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As the culture wars lurch on, the right has found a perfect weapon with which to hit the university — taken straight from the academy’s arsenal itself: claims of plagiarism.
Harvard’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sherri A. Charleston faces accusations of 40 counts of plagiarism — allegations that bear striking similarities to those levied against former University President Claudine Gay just weeks ago.
We have harshly and unconditionally condemned plagiarism — and we continue to do so here. While Charleston’s role may be administrative rather than academic, her academic record has been called into question, and Harvard must respond accordingly, lest it repeat the mistakes it made with Gay.
Far away from our Cambridge campus, however, conservative commentators are deploying these plagiarism charges as tools in their siege on diversity initiatives.
Following the allegations against Charleston, Christopher Brunet — one of the first journalists to publish a story accusing Gay of plagiarism — seized the opportunity to denigrate diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts: “Here is a crazy idea: rather than replace her, just eliminate the position” of chief diversity officer, he wrote on X.
You might be wondering: How does plagiarism in a 15-year-old dissertation implicate diversity, equity, or inclusion?
There’s the rub: Plagiarism has absolutely nothing to do with DEI.
And plagiarism allegations against one diversity officer are not an indictment of diversity, equity, and inclusion writ large. (Much the same way that plagiarism accusations against one designer, who incidentally is the wife of an outspoken hedge fund manager, does not discredit the design industry as a whole.)
Today’s right-wing activists are conflating academic dishonesty with DEI — a necessary response to Harvard’s legacy of exclusion — in an attempt to kneecap higher education and diversity programs nationwide.
At universities, where the scholarly enterprise is predicated on academic integrity, brandishing plagiarism allegations against university employees is uniquely effective at discrediting personnel. The genius of these attacks is that they corner Harvard between condoning academic dishonesty and conceding to conservative efforts smearing DEI campaigns.
Now, with rapidly-advancing digital tools, plagiarism-hunting is only getting easier. The type of plagiarism of which Gay and Charleston have been accused — involving copied language — is the kind most easily detected by software.
It strains the imagination to believe that similar misconduct is limited exclusively to two prominent Black women. Running through every academic’s record with a fine-tooth comb would surely reveal more instances of substandard citations or scholarly sloppiness.
Yet Gay and Charleston in particular have been singled out as figureheads for DEI, subjected to racist and sexist vitriol, and, in the case of Gay, carelessly cast to the wayside as collateral damage in a larger attack on universities.
Moving forward, Harvard must make sure that plagiarism attacks fail for lack of ammunition. If conservative organizations — or even muckraking journalists — can run extremely extensive plagiarism checks, Harvard can too during its hiring process.
Our university must ensure that future employees are unimpeachable through better vetting — not only to uphold our values of academic integrity, but also to ensure that this newfound weapon in the war on higher education can no longer be deployed.
Academic integrity is not only what’s at stake; it’s the entire academic project too.
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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