The Rise and Fall, Claudine Gay was heralded as the obvious option to be Harvard’s 30th president six months ago. She resigned on Tuesday, bringing the career of Harvard’s first Black president to an end fewer than 200 days after it began.
The Rise and Fall of Harvard President Claudine Gay
Six months ago, Claudine Gay was hailed as the obvious option to be Harvard’s 30th president. She resigned on Tuesday, ending Harvard’s first Black president’s tenure less than 200 days after it began.
Gay announced her departure in an email to Harvard affiliates Tuesday afternoon, however, a source close to the former president said she made the choice last week. University Provost Alan M. Gaber ’76 will serve as interim president until a permanent successor is found.
Gay’s brief presidency, a historic first, will be remembered as occurring amid a challenging and contentious period in the University’s 388-year existence.
Gay’s first national problem was confronting the future of Harvard’s admissions policy following the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action just two days before she took office. But it was the University’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, as well as the revelation of plagiarism claims, that would prove deadly to Gay’s president.
Gay was initially called to quit only days after celebrating her 100th day as Harvard’s president. Though Gay — and Harvard — attempted to move past the various controversies she faced during her brief time, the criticism was eventually unavoidable.
Gay’s scholarly integrity, as well as the merits that led to her appointment as Harvard’s president, have all been called into question in the weeks preceding her resignation.
Just Before Taking Presidential Office
When Gay was officially named Harvard’s next president in December 2022, it was viewed as the start of a promising new period for the University. Many people thought Harvard had found its leader for at least the next decade.
Gay was born in New York City to Haitian immigrants and attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite private school, before attending college.
Following her Stanford education, Gay went on to Harvard to complete her doctorate, where she was awarded the 1998 Toppan Prize for the finest political science dissertation.
Towards the end of her term, Gay was accused of plagiarism, which led to the dissertation being scrutinized. After her dissertation was reviewed by an independent panel and the Harvard Corporation, she sought three revisions in December.
Gay has produced eleven peer-reviewed scholarly articles since finishing her dissertation, two of which she has also asked to have corrected.
Gay joined Harvard’s faculty in 2006 and advanced fast through the ranks, becoming president in less than ten years after serving as dean of the Social Sciences, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and generally regarded as the university’s most prestigious deanship.
During her tenure as FAS dean, Gay led the faculty through multiple crises involving sexual misbehavior, and the COVID-19 pandemic, and she actively promoted the growth and advancement of ethnic studies at Harvard.
“I am also filled with hope for our students, who can now take from Dean Gay as president a shining example of what ethical, impactful leadership can be,” Taeku Lee, a Government professor hired in 2022 as part of Gay’s ethnic studies cluster recruitment, wrote last year in a statement to The Crimson.
When Gay was appointed president of Harvard after the University’s shortest presidential search in history, her colleagues were not surprised. She was a top contender for the presidency, having previously held the most powerful deanship at the University.
Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 said in an email announcing Gay’s appointment in December 2022, “We are confident Claudine will be a thoughtful, principled, and inspiring president for all of Harvard, dedicated to helping each of our schools thrive, as well as fostering creative connections among them.”
Gay’s appointment as president was largely seen as a promise of good things to come, even if she had to lead fundraising efforts after COVID-19 and await a Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.
Upon taking office as president on July 1, Gay was entrusted with upholding Harvard’s dedication to diversity following a Supreme Court decision that essentially prohibited the use of racial discrimination in admissions.
In a video message released after the decision, Gay stated, “Our commitment to that work remains steadfast, is essential to who we are and the mission that we are here to advance.”
The first significant task Gay had as president was reevaluating Harvard’s admissions procedures. However, the historic Supreme Court decision against Harvard would be overshadowed by the problems Gay would encounter a few months later.
The United States considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization. On October 7, Hamas attacked Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people. After launching a war on Hamas in retaliation, Israel has killed over 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza.
More than thirty student organizations signed a statement from the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee in the days after the incident, which held Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence that took place on October 7. This declaration focused attention on Harvard.
Two days after Hamas launched its initial attack, Harvard released its first formal statement, which was harshly condemned for being both too sluggish and too vague. Gay’s administration never got over the negative reaction to its first declaration.
In an interview with The Crimson on November 9, Garber—who took over as temporary president following Gay’s departure on Tuesday—acknowledged that the initial statement was insufficient.
As emotions on campus continued to grow, Gay condemned the term “from the river to the sea” in a series of following speeches that took a more firm stand against Hamas and the student groups’ declaration. However, in doing so, she alienated many student groups and professors.
Then, on December 5, Gay testified in what is now regarded as one of the most damaging congressional appearances in recent memory before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce regarding antisemitism on college campuses.
In response to Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-NY), Gay stated that demands for the murder of Jews would not automatically violate Harvard’s code of conduct, instead arguing that it would depend on the context.
Her statement, for which she later apologized, quickly went viral, amplifying calls for Gay’s resignation. Only one of the three presidents who spoke at the hearing, MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth, remains in her position less than a month later.
The Crimson also stated that the Corporation’s former Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72, along with other lawyers from WilmerHale, where Lee is a partner, played an outsized role in Gay’s testimony preparation.
External public relations and communications professionals were sidelined due to WilmerHale’s participation in preparing Gay for her testimony.
Following Gay’s testimony, the House of Representatives passed a resolution demanding his resignation, and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce opened an investigation into both the administration’s response to antisemitism and, later, plagiarism charges against Gay.
Following what they described as “extensive deliberation,” the Corporation, Harvard’s highest governing body, unanimously endorsed Gay after remaining silent for a week. Gay had a temporary job security.
Accusations of Copying
However, the accusations of plagiarism that surfaced after Gay’s congressional appearance might have been the tipping point in her administration.
Days before they launched their inquiry into the claims, the University tried to stop the New York Post from releasing an article about the plagiarism accusations before they were made public.
After further study, it was determined that there were numerous places in Gay’s scholarship where the names of the authors or quotation marks needed to be inserted.
The conservative activists at the center of the accusations made around fifty claims of plagiarism in all, even though the accusations themselves varied from a maximum of three repeated words to multiple repeated lines without attribution.
One of the first people to post the accusations online was right-wing activist Christopher F. Rufo, who gained notoriety for popularizing and demonizing the term “Critical Race Theory.”
On December 10, he claimed in a Substack post alongside journalist Christopher Brunet that Gay had copied parts of her dissertation.
The revelation, which coincided with a meeting of the Corporation to discuss Gay’s future, was timed to cause the greatest harm to Gay and her presidency, according to a post by Rufo on X.
Soon after, articles from across Gay’s academic career were questioned in reports from the Washington Free Beacon and the New York Post, alleging duplication.
Rufo wrote on X after Tuesday’s announcement, citing the 1967 University of Chicago “Kalven report,” which advocates institutional neutrality, and saying he would next try to “abolish the DEI bureaucracy, expand viewpoint diversity on the faculty, adopt the Kalven principle, restore colorblind equality.”
In their remarks on Tuesday, Gay and the Corporation both discussed the impact that Gay’s race had on his treatment.
In her letter, Gay claimed that she had been the target of “repugnant and in some cases racist vitriol directed at her through disgraceful emails and phone calls,” and the Corporation said that she had also been the target of “personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.”
Since then, many public personalities have questioned whether Gay’s academic work would have come under as much scrutiny if she hadn’t been a Black woman holding the most prominent and important job at the university.
Author Ibram X. Kendi said in an X post following Gay’s departure that the backlash against Gay was motivated by racism and chastised media outlets for airing such assertions.
“The question is whether all these people would have investigated, surveilled, harassed, written about, and attacked her in the same way if the Harvard president in this case would have been White,” he stated in an email.
I believe. No, Kendi clarified. Gay’s resignation, according to NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President Janai Nelson, sets a “dangerous precedent” for higher learning.
“Attacks against Claudine Gay have been unrelenting & the biases unmasked,” Nelson noted in an email. “This protects no one,” she went on to say. Gay presided over Harvard for 185 days.