasis on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, with liberal orthodoxy flying in the face of intellectual diversity.
Anti-DEI gadfly Christopher Rufo accused Gay of plagiarizing on Twitter, and in October the New York Post sought comment from Harvard. Harvard’s lawyers pushed back against the Post’s anonymous sources, hoping to kill the article. The Washington Beacon and articles on Substack took up the issue. Establishment news outlets like The New York Times remained silent, and the Harvard Corporation stood behind Gay.
Increasingly, as the Harvard Crimson has reported, scholars with credibility weighed in, documenting instances, including Gay’s 1997 doctoral dissertation, where she had copied others’ writing word for word from other publications, with neither attribution nor footnotes. The University itself did a cursory analysis and finally, in December, in Orwellian doublespeak, found instances of “duplicative language,” but said that Gay would “make corrections.”
But the genie was out of the bottle. Examples of sloppy scholarship were noted in half of the publications listed in her resume. The documentation became clear. Eventually, Gay resigned, citing racist attacks on her. Upwards of 700 Harvard faculty members protested her leaving. Black academics worried if black female scholars were next.
The evidence of plagiarism was dispositive. Gay had to go. The events around anti-Semitism, the testimony before the House, were important to the national debate on campus hate speech and harassment. But they were irrelevant to Gay’s fitness to be president of one of the world’s most elite academic institutions, one whose motto is simply “veritas.” Truth.
Harvard University’s history suggests it hasn’t always prioritized scholarship among those it taps for president. But even if a candidate’s scholarship is thin, it must still be honest.
The pursuit of fact, of truth, is at the heart of the academic process. How can you punish a 19-year-old student who cribs from a library book in writing a paper when the head of the university is doing the same thing? Harvard’s Guide to Using Sources is clear. Its Code of Honor is explicit about what constitutes academic integrity. In reality, student punishment is not draconian and is aimed toward rehabilitation. That could never be an option with the president of the university,
The Corporation (functionally its board of trustees) did not distinguish itself in this process. Were they concerned to admit that, because they were thrilled with her exciting bio, they hadn’t properly vetted her when they hired her after a very truncated search process?
Some on the left have been quick to dismiss the claims of plagiarism because they came from ultra-conservative and racist sources. Sorry, folks. That won’t work. The sources of the original story may indeed come from reprehensible people, sources that are part of the right wing’s war on higher education. But the plagiarism facts have been proven true despite the taint of the messengers.
It’s time to depoliticize the discussion and get to the heart of what colleges and universities are supposed to represent and what they are supposed to be teaching the next generation of thinkers and national leaders. Veritas. Lux et veritas. Integritas. It’s all about accountability, something desperately needed in all aspects of life today. If young students -and non-students alike -can’t learn that, our future is in doubt.