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Give Me a Vengeful Harvard

Searching for Harvard

By Miles J. Herszenhorn
By Lorenzo Z. Ruiz, Crimson Opinion Writer
Lorenzo Z. Ruiz ’27, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Greenough Hall. His column, “Searching for Harvard,” runs bi-weekly on Mondays.

The morning after Harvard President Claudine Gay’s resignation, an op-ed of mine ran in The Crimson. In that piece, I labeled President Gay a failure.

Though I did and do feel sure of that judgment, it was not one I made lightly. I admired President Gay. For me, as for many students at Harvard and across the country, she promised the dawn of a new age in academia.

Her inauguration felt like a vindication. If a Black woman could ascend to the most esteemed post in American higher education, perhaps the academic project — that bastion of free intellectual innovation and competition — was entering a new chapter, one that would be more diverse and meritocratic, the antithesis of the white, rich “Old Boys’ Club” Harvard once epitomized. Perhaps this institution really would keep pace with a changing world with changing values.

But fantasies are often fleeting.

President Gay fumbled the administration’s response to Hamas’ terrorism in October. A mood of anxiety, mistrust, and division beset our campus. She failed at brokering peace among her students. She foundered in her defense of academic free speech before Congress. And, it later came to light, she had plagiarized.

The decline of her tenure came at the hands of a bad-faith assault by the American right against her, our university, and higher education at large, with the plagiarism allegations fueling that offensive to completion.

Yes, President Gay faced great obstacles.

Her status as a Black woman with power made her a lightning rod for the most vitriolic, hateful rhetoric and devious scheming this nation has to offer. She faced a slick, conniving, relentless opposition hell-bent on discrediting higher education.

Still, she wasn’t up to snuff. She was not media savvy, she cracked on camera, she had skeletons in her closet. President Gay could not be the champion of free, inclusive, forward-thinking education we so desperately needed her to be at a moment when higher education is under attack. That is unfair and it is tragic, but it is what happened.

Right now, the anti-intellectual right is winning. The likes of Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) and Christopher F. Rufo endeavored to topple us, to sully our image, to make us monsters worthy not just of criticism but of destruction. Demagogues posing as concerned citizens sought to subjugate the academic project and force its leaders to bow to their will.

They got what they wanted. For now, they have made Harvard — their chosen symbol for everything “woke” and frivolous — cower in shame. Harvard is weary and unpopular and vulnerable.

American higher education has lost the battle, but we must not lose sight of the war. Gay’s presidency needed to end, and that end must clarify for us a new path forward.

Harvard’s leadership has a decision to make. They can kowtow to the right and perpetuate the campaign of apology and defense. That would be easy. Pull some white male professor from a broom closet, tap a statue, or appoint ChatGPT and have it generate 95 admissions of sin to staple on the doors of Widener Library. We could easily wash our hands of this chapter in Harvard history and return our attention to the Ancients.

Yes, the constant political controversy would end. But the sacred purpose of the university would dim, empowering all those who loathe knowledge and discovery to caper with our leash in hand.

Stefanik and Rufo want a Harvard that is comatose, a collection of red brick buildings and VHS-taped lectures. It is silent and solemn and submissive — an easy-to-understand, uncontroversial institution that produces straightforwardly useful research and doesn’t obstruct their political agenda.

That outcome terrifies me. It would spell the death not just of Harvard but of the American university itself. Our raison d’etre is to serve as a sandbox, a sanctified, protected testing ground for everything novel and brilliant and outrageous to be nurtured from infancy.

But when storm clouds brew and waves tower, the sandbox needs more than a hall monitor — it needs a swordswoman and a stateswoman.

That figure must be unimpeachable and calculating, aggressive and certain, suave and convincing. She must not sit idle, must not merely hold the line, but rather must mount a campaign against the forces that brought down her predecessor.

She must be unrelenting and unabashed, forever mindful of our mission. Harvard must meet this perilous moment not with more of the same but with unprecedented fervor.

Our president must be aggressive. Must train for congressional hearings like a boxer. Must testify — at the Capitol and on television, in the paper and on the streets — with gusto and zeal for our cause.

Our president must know that Harvard is at war with the right and losing. The place of the university as a dynamic, disruptive engine for human progress hangs in the balance.

Harvard’s next president must carry vengeance in her words. She must fight to keep us free.

Lorenzo Z. Ruiz ’27, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Greenough Hall. His column, “Searching for Harvard,” runs bi-weekly on Mondays.

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