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Updated: December 29, 2023, at 9:49 p.m.
Harvard threatened to sue the New York Post for defamation over accusations of plagiarism against President Claudine Gay in October, calling the claims “demonstrably false.” Then, the University’s own review found several instances of “duplicative language” in Gay’s work.
Now, the University is under fire for allegedly attempting to suppress claims of inadequate citation it later found were, at least in part, credible.
Harvard was first informed that the Post was pursuing a story about 27 “possible examples of plagiarism” against Gay through a press inquiry sent Oct. 24. At the time, the Post did not provide a source for the allegations, which had been circulating on anonymous chat forums since at least December 2022, accompanied by racial epithets and conspiracy theories.
In response, the University’s outside counsel, Clare Locke — a high-powered law firm specializing in defamation lawsuits — wrote in a letter to the Post that the alleged instances of plagiarism included in the media inquiry were “both cited and properly credited,” according to excerpts from the letter published Friday by the Post.
“These allegations of plagiarism are demonstrably false,” the letter says.
In the letter, Clare Locke also threatened future legal action against the New York Post.
“Why would someone making such a complaint be unwilling to attach their name to it?” the letter says.
On Oct. 29, five days after the New York Post’s initial comment request, Gay requested the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — lead an independent review of the articles included in the publication’s media inquiry, according to a summary of the review released last week.
That review, whose findings were shared with the full Corporation on Dec. 9, found “instances of inadequate citation” in two published articles.
The allegations of plagiarism remained unpublicized even as Gay’s presidency was further engulfed in controversy over her handling of tensions over the Israel-Hamas conflict and antisemitism on Harvard’s campus.
But beginning Dec. 10, as the Corporation met to decide Gay’s fate in the presidency in the wake of her controversial congressional testimony, public accusations of plagiarism against Gay began to swirl, first from conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo, and later in articles by the Washington Free Beacon and the Post.
On Dec. 12, in a statement backing Gay as president, the Corporation acknowledged findings of improper citation. The statement also indicated Gay would make corrections to two articles, which she submitted on Dec. 14. One week later, Harvard announced Gay would also submit corrections to her dissertation.
Still, the summary of the review said the passages at issue, “while regrettable, did not constitute research misconduct,” which had to involve “intentional deception or recklessness.”
Some of the corrections Gay submitted to her publications refer to works named in the Post’s Dec. 12 article, though The Crimson was unable to obtain a copy of the Post’s initial media inquiry.
The admission of improper citations marks an about-face for the University, which initially said that the Post’s anonymous allegations of plagiarism were unsubstantiated.
In the letter from Clare Locke, the University said some of the authors whose work Gay allegedly lifted quotes from without proper citation said they did not feel as though Gay had plagiarized their articles.
“The statements of these scholars, and their own plainly stated conclusions about the use of their work, should end the inquiry,” the letter says.
The letter says that “the proposed article must not be published,” adding that it could cause “immense emotional and reputational damages” to Gay.
Thomas A. Clare, a partner at Clare Lock, wrote in a statement that the firm's letter “responded only to specific passages identified by the Post on October 24” with statements from quoted scholars who disputed the plagiarism charge.
“The Post gave no pushback to those first-person statements and made its own decision, based on then-existing information and its own editorial judgment, whether to move forward with its reporting,” Clare wrote.
The Post waited until allegations of plagiarism publicly emerged against Gay before it published its article.
The use of Clare Locke, whose other clients have included voting-machine manufacturer Dominion Voting Systems, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and ex-NBC anchor Matt Lauer, represents a growing willingness from Harvard to rely on third parties for damage control as the school’s leadership has become embroiled in scandal.
Harvard hired public relations giant Edelman to advise the school’s messaging over the Israel-Hamas conflict, The Crimson reported earlier this month, and both crisis communications guru Risa Heller and white-shoe law firm WilmerHale prepped Gay for her testimony before Congress.
But Clare Locke’s exchange with the Post has only cast further scrutiny on the University’s handling of the plagiarism allegations and added fuel to a campaign to discredit and remove Gay from her post.
Rufo — who has said he timed the publication of his initial allegations of plagiarism to do maximal damage to Gay’s presidency — wrote on X that Harvard’s lawyers “bullied the Post into silence.”
Billionaire Harvard donor Bill A. Ackman ’88 — who has repeatedly called for Gay’s resignation since her congressional testimony — wrote on X that “@Harvard misled and threatened the @nypost with litigation to get it to kill an article which alleged that President Gay had committed plagiarism.”
“This reflects very poorly on the Corporation,” Ackman added.
A Harvard University spokesperson declined to release the full letter from Clare Locke or to comment for this article.
—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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