Harvard President’s Ouster Leads to Concerns about Academic Freedom

    06 January 2024

    Harvard University's Claudine Gay recently became the second Ivy League president to step down under pressure from alumni, political activists and supporters of the University.

    Gay was the first Black president of Harvard and second woman to lead the university. She started the job only six months ago.

    Gay and two other presidents were widely criticized after making controversial comments to the U.S. Congress in December.

    FILE - Harvard University President Claudine Gay speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington. Gay resigned Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
    FILE - Harvard University President Claudine Gay speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington. Gay resigned Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

    Gay, along with Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, were called to Washington to discuss American lawmakers' concerns about antisemitism on college campuses. Antisemitism is the hatred of Jewish people.

    The U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education chose the presidents because their schools had "been at the center of the rise in antisemitic protests," a committee spokesperson said in a statement.

    The protests were related to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

    Harvard graduate Elise Stefanik of New York is part of the Republican-led committee. She asked each university leader about how their school would react to calls to kill large numbers of Jews, something described as genocide.

    Stefanik asked Magill: "Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn's rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?" Penn is the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the Ivy League.

    She asked the same question of Gay and Kornbluth.

    None of the school leaders were able to clearly say calling for the death of Jews violated school rules.

    The presidents were sharply criticized for their lack of clarity. Within a few days, influential members of the University of Pennsylvania community pushed Magill to resign.

    For a time, it looked as if Gay's job was safe. She received support from some notable professors at Harvard, including legal scholar Laurence Tribe.

    Tribe said "it is dangerous for universities to be ... bullied into micromanaging their policies." He was talking about the way some activists and politicians seemed to be pushing the universities toward their preferred result.

    One of those activists is Christopher Rufo. Rufo is a member of the leadership group that oversees New College of Florida. With the support of Governor Ron DeSantis, Rufo and others have been pushing the small college to change its curriculum.

    After Gay announced her resignation on January 2, Rufo wrote words of celebration on X, formerly known as Twitter. He and other conservatives believe American higher education has too many liberal people in leadership roles.

    Gay's position at Harvard looked safe in December. So what changed?

    In the weeks following the congressional hearing, some critics charged Gay with using "duplicative language" in academic writing. To duplicate means to make an exact copy of something.

    They also said Gay had plagiarized -- or claimed others' writing as her own.

    The charges, however, did not come from those working in higher education. They came from people like Rufo who are working to push out higher education leaders they do not agree with.

    At first, Harvard said it did not consider Gay's work to be "intentional or reckless." But pressure continued.

    Many observers believe the conservative activists felt Gay only received Harvard's presidency because she was a Black woman.

    On X, Rufo wrote that he was establishing a "plagiarism hunting fund" as a way to oust university leaders and bring attention to the "rot in the Ivy League."

    Gay wrote a letter to the Harvard community announcing she was leaving her position "with a heavy heart." She also said it was frightening to be attacked due to her race. Gay said she would remain at Harvard as a professor.

    Plagiarism complaints as a tool

    Academic experts who have been following the pressure campaign on Gay say the plagiarism accusations only came after it looked like she would not lose her job.

    They worry that people who do not like the leaders of major American universities will now research their academic writing in search of duplications and poor citations.

    Davarian Baldwin is a historian at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He writes about race and higher education. Baldwin said Gay made mistakes in her writing and noted that anti-plagiarism software will make it easy for critics to find problematic writing by college leaders and professors.

    The tools are designed to help educators learn whether their students' writings are their own. But Baldwin said the tools can be dangerous if they fall into the hands of people who want to argue that academia is full of corrupt and incompetent people. Incompetent means someone lacks the ability to do something well.

    Irene Mulvey is president of the American Association of University Professors. She said plagiarism investigations could be "weaponized" to push out presidents.

    She said she is concerned that conservative activists will use the successful campaign against Gay as a method to push out other academic leaders.

    "For presidents to be taken down like this, it does not bode well for academic freedom," she said.

    I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Gena Bennett.

    Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.


    Words in This Story

    alumni –n. the people who graduated from a school or university

    campus –n. the physical location of a college or university's buildings

    code of conduct –n. rules on how to participate in a group, such as how to be a student at a university

    bully –v. to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person) : to act like a bully toward (someone)

    micromanage –v. to try to control all parts of something usually in a way that is not wanted

    preferred –adj. the better choice among multiple things

    curriculum –n. a study plan set up for students by a professor or school

    preferred –adj. the better choice among multiple things

    rot –n. decay or lack of health

    bode well –v. to feel positive about the future of something

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