Skip to main content

The head of Harvard’s fate was sealed when she became the focus of a culture war battle over antisemitism, plagiarism and free speech.

By Kenan Malik, The Guardian —

For some, she is the wretched epitome of the liberal elite; for others, the victim of a “racist mob”. She herself condemns her critics for having “recycled tired racial stereotypes”. As an illustration of the way that culture wars warp political judgment and push people into tribal corners, the case of Claudine Gay may be Exhibit 1.

Gay, who became Harvard University’s first black president in July, was forced last week to resign, the culmination of a bitter controversy at the heart of which are tussles over some of the most polarising issues of the day: racism, antisemitism, plagiarism, free speech and diversity.

The controversy began after the Hamas attack of 7 October. Harvard student groups, led by the university’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, published a statement holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”, provoking outrage and criticism of university authorities for not responding.

Gay, and presidents of two other colleges, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Pennsylvania, were summoned to Washington to face a Congressional interrogation led by rightwing Republican Elise Stefanik. It turned into a disaster show. “Calling for the genocide of Jews – does that constitute bullying or harassment?” Stefanik asked. “It can be,” Gay responded, “depending on the context.”

The failure to grasp the moral core of the question, and sticking instead to carefully crafted, lawyerly responses, seemed to highlight the crisis of leadership in America’s elite universities. And yet, Gay and her colleagues had also been drawn into a trap, Stefanik having defined “genocide” as resistance to Israeli occupation. The “call for intifada”, she told Gay, was a call “to commit genocide against the Jewish people”.

The two intifadas in Palestine (from 1987-1993 and 2000-2005) were largely spontaneous uprisings, the product of collective rage against Israeli occupation. The second was far more violent than the first, with 138 suicide bombings, organised primarily by Hamas. However degenerate the Hamas tactics, neither intifada was an attempt at genocide.

Stefanik’s elision of “intifada” and “genocide” reveals the way that the boundaries of acceptable beliefs have become restricted in recent weeks. For some, even calling for a ceasefire in Gaza is “antisemitic”. It takes some chutzpah for those willing on Israel’s devastation of Gaza in the name of “self-defence” to deem Palestinian resistance illegitimate.

Gay could have responded that “all calls for genocide are morally abhorrent, even if some may be protected under the first amendment. But calling for an intifada is not the same as calling for genocide.” Instead, she stumbled through the session with vapid evasion.

Gay seemed to suggest she was constrained by the need to defend free speech. The trouble is, colleges have been atrocious defenders of free expression, none more so than Harvard, which, according to free speech group the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (Fire), is the most censorious of US universities.

Gay’s opponents have made little effort to hide they are less interested in plagiarism than in wielding it as a weapon

The hypocrisy in Gay’s free speech defence was manna for her critics. “Universities that for years have been notably censorious,” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote, had discovered free speech “only now, when the speech in question tends to be especially hurtful to Jews”. The hypocrisy, though, cuts both ways. Many on the right who have prided themselves as free speech champions have been actively trying to curtail pro-Palestinian speech, and often succeeding, in American universities and beyond.

Conservatives, smelling an opportunity to strike at the “liberal elite”, pushed to depose the college presidents. Their first scalp was easy, Pennsylvania’s Elizabeth Magill resigning within the week. Gay was more obdurate. So, critics went looking for past misdemeanours with which to pressure her. They found it in Gay’s alleged plagiarism. In her PhD dissertation, and in around half of her journal articles she is alleged to have taken almost verbatim paragraphs from academic papers without acknowledging them as quotes or with proper attribution.

Gay’s opponents have made little effort to hide that they are less interested in plagiarism than in wielding it as a weapon. This, in turn, has led many on the left to deny that Gay did much wrong.

The fact that Gay’s plagiarism is being exploited by the right does not make it any more acceptable. Nor does the fact that, as with free speech, there is considerable rightwing hypocrisy, many of those denouncing Gay having previously defended conservatives, such as supreme court judge Neil Gorsuch, facing the same charge.

It is possible, and necessary, to push back against conservative bad faith actors without brushing aside the misdeeds of their targets. To do otherwise is to yield more weapons to the right.

For many conservatives, taking down Gay is also to undermine diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programmes, which have become central to the operation of universities. Gay’s Harvard presidency has been marked by her promotion of DEI policies.

Conservative hostility to DEI has, again, led many on the left to defend it. Yet, there are good arguments for the left to be sceptical of the diversity approach.

The moral force of the demand for diversity comes from the fact that many groups – racial minorities, women, gay people and others – have historically been excluded from positions of power. DEI programmes are seen as a push for a more equal society.

Equality and diversity are not, however, synonymous. The greatest lack of diversity in America’s elite universities is not racial but class-based. There are almost as many students in Harvard from the highest earning 1% of society as from the poorest 60%. Studies suggest that diversity policies have improved prospects for middle-class African Americans but not for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Gay herself is emblematic of what diversity has come to mean. Her father, Sony Gay, is vice-president of Haiti’s major construction company. She attended Phillips Exeter Academy, the most elite of America’s elite boarding schools, and a feeder for Harvard. “Gay may have changed the color of the mold,” academic Tyler Austin Harper wrote, “but she sure didn’t break it.”

Conservatives pushing against diversity policies care little about economic equality and many are animated by racist concerns. That does not mean those on the left for whom inequality does matter should, in response, circle the wagons in defence of DEI policies that entrench class privilege.

What the Gay controversy shows is how political judgment today is too often based on the identity of the messenger rather than the message itself. This inevitably warps the values and policies radicals pursue. Our politics should not be defined simply by the desire to show hostility to the right but by the strategies and norms necessary to build a more progressive, equal and hopeful world.

Source: The Guardian

Featured image: Crisis of leadership’: Claudine Gay speaking as president of Harvard during a congressional hearing into antisemitism on U.S. university campuses. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.