Supporters of Diversity Take to Twitter to Defend Maligned Harvard President Claudine Gay

Written by
Autumn A. Arnett

Jan 23, 2024

Jan 23, 2024 • by Autumn A. Arnett

Just weeks after Harvard’s faculty, board, and all five living presidents resoundingly expressed their support for President Claudine Gay following her failure to condemn a student group for its anti-Israel stance, the institution’s first Black president has resigned over allegations of plagiarism.

“It has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign, so the community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than the individual,” Gay said in a statement on January 2.

But many on Twitter are not convinced that the failure to properly cite a few passages in academic papers she’s authored are actually to blame for the end of Gay’s tenure, which is officially the shortest in Harvard history. Many—particularly people of color—are calling out systemic and institutional racism and anti-Blackness in academia as a whole in light of the incident.

“There is no new standard set by the ousting of Claudine Gay. This is called structural racism. Any other framing is disingenuous or simply missing the larger context,” tweeted Bree Newsome, the poet and activist who gained notoriety for climbing a flagpole to remove a Confederate flag at the South Carolina State Capitol in 2020.

Dr. Carlotta Berry, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, echoed the “nothing new” sentiment, saying, “If the stories of Claudine Gay, Ketanji Brown Jackson, & Nikole Hannah-Jones can teach us anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter how much you know, how much you’ve achieved, or how far you’ve come. Being excellent for Black folks, & especially [Black women], will not shield you from harm.”

Bigger than One Campus

Some suggested that Gay’s ouster was about keeping Black women in their place and sending a reminder about who is really in control—in academia, and in America. Gay herself suggested in an editorial for The New York Times the day after she announced her resignation that the pressure for her to resign was part of a coordinated attack intending to undermine the integrity of academia by succumbing to outside influences.

A student editorial published in The Crimson said, “In the last several months, we watched as the same outrage artists who have sought to discredit public education with false accusations about critical race theory trained their sights on Gay, Harvard’s first Black president. We watched, pained, as these politicians and activists would pivot from legitimate criticisms of her performance to racist and baseless smears of her character and ability.”

The op-ed in the student paper continued, “This is an assault on higher education. It employs the cheapest, most foul tactics American politics has to offer. And it will not end with Claudine Gay’s presidency.”

Many have pointed out the legitimacy of plagiarism as a reason for ouster, and no one would argue that academic integrity is particularly important for the leader of an institution—and perhaps even more so for the leader of an institution of Harvard’s caliber.

But Dr. Julian Go, a professor of sociology and faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, pointed out what most in the academy know: “It is NOT routine to read the dissertation of an administrator looking for error. There are reasons why her work was investigated and they have everything to do with Israel & right-wing politics.”

And even less routine is political commentators and those with no familiarity with higher ed doing victory laps and turning the high-profile ouster of a university president into fundraising opportunities and feathers in the cap of the war against critical race theory.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, who led the House hearing in which Gay originally failed to condemn antisemitism on campus, tweeted, “Claudine Gay’s resignation is just the beginning. Our Congressional investigation remains steadfast in uncovering the institutional decay in higher education.

A Pattern of Double Standards

Perhaps the most poignant thread on the issue came from Sophia A. Nelson, the former scholar-in-residence at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University who was herself removed over a controversial tweet back in 2021 that many found homophobic.

Nelson first acknowledges that the testimonies of Gay and University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology presidents Dr. M. Elizabeth Magill and Dr. Sally Ann Kornbluth in the aforementioned congressional hearing were bad, and the outrages on their campuses were warranted. All three failed to speak decisively about the rising antisemitism on their campuses, and all three faced warranted pressure on campus.

“Penn’s President was clearly pushed out by threats from donors, and she resigned quickly before it got worse. She was never investigated, or questioned as to her competence or past scholarly writings. Ever. She is a tenured faculty now at #Penn. She is good,” Nelson tweeted.

Korbluth, Nelson said, “dodged all scrutiny and her school backed her. There was no real outrage over her terrible testimony and again, neither her competence nor her scholarship has been questioned by the media, or those offended by her words. She, like Magill at Penn is OK.”

“This is the dilemma we as Black women face wherever we go—our white sisters simply are NOT subject to the same scrutiny, attacks when they misstep or make professional errors. White men face little to no consequences, or if they do there is no mob anger,” she continued, citing former Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who resigned in 2022 after it was found he manipulated research in his dissertation.

“If she is a black woman, as is Gay, she cannot defend herself or she is angry and being disrespectful, not hearing her detractors, and if she is silent, she is seen as consenting to their abuse.”

She likens social media mob violence to the literal violence of lynch mobs after Reconstruction and throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

Two Things Can Be True

Most scholars and defenders of academic integrity would agree that plagiarism is wrong; it is why every English professor in history has emphasized the importance of proper citations in academic writing. And so defenses that “everyone does it” or “it was just a few missed citations” are not warranted in the bigger picture of defending the honorableness of the Ivory Tower.

But it is also true that Black women in academia are often subject to more scrutiny and more rigorous standards than others in the space, and it is true that pervasive anti-Blackness made Claudine Gay a target beginning with her initial appointment.