(NEW YORK) — Claudine Gay has resigned from her seat as Harvard University’s president after a tenure mired by controversy and skepticism, with several forces at play in her exit from the prestigious position at the Ivy League school.
Gay, who will continue to work as a professor at the university, faced a heated congressional hearing about antisemitism in higher education, allegations of plagiarism, as well as a conservative campaign designed to eliminate what it calls the bureaucracy of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Gay as a symbol for DEI in higher ed
Gay entered her role at a tumultuous time. Harvard was under a spotlight for its affirmative action policy that allowed race to be used as one factor in its admissions processes, aimed at addressing racial inequities in access to higher education.
She officially took over the position in July 2023 just days after the Supreme Court set limits on affirmative action at the university. The decision came amid conservative attacks on diversity initiatives — or DEI — in higher education.
DEI initiatives are intended to remedy policies that may exclude historically marginalized groups. This includes addressing pay inequity, rectifying issues that lead to poor retention rates among marginalized groups, or implementing anti-discrimination trainings.
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Attacks on DEI initiatives in education have intensified in recent years, with legislation restricting race-related curriculum and conversation in workplaces, schools and colleges or shunning DEI-related activities and offices from campuses.
Conservative figures who called for Gay’s downfall — including conservative anti-DEI advocate Christopher Rufo, who publicized allegations of plagiarism and antisemitism against Gay — celebrated her resignation as a win against DEI.
“This is the beginning of the end for DEI in America’s institutions,” said Rufo in a social media post. “We will expose you. We will outmaneuver you. And we will not stop fighting until we have restored colorblind equality in our great nation.”
Some DEI detractors, including hedge fund billionaire and Harvard alumn Bill Ackman, in a social media post, claimed Gay was unqualified for the position and that DEI played a role in her selection as president. Gay previously led Harvard’s largest division, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as dean and has been a professor at both Harvard and Stanford.
Gay addressed these critiques in a New York Times op-ed about her resignation.
“The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader,” said Gay. “This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda.”
She continued, “It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution.”
Claudine Gay was the first person of color and second woman in Harvard University’s 386-year history to serve as president.
Gay testified before Congress in early December 2023 alongside the University of Pennsylvania’s then-President Liz Magill and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth about how they were handling antisemitism on their respective campuses in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
Both Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania are among the schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for complaints of discrimination under Title VI.
A tense exchange between Gay and New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik became a focal point for criticism.
Stefanik had asked Gay whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates Harvard’s code of conduct.
Gay responded, “The rules around bullying and harassment are quite specific and if the context in which that language is used amounts to bullying and harassment, then we take — we take action against it.”
Stefanik — a Harvard alumna — also pressed Gay on whether admissions offers would be rescinded or any disciplinary action would be taken against students or applicants who say “from the river to the sea” or “intifada.”
The decadesold phrases have been used as a rallying cry for Palestinian rights and freedom by supporters worldwide, and are also considered by others offensive code for wiping Israel off the map, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as Hamas has vowed to do.
Several members of the House have called for expulsions, firings and disciplinary action on campuses amid pro-Palestinian protests where students have used such rhetoric.
Gay said generally that “actions have been taken” regarding the use of these phrases, but also defended Harvard’s policy to allow all speech — whether she agrees with it or not — until it crosses a line into bullying, harassment or intimidation.
“We do not sanction individuals for their political views or their speech. When that speech crosses into conduct that violates our behavior-based policies, bullying, harassment and intimidation, we take action,” Gay said at the hearing.
Her comments — and those of her peers — were criticized by some, including White House spokesman Andrew Bates.
“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” Bates said in a statement.
“Any statements that advocate for the systematic murder of Jews are dangerous and revolting – and we should all stand firmly against them, on the side of human dignity and the most basic values that unite us as Americans.”
Free speech experts told ABC News they believed the presidents’ comments were fair.
“The presidents’ analysis, legally speaking, was correct. That, indeed, there are lots of questions that can’t be answered yes or no,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, told ABC News in a past interview.
He continued, “They’re under oath, they’re supposed to tell the truth. And the truth is that advocacy of genocide is sometimes protected under the First Amendment and sometimes not.”
Several legislators, including Stefanik, called for her resignation. The university’s main governing board issued a statement unanimously affirming its support for Gay in spite of these calls.
“Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,” the Harvard Corporation said in a statement.
Gay elaborated on her comments in a later statement, saying: “There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students.”
“Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group, are vile, they have no place at Harvard,” she said, adding, “Those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”
In the New York Times op-ed, she said she “fell into a well-laid trap” and made a mistake in failing “to clearly articulate that calls for the genocide of Jewish people are abhorrent and unacceptable and that I would use every tool at my disposal to protect students from that kind of hate.”
Washington Free Beacon, a conservative political news outlet, initially published accusations that Gay “paraphrased or quoted nearly 20 authors … without proper attribution.”
The Harvard Corporation responded in a Dec. 12 statement that Gay requested an independent review of her published work in light of the allegations. The results revealed a few instances of “inadequate citation” but “no violation of Harvard’s standards of research misconduct,” the statement read.
The corporation announced that Gay would be requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were not present in the original text. However, the corporation initially affirmed its support for Gay amid the allegations in the statement.
“Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,” the statement read.
Washington Free Beacon, Rufo and other conservatives continued to raise concerns and accusations. The Washington Free Beacon interviewed several authors who critics say Gay allegedly plagiarized, who responded that they were not concerned about the claims or do not believe the passages in question are “academic plagiarism.”
Harvard’s “Interim Policy and Procedures for Responding to Allegations of Research Misconduct” defines research misconduct as a “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. … Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.”
Harvard’s webpage on “Harvard University Plagiarism Policy” tells students: “When you fail to cite your sources, or when you cite them inadequately, you are plagiarizing, which is taken extremely seriously at Harvard.”
It continues, “Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the College.”
Gay said in the New York Times op-ed that she stands by her work.
“I have never misrepresented my research findings, nor have I ever claimed credit for the research of others,” said Gay.
She continued, “Despite the obsessive scrutiny of my peer-reviewed writings, few have commented on the substance of my scholarship, which focuses on the significance of minority office holding in American politics. My research marshaled concrete evidence to show that when historically marginalized communities gain a meaningful voice in the halls of power, it signals an open door where before many saw only barriers. And that, in turn, strengthens our democracy.”
The Harvard community is reeling following the controversy, according to a collection of op-eds and articles on the fallout in the Harvard Crimson following Gay’s exit. These stories detail concerns over the future of academic integrity, free expression and racial politics on campus. This includes questions about how much external influences will impact the Harvard campus moving forward in light of the forces seen in Gay’s resignation.
“We need bold and imaginative solutions, but we can’t have those conversations on a college campus if we’re catering to the whims of people who have very clear ideological agendas,” one student told the student newspaper. “They’re trying to go viral, and they’re trying to take over Harvard from outside Harvard.”
Others told the student newspaper that they thought the resignation could help repair the university’s image.
“I, along with many other Harvard students, look forward to the next president working to repair the university’s image and combat the hateful antisemitism and bigotry we have seen on our campus,” another student told the paper.
ABC News’ Cheyenne Haslett contributed to this report.
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