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Editorials

President Gay Plagiarized, but She Should Stay. For Now.

Harvard President Claudine Gay testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce earlier this month about combatting antisemitism on campus. The committee is also investigating allegations of plagiarism against Gay.
Harvard President Claudine Gay testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce earlier this month about combatting antisemitism on campus. The committee is also investigating allegations of plagiarism against Gay. By Miles J. Herszenhorn
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Following the earthquake that was the uproar over University President Claudine Gay’s testimony before Congress on antisemitism, serious allegations against Gay’s scholarly work now produce an aftershock forceful enough to again threaten her job and Harvard’s reputation.

What began with a Substack post alleging sloppy citation in four of Gay’s academic works, including her PhD dissertation, has now become a focus in the mainstream media. Most major national publications have covered the controversy, and the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic have all run op-eds calling for President Gay’s departure.

At the epicenter is Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black president and second woman president, who began her tenure less than six months ago. Reporting by several organizations has leveled more than a dozen plagiarism allegations against her work, primarily concerning her PhD dissertation and two of her 11 published journal articles.

The allegations mostly occur in passages summarizing technical methods. They include missing quotation marks around others’ language, incomplete attribution of few-word phrases, and, in a handful of cases, copying multiple-sentence passages nearly verbatim from other authors.

The Harvard Corporation, the University’s top governing body, conceded Gay’s work contains “duplicative language without appropriate attribution,” and Gay has now made seven corrections across the work in question.

Though we remain duly impressed with President Gay’s academic accomplishments — from earning tenure at both Harvard and Stanford to receiving best-in-field awards for both her undergraduate thesis and PhD dissertation — we are deeply concerned by these allegations and are convinced some of them are indeed plagiarism.

All plagiarism is wrong and antithetical to our University’s academic mission. But not all plagiarism is equal.

Plagiarism offenses lie on a spectrum. As defined by Harvard’s undergraduate “Guide to Using Sources,” it includes both misrepresentation of others’ ideas as one’s own and misattribution of borrowed material. Both matter, but the latter category, into which Gay’s allegations fall, is less serious by far.

Whereas passing off another’s academic ideas as one’s own constitutes gross misconduct and indicates malice, failing to insert quotation marks in a summary of a cited study or duplicating language to describe technical methods suggests only negligence.

To be clear, sloppiness of this kind is unbefitting of a Harvard president. Still, as an independent review found, Gay’s violations clearly seem to lack the intent to steal or deceive that would elevate them to the level of research misconduct, and many of the academics whose work Gay improperly cited have either downplayed the severity of the offense or outright rejected their characterization as plagiarism.

(Their words should be taken with a grain of salt, however: The New York Times reported that academics more skeptical of Gay’s offenses refuse to go on the record, likely because of her powerful position.)

A sober-minded assessment of the plagiarism charges indicates that Gay’s behavior constitutes plagiarism, but since the errors do not appear intentional, they do not warrant her resignation.

Because we still have faith in our president as a scholar, because we regard her plagiarism as limited and unintentional, and because we recognize that a stopgap interim president would bring chaos instead of needed stability, we do not believe President Gay should resign.

At least, not now.

***

We also oppose President Gay’s resignation because we are not blind to what has driven this news cycle — a national outrage manufactured by conservative activists intent on discrediting higher education.

As a Board deeply dedicated to academic integrity, we take Gay’s plagiarism seriously. But it would be journalistic malpractice to comment on the allegations without noting that they have only generated such fierce uproar because bad-faith actors already wanted Gay’s head.

Like the issue of antisemitism on campus, Gay’s academic misconduct deserves serious discussion. Instead, like the issue of antisemitism on campus, it has been deployed by conservative activists as a trojan horse to further their all-out assault on higher education.

Don’t believe us? Take them at their word.

Conservative outrage artist Christopher F. Ruf0 — the very same Christopoher F. Rufo who incited the embarrassing national epidemic of book-banning with patently false accusations that elementary schools are teaching an advanced academic theory on race — was among the first to level the plagiarism allegations.

Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, Rufo said that he and his Substack co-author waited to surface their allegations until “the precise moment of maximum impact,” which came when the Harvard Corporation met to decide Gay’s future.

We would do well to listen to Rufo when he tells us, directly and unambiguously, that he is doing this to punish Harvard and, in turn, higher education for their ‘wokeness.’

Many of the recent calls for Gay’s resignation suggest or allege outright that she was a “diversity hire” or a product of “DEI extremism.” The blatant racism of these criticisms only corroborates that they come in bad faith.

Not only is that insulting and unfair — it is patently untrue. Gay’s top-quality scholarship and four years of experience leading Harvard’s largest administrative unit make her eminently qualified for her post. Most importantly, Gay rose to the top of a presidential search that included dozens of highly-qualified candidates and surely other highly-qualified candidates of color.

Coming from critics with apparently little knowledge of her background, her character, or the process that selected her, these attacks barely attempt to disguise their malicious, race-baiting, and opportunistic crusade against Harvard.

In perhaps the most disheartening development, our nation’s representatives have responded with gusto.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently announced it has widened its investigation into antisemitism at Harvard to now include the plagiarism allegations.

We are left wondering: Since when did the definition of antisemitism expand to include plagiarism? And how is Congress helping the American people by setting the precedent that it can crown itself arbiter of plagiarism claims? And where, exactly, in the Constitution did the Framers suggest that Congress — in its spare time between legislating and providing meaningful oversight — scrutinize the scholarship of a private educational institution’s president?

In broadening their investigation, the committee again confirms that their inquiry into Harvard is just another front in our nation’s culture wars. Indeed, the insincerity of the committee’s commitment to combating campus antisemitism now becomes evident with this totally-unrelated excursus into Gay’s academic record.

That many of Gay’s most vocal critics are driven by ulterior motives does not diminish the concerns about her academic integrity, and we do not draw attention to those motives to dismiss them.

In fact, it is just the reverse: Only by recognizing and setting aside the malice of the uproar and focusing instead on the merits of the allegations can we have an honest, fair, and intellectually-serious conversation about how to proceed.

***

As it navigates this saga, Harvard must be guided by its commitment to veritas — to the unwavering and unfearful pursuit of truth and knowledge.

So far, Harvard’s response to the plagiarism allegations has not lived up to these ideals. Truth requires transparency, and ironically, the Corporation has responded to allegations of intransparency in Gay’s academic work with intransparency of its own.

When the Corporation received the press inquiry from the New York Post notifying it of the allegations against Gay, one of the secretive body’s first reactions was threatening to sue. When Gay asked the Corporation to commission an independent review of her work — itself a commendable step — the Corporation declined to identify the outside experts it tapped. And when the Corporation received and acted upon the results of that review, it published only a scant summary of its conclusions.

Amid raging national backlash — and declining public faith in higher education — we expect far better from the highest governing body of our nation’s foremost university.

Thankfully, the moment has not yet passed; the Corporation can still course-correct.

When the vultures circled Gay earlier this month over trumped-up criticisms of her congressional testimony, we implored that Harvard must not yield. Now, as the same opportunists lob similarly spurious criticisms, we entreat the Corporation: Do not yield. Stand tall against the pressure from the pundits, politicians, and donors. Decide Gay’s future on the basis of a staid, fair judgment of her ability to continue.

As an ethical matter, we do not believe the plagiarism allegations merit Gay’s resignation. But practical considerations matter too. To demonstrate that she can continue effectively in her post, Gay must prove she can rebuild relationships with politicians, donors, and the public at large.

Only time will tell whether Gay can weather this earthquake, recover from scandal, and get the University back on track. Our 30th president still has a long road ahead. We should wait to see where it leads.

For now, Gay should stay.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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