Multimedia

In Photos: Harvard’s 373rd Commencement Exercises

News

Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

News

Former Harvard President Bacow, Maria Ressa to Receive Honorary Degrees at Commencement

News

‘A’ Game: How Harvard Recruits its Student-Athletes

News

Interim Harvard President Alan Garber Takes the Political Battle to Washington

Editorials

Harvard Must Learn The Lessons of President Gay’s Troubled Tenure.

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.

Barely a year after then-FAS Dean Claudine Gay learned she would hold the highest position in American academia, she has resigned from her position as president of Harvard University.

After months of rancor and turmoil, Harvard again confronts the question: What comes next?

On one hand, we look forward to a new beginning.

We are tired of non-stop national news coverage, of personal and often racist attacks against our president, of bad-faith journalism sensationalizing our school, and of red herrings that distract from real, tangible issues. We also know The Crimson’s incredible team of news writers are tired, figuratively and literally. We commend their diligent work covering our university these past few months, including in recent weeks over their winter break.

On the other hand, we cannot simply proceed and forget. Concrete, enduring realities brought us here and will remain with us long into the tenure of whoever may succeed Gay. Harvard’s future — and the future of higher education writ large — demands that we respond to them with courage and probity as we go forth into this new day.

Claudine Gay’s short and troubled tenure lays bare the cracks in Harvard’s present foundation. Political opportunists exploited them. Now, we must fix them.

***

We will remember Gay’s tenure as imperfect.

It was punctuated by tumult, controversy, and conflict on our campus. We wrote that she was imperfect in her congressional testimony, and we criticized her for plagiarizing — though seemingly without intention — in several of her scholarly works. We felt the hurt of these past several months and, listening to the arguments they brought, we understand the sentiment that, as Gay said in her farewell email, it was “in the best interests of Harvard” that she resign.

But make no mistake: This resignation is no incrimination of Gay as an academic fraud, an antisemite, or the wrong hire at the time.

Gay launched her academic career with glittering accolades, earned tenure early at Stanford University, came to Harvard and — unquestionably by virtue of her ability — rose rapidly through its administrative ranks. Mistakes in her response to Oct. 7 and sloppiness in her academic record prematurely ended her presidency.

The criticisms she faced had merit, but their merits did not end her presidency — a campaign of ugly and racist political opportunism did.

In the last several months, we watched as the same outrage artists who have sought to discredit public education with false accusations about Critical Race Theory trained their sights on Gay, Harvard’s first Black president. We watched, pained, as these politicians and activists would pivot from legitimate criticisms of her performance to racist and baseless smears of her character and ability.

We struggle to imagine their attacks would have been so vitriolic were the president in question a white man. Worse, the foot soldiers of this campaign continue to reveal that they use racism to cynically further their assaults on higher education and racial equity.

Earlier this week, the Board observed how Christopher F. Rufo had admitted on X that his intention in leveling the plagiarism allegations against Gay was to bring her down. Today, in an echo of Rufo’s post, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) took no time at all to convert the news about Gay to fundraising fodder for her fans.

“I will always deliver results,” she wrote on X. “Our robust Congressional investigation will continue to move forward to expose the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions and deliver accountability to the American people.”

As we said with Rufo, we now say again with Stefanik: Listen to these extremists when they tell you directly and unambiguously who they are and what they are doing.

This is an assault on higher education. It employs the cheapest, most foul tactics American politics has to offer. And it will not end with Claudine Gay’s presidency.

The motives of these attacks do not detract from genuine criticisms of Gay’s tenure. We also criticized Gay — at times, sharply — and we know that many others did so in good faith. Indeed, we hope the standards of academic integrity to which Gay was held will be enforced on every scholar, student, and university leader without regard to their race, gender, and politics.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to single out the bad-faith actors who never really cared about the substance of the criticisms against Gay, because they are not going away. As Harvard considers what must come next, it must do so with an eye on the dire and continuing threat of this assault.

***

For months, the world has wanted to control what happens at Harvard.

Pundits, politicians, hedge fund managers, and others demanded Gay’s resignation. Now that they’ve received it, we say: enough. It is time that the University reassert its sovereignty, learn from the lessons of these sordid months, and refocus on the perspectives that come from within its community — students, especially — rather than those shouted from far beyond.

These reforms must begin with the process for making reforms in the first place.

Public trust in elite institutions like our own has long been in decline. In many ways, it produced the controversy with Gay that now steepens the nosedive. To stanch this existentially threatening trend, Harvard must commit to public accountability and transparency.

That starts at the top. As Gay has borne the crushing weight of this saga, the secretive Harvard Corporation has kept largely to the shadows. To fulfill its mandate to serve the wider world, the University’s governing body must step into the light by engaging actively with the University community and the general public.

It can begin by setting the record straight about its part in this saga. The past several weeks have surfaced concerns that the Corporation threatened to sue the New York Post to cover up the plagiarism allegations and have drawn new attention to the unusual brevity of the search process it ran to select her as president.

The Corporation owes the nation insight into both of these unanswered questions. More fundamentally, it should consider how it can alter its structure and practices to embrace transparency, beginning with the selection process for Gay’s successor.

The Corporation does not have a boss. Only the University community and the public can hold it to account. That requires it pull back the curtain.

***

Between interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 and whomever the Corporation chooses to succeed him, the University must redouble its commitment to protecting its students and cultivating an environment of academic freedom and free speech that can persist through even the most trying times.

One of the lessons of this episode is the danger posed by conflicts that turn our campus against itself.

Too often, the University’s response to the campus events following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks have only served to divide us further, reproducing a binary national discourse that opposes Jews and Palestianians and flattens their perspectives.

We see this fallacy in Gay’s move to create a committee on antisemitism that did not represent a diversity of views in the Jewish community while failing to treat the bigotry and doxxing that so many of our Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim peers faced.

So often, these forms of hate depend on one another and operate on the same logic. The interim administration and the one to follow should heed this by rectifying these mistakes and responding to hatred in all its forms with a focus on unity and collaboration.

At the same time, Harvard must not allow free discourse to become a casualty in its efforts against hate. This low point in the University’s history cannot become a justification to restrict student expression, non-violent protest in particular.

By pursuing policies that soothe division rather than accentuate it and by protecting controversial student speakers from doxxing and intimidation, Harvard can create the conditions for student discourse to be vibrant, empathetic, and constructive.

The events of the past several months also teach us that opinions should be the province of people on campus — not the University itself.

While it can be attractive to do away with institutional neutrality to take stances on issues that elicit little disagreement — like Harvard’s embrace of Ukraine following Russia’s widely-condemned invasion — these actions elicit demands that the University respond to every major political issue. Harvard’s reckless statement-releasing directly produced the cavalcade of failed emails from President Gay that drew such national attention, to the great detriment of our campus discourse. As it walks into its next chapter, Harvard must reckon with these issues to reach a final position on institutional neutrality.

For the sake of Harvard and higher education, the University’s leadership must learn from these darkest of days in its recent history. Its walls have been breached. Its president has been chased out. Its enemies, cynical and mendacious, claim triumph.

Interim President Garber must initiate the process of rebuilding a Harvard that is wiser, more thoughtful, and more courageous. We will scrutinize him as we did Claudine Gay and have done all of the leaders that preceded her: with nuance, fairness, and honesty.

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.

Have a suggestion, question, or concern for The Crimson Editorial Board? Click here.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Editorials