The high-profile resignation of Harvard University’s first Black female president continues to spark commentary.
Claudine Gay, Ph.D., resigned last week after backlash to her testimony at a congressional hearing where she was criticized for not doing enough to tackle antisemitism on campus.
She also faced accusations of plagiarism.
However, Gay’s supporters said her ouster reflects a system that wasn’t built for people of color.
“I view the incident with great sadness,” said Alvin Tillery, professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, who was just one year behind Gay at Harvard. “Claudine was absolutely the top of our field. She was the best graduate student of our generation, or one of the best graduate students in our generation. To watch her be ushered out after six months on the job by sort of restive donors, it really raises questions about whether they were ever going to support her or whether they would ever support any Black woman in the position.”
Tillery also questioned the plagiarism allegations that have been leveled against Gay.
“I don’t know many professional political scientists that actually buy the plagiarism charges against her,” said Tillery. “If Claudine Gay is a plagiarist for what she did in those academic papers, we’re all plagiarists. The fact of the matter is what she was doing was referencing very well-known scientific concepts in our discipline and testing them with data and hypotheses.”
He said any errors of omission made by Gay should not have led to her ouster.
“I actually ran several papers of former Harvard presidents through the AI-powered plagiarism checkers and found that they too had missed quotation marks,” said Tillery. “The question I have is, would any of them have been asked to resign six months on the job for missing quotation marks? I don’t think so.”
Dominique Jordan Turner, a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant, praised Gay’s role as a trailblazer.
“Dr. Claudine Gay dared to be the very first Black woman to take on this role at one of America’s oldest educational institutions,” Turner said. “And if you’ve ever been the first or the only in any of those roles, you recognize that it takes great resilience and courage and fortitude to do that. And so as a Black woman leader, I’m incredibly proud of what she’s accomplished.”
Turner said she was saddened but not surprised by the ouster of Gay.
“I think many of us in higher education and in DEI roles are unsurprised that this was the outcome,” said Turner.
But Turner pushed back on the notion put forward by some of Gay’s critics, including billionaire Harvard donor Bill Ackman, that Gay was a so-called “diversity hire.”
Ironically, Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, subsequently admitted and apologized for plagiarism in her 2010 doctoral dissertation.
“There’s this narrative that diversity is supplanting merit, and that’s just not true,” said Turner. “They’re not mutually exclusive. I think we have to be really clear that this was the strategy of conservative activists that actually laid out their plan and they said that it had three prongs: that it was reputational; that it was financial; and it was political. The political piece began with the congressional hearings. The financial piece came with weaponizing donors. And then the personal, the reputational piece, was about the plagiarism. And so this was an anti-DEI backlash.”