Despite Support From Corporation, Harvard President Gay Under Fire Over Plagiarism Allegations

Harvard President Claudine Gay is facing allegations of plagiarism after a report in the Washington Free Beacon on Monday and a Sunday post on Substack claimed she plagiarized portions of four academic works over 24 years, including her 1997 Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard.
By Rahem D. Hamid, Nia L. Orakwue, and Elias J. Schisgall

Harvard President Claudine Gay is facing allegations of plagiarism, as claimed by two publications as of Monday night.
Harvard President Claudine Gay is facing allegations of plagiarism, as claimed by two publications as of Monday night. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

Updated: Wednesday, December 13 at 1:15 a.m.

Harvard President Claudine Gay is facing allegations of plagiarism after a report in the Washington Free Beacon on Monday and a Sunday post on Substack claimed she plagiarized portions of four academic works over 24 years, including her 1997 Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard.

The allegations come at a uniquely perilous time for Gay, who has been called on to resign by alumni, donors, and members of Congress following her controversial remarks at a congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses last Tuesday.

Though The Crimson reported early Tuesday morning that the Harvard Corporation, Harvard’s highest governing body, will express confidence in Gay’s leadership and not remove her, the allegations of plagiarism represent yet another scandal for an increasingly weary president just reaching the end of her first semester.

In a statement to affiliates Tuesday, members of the Harvard Corporation reaffirmed their support for Gay’s leadership. Still, they addressed concerns raised regarding Gay’s scholarship, writing that the “University became aware in late October of allegations regarding three articles.”

“At President Gay’s request, the Fellows promptly initiated an independent review by distinguished political scientists and conducted a review of her published work,” they wrote.

“On December 9, the Fellows reviewed the results, which revealed a few instances of inadequate citation,” they added. “While the analysis found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct, President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.”

They did not specify which articles were found to contain improperly cited material or which were being corrected.

The plagiarism charges — some of which had surfaced on anonymous academia forums over the past year but were only recently widely reported — are sure to cast even more doubt on the embattled president’s fitness for the job, even if she is not in imminent danger of losing it.

In a post on X Sunday night, right-wing activist Christopher F. Rufo said he and journalist Christopher Brunet intentionally released the story amid calls for Gay’s ouster as Harvard’s governing boards met to discuss the controversy surrounding her testimony.

“@RealChrisBrunet and I sat on the Claudine Gay plagiarism materials for the past week, waiting for the precise moment of maximum impact,” Rufo wrote. “The Harvard board is meeting tonight and there are rumors that the plagiarism scandal could be the final nail in Gay's coffin.”

The claim was amplified by Bill A. Ackman ’88, a hedge fund CEO who has been a vocal critic of Gay and has called for her resignation. Ackman posted on X that he sent the allegations to a “senior member of the @Harvard faculty,” who “found them to be credible.” He did not identify a specific faculty member by name.

The allegations of plagiarism range from omitting quotation marks but still citing her sources to apparently copying an entire paragraph of data description almost verbatim from another work without any citation.

Gay defended her work in a statement Monday morning following the Substack post.

“I stand by the integrity of my scholarship. Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards,” Gay wrote.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the Free Beacon article — published Monday evening — referring back to Gay’s statement.

The Free Beacon article focused on four articles by Gay: a 1993 essay in Origins, a historical magazine then printed by Brock Publishing International Inc. in Ontario; her 1997 Ph.D. dissertation from her time as a graduate student at Harvard; and two papers she wrote while a professor at Harvard, in 2012 and 2017. Rufo and Brunet’s Substack post only discussed her dissertation.

The Crimson independently reviewed the published allegations. Though some are minor — consisting of passages that are similar or identical to Gay’s sources, lacking quotation marks but including citations — others are more substantial, including some paragraphs and sentences nearly identical to other work and lacking citations.

Some appear to violate Harvard’s current policies around plagiarism and academic integrity.

A Harvard web page titled “What Constitutes Plagiarism?” says that when copying language “word for word from another source,” scholars “must give credit to the author of the source material, either by placing the source material in quotation marks and providing a clear citation, or by paraphrasing the source material and providing a clear citation.”

The Crimson could not confirm whether such policies or similar versions were in place in 1997, when her dissertation was published. Swain did not answer questions about the state of the policy at the time.

Doctoral Dissertation

Both the Free Beacon and the post by Rufo and Brunet said that Gay improperly attributed portions of her 1997 Harvard doctoral dissertation, titled “Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics.”

The Free Beacon accused Gay of lifting two paragraphs from then-Harvard affiliated scholars D. Stephen Voss and Bradley Palmquist’s article “Racial Polarization and Turnout in Louisiana: New Insights from Aggregate Data Analysis.”

One implicated paragraph — a technical description of statistical results — is nearly identical to Voss and Palmquist’s work and differs by only a few select words, including changing “decrease” to “increase” to reflect a different dataset.

The second repeats some exact phrases from Voss and Palmquist’s article while others are rearranged or slightly revised to fit Gay’s dissertation.

At no point in either paragraph does Gay use quotation marks or include in-text citations. Voss and Palmquist are not cited anywhere in Gay’s dissertation.

In an interview Monday night, Voss — who said he taught Gay methods at Harvard while he was a teaching fellow and she was a student — said the work was “technically plagiarism,” but described it as “minor-to-inconsequential.”

Voss, now an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, said he was unbothered by her use of his words because it was a technical description of a quantitative method, the scope of the description was “fairly limited,” and he felt she may have picked up research practices from her instructors.

He added that similar descriptions of technical methods are common throughout academia.

“This doesn’t at all look sneaky,” Voss said. “It looks like maybe she just didn’t have a sense of what we normally tell students they’re supposed to do and not do.”

Palmquist did not respond to a request for comment.

Rufo and Brunet also focused on Gay’s dissertation, writing that the paper “lifts an entire paragraph nearly verbatim” from a paper by Lawrence D. Bobo and Franklin D. Gilliam Jr. as well as other scholars without using quotation marks. They also alleged that Gay plagiarized political scientist Carol M. Swain and Harvard professor Gary King, who was Gay’s dissertation adviser.

They pointed to sections of Gay’s dissertation where she referenced the work of other scholars with nearly identical wording to the original papers, including a citation of the authors but not direct quotes.

In one passage, Gay describes Bobo and Gilliam’s findings using almost their exact language, replacing references to “blacks” with “African-Americans.” She attributes the findings to both scholars by name but only directly quotes the phrase “high black-empowerment.”

But Bobo, King, and Gilliam all said they did not feel Gay plagiarized their work.

In an emailed statement, King — who holds Harvard’s highest faculty rank as a University Professor — called the claims “false and absurd” and “crazy.”

“Her dissertation and every one of the numerous drafts I read leading up to the final version met the highest levels of academic integrity,” he wrote. “If you were going to commit plagiarism, would you plagiarize your professor's work and expect to get away with it?”

Bobo, the dean of Social Science at Harvard, wrote that he is “unconcerned about these claims as our work was explicitly acknowledged.”

When asked about the passage concerning Bobo and Gilliam, King wrote that the essence of plagiarism is passing someone else’s work off as original, which he added was not the case here.

“Is there any sense in which you can’t tell that she is describing Bobo and Gilliam’s article and not her own work in the passage you sent?” King asked.

Gilliam, now the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wrote in an email late Tuesday that “I, too, do not believe it is plagiarism.”

In their Substack post, Rufo and Brunet wrote that Gay also plagiarized from Swain, a political scientist whose work revolves around race relations and politics, specifically citing a reference to a statistic on the House reelection rate.

Rufo and Brunet did not note that Gay cited Swain in the following sentence. Her dissertation reads, “Since the 1950s, the reelection rate for incumbent House members has rarely dipped below 90%. In 1994 it was 92.3% (Swain 1997).”

Though the first sentence appeared nearly verbatim in Swain’s article, titled “Women and Blacks in Congress: 1870-1996,” the second sentence does not. Instead, Swain writes about the reelection rate in 1988, 1990, 1992, and 1994, using different wording than Gay.

Rufo and Brunet further claimed that Gay used similar language to Swain’s 1993 book “Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress,” without including a citation, in describing the concepts of “descriptive representation” and “substantive representation.”

Gay’s description of the two phrases and their role in academic debates over minority representation in politics is followed by a list of 19 citations, though Swain’s book is not among them.

Swain said she believes Gay’s alleged misuse of sources, whether done intentionally or not, fits the description of plagiarism.

“That would be troubling in a Ph.D. dissertation if it was done intentionally, and if it was done accidentally, then it would still be problematic,” Swain said in an interview. “Maybe she didn’t know any better, but it would qualify as plagiarism under Harvard’s own rules.”

Additional Works

In 1993, while still a graduate student at Harvard, Gay published a six-page essay in Origins, the historical magazine, titled “Between Black and White: The Complexity of Brazilian Race Relations.”

Substantial portions of two paragraphs in the piece are worded either exactly the same or have minor changes in wording as a 1992 essay by the historian George Reid Andrews titled “Black Political Protest in São Paulo, 1888-1988.”

In another sentence in the same Origins piece, Gay uses almost the exact same wording in two instances as a 1990 journal article by David Covin, then a professor at California State University, Sacramento, titled “Afrocentricity in O Movimento Negro Unificado.”

Neither article is cited in Gay’s piece, which includes no formal citations. Andrews’ book “Blacks and Whites in Sao Paulo, Brazil” is listed in a box at the end titled “Suggestions for Further Reading,” though his 1992 journal article is not. Covin’s journal article is also not listed in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” section.

It was not clear whether Origins is peer-reviewed.

Andrews, Covin, and the current editors of Origins did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday morning.

The Free Beacon also pointed to Gay’s 2012 article “Moving To Opportunity: the Political Effects of a Housing Mobility Experiment,” published in the Urban Affairs Review. The news site alleged that Gay “borrowed language” from a 2003 report by Abt Associates Inc. and members of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Three of the eight authors work at Harvard.

The Free Beacon identified four instances in her article where Gay had identical or near-identical language as the 2003 report.

In one instance, Gay does not cite the report. In two other instances, which appear in consecutive paragraphs, Gay references the report at the end of the second paragraph as a place to find “similar approaches.” In the fourth instance — where Gay does not use identical language but very similar language as the 2003 report — Gay also does not cite the report.

In a statement, Jeffrey B. Liebman, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and one of the authors of the 2003 report, wrote, “I do not see any signs of plagiarism,” adding that four of his co-authors also do not have any concerns.

“It is not surprising when two researchers describe the same statistical procedure or the same government program using similar language,” Liebman wrote. “As the MTO research unfolded, lots of us contributed to developing and refining the language that we used for these basic descriptions, and all of us, including President Gay, had the right to use and adapt this common language.”

The other seven co-writers of the report did not respond to a request for comment or could not be reached.

According to the Free Beacon, Gay’s 2017 article, “A Room for One’s Own? The Partisan Allocation of Affordable Housing” — also published in the Urban Affairs Review — “borrowed language” from Alex F. Schwartz’s 2010 book “Housing Policy in the United States” and a 2011 paper by Matthew Freedman and Emily G. Owens, both professors at the University of California, Irvine.

One sentence toward the beginning of Gay’s article contains a phrase almost identical to one in Schwartz’s book, with the word “virtually” substituted for “nearly.”

The Free Beacon initially reported that Schwartz was not cited in the paragraph at all, when in fact, his work was cited at the end of the subsequent sentence in Gay’s article. The publication corrected the error after being contacted by The Crimson Monday night.

The report also alleged that Gay’s article plagiarized Freedman and Owens’ paper in her description of a technical metric used in her study. Gay’s phrase is worded almost identically to the language used by Freedman and Owens, save for her inclusion of the word “financial.”

The Urban Affairs Review did not respond to a request for comment Monday evening.

But both Schwartz and Owens, in emails to The Crimson, said they did not consider Gay’s use of their work to be plagiarism.

“In my opinion this excerpt in no way constitutes any resemblance to plagiarism,” Schwartz wrote. “The text merely presents well founded facts about the Low Income Housing Tax Credit.”

Owens wrote that Gay’s adoption of “such short phrases” did not amount to “taking credit for another’s writing or ideas.”

“This is particularly the case when the phrases in question are a brief description of how someone aggregates a variable and a summary observation about a specific technical point,” Owens wrote.

“Something that gives me pause, and that I have encountered a handful of times, are entire paragraphs or multi-sentence footnotes that are presented as an author’s independent conclusion or analysis,” she added. “This does not strike me as the situation with my paper with professor Matthew Freedman.”

Correction: December 19, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that George Reid Andrews, David Covin, and the current editors of Origins did not respond to requests for comment Monday. In fact, Andrews, Covin, and the current editors of Origins did not immedaiately respond to requests for comment Tuesday morning.

Correction: December 19, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 1993 iteration of Origins, a historical magazine, was a joint collaboration between the Ohio State University and Miami University. In fact, in 1993, Origins was printed by Brock Publishing International Inc. in Ontario.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at Follow her on X @nia_orakwue.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on X @eschisgall.

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