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Op Eds

It’s Open Season On Black Academics

Rep. Elise M. Stefanik '06 (R-N.Y.), one of Gay's harshest critics, took to social media to claim credit for Claudine Gay's resignation as Harvard President.
Rep. Elise M. Stefanik '06 (R-N.Y.), one of Gay's harshest critics, took to social media to claim credit for Claudine Gay's resignation as Harvard President. By Miles J. Herszenhorn
By Issac J. Bailey, Contributing Opinion Writer
Issac J. Bailey was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.

It’s obvious what must happen now that Claudine Gay has resigned from Harvard’s presidency. All institutions of higher education must commission independent reviews into the work of their respective presidents, tenured faculty, and other top academic officials. They must weed out anyone who made citation errors like Gay — even if these errors were minor, and even if they were made decades ago.

The new standard is not excellence, not brilliance, but perfection.

To commit to anything less would be to admit that Gay was singled out for being a Black woman. To do anything other than dust off the dissertations and research papers of every academic in a leadership position — leaving racist, sexist, and ableist stones unturned — would be to acknowledge that what happened to Gay wasn’t about upholding academic integrity.

These reviews can’t simply investigate potential incidents of plagiarism. Given that college campuses are rapidly diversifying, the investigations must also address other errors that may undermine institutional integrity. A white faculty member who wore blackface in 1995? Slurred a Black colleague or fellow student with the n-word in 1998? Maybe “owned” someone in the 1850s? They should all be shunned — the living fired and all memory of the dead erased. After all, we wouldn’t want non-traditional — read: non-white — students to get the impression that imperfect people can guide them into adulthood.

But let’s be clear. Gay’s infractions pale in comparison to those listed above and even in comparison to other, more severe forms of plagiarism. Sloppy citations should hardly raise questions about one’s academic integrity. This is what’s so grating about this saga: Gay was pressured to resign largely on the basis of slight academic misdemeanors.

Her resignation sends a sobering message: Harvard is not capable of standing firm in the face of external pressure from bad actors. When it came to bending to the billionaire-backed right, or defending its own leader, a Black woman under relentless racist attack, Harvard chose the former.

This was never just about Gay. The right-wing, racist campaign for her resignation is led by those who forged an attack on crucial work to uproot harmful traditions, undo entrenched inequalities, and replace these systemic evils with something resembling equity and equality.

No one ever gave a darn about sloppy citations in Gay’s 1997 dissertation. The people most adamant about ensuring Gay would have the shortest presidential tenure in Harvard history are the same people who support laws and policies designed to suppress the accurate teaching of this country’s racist past and present. They’re the same people allied with those who want young students to believe Black people benefited from enslavement.

These bad actors want to turn back the clock and force everyone to accept their ideologically narrow, twisted definition of academic truth. With Gay’s resignation, they’ve secured a real win for their cause.

As I watched this saga play out from afar, I yearned for the moment Gay would scream “kiss my Black ass,” a message to her bad-faith critics that she belonged and would not relent, even as the winds howled. That she would let excellence be her guide and brilliance be her anchor. How I longed for her to remind everyone that one doesn’t just become the first Black woman to lead Harvard without proving oneself first.

Instead, Gay’s resignation has reinforced a cruel reality: Black people must be superhero-like to gain society’s permission to walk the same path that others — with much less to overcome — have been welcomed onto with open arms.

Gay’s resignation signals that not even Harvard — with its unparalleled prestige and enormous endowment — could purchase the kind of spine that higher education needs in the face of vitriolic external pressure and extremist interests. Make no mistake: Her departure opens the door for increased attacks. There’s blood in the water, and the sharks are circling.

Issac J. Bailey was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.

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