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A photo illustration of silhouettes of men transposed over snippets of anonymous complaints against scholars and diversity, equity and inclusion officials.

Anonymous complaints have targeted officials or scholars at prestigious institutions who either work in diversity, equity and inclusion or have studied the subject.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed|Vectorig/Getty Images|The Washington Free Beacon|City Journal

This year began with a seismic event in higher education: Claudine Gay resigned as Harvard University’s first Black president after Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and leading crusader against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, publicized plagiarism allegations against her.

“We have obtained exclusive documentation demonstrating that President Gay may face yet another problem: plagiarism” Rufo and co-author Christopher Brunet had written on Rufo’s Substack site. They didn’t say where the “exclusive documentation” came from. But the allegations quickly went mainstream in a big way, with The New York Times running multiple articles and op-eds on the allegations, while the seriousness of the claims against Gay were hotly debated.

At the time, Gay was already being nationally excoriated after a House hearing in December where she said it depends on the context when asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard’s speech rules. Her resignation was followed by high-profile allegations against a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who’s married to one of Gay’s most prominent critics, which fueled concerns over a coming “plagiarism war” with the right and left lobbing accusations at scholars on the other team.

The war, so far, looks like a one-sided affair. Rufo and conservative media outlets have published multiple accusations of plagiarism and research misconduct, several of which appear serious and have made splashes in major mainstream media outlets. They’ve all been backed by anonymous complaints, and they’re all against officials or scholars at prestigious institutions who either work in DEI or have studied race and equity.

Six of the seven are Black. Among them are Harvard’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer and her husband, who’s the chief diversity officer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They also include the chief DEI officer for staff at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. If you add Gay to the seven, four are Black women at Harvard.

“Let’s not ignore the pattern: This is the fourth black female CRT [critical race theory]/DEI scholar to be accused of plagiarism at Harvard,” Rufo posted on X last month after his latest accusations. “We need further research, including a control group of more rigorous fields, but initial reports suggest that the grievance disciplines are rife with fraud.”

Rufo had tried to find white DEI scholars to target, he said, and come up empty. “I have asked my source to also search the academic work of white scholars in grievance departments at Harvard and, thus far, they have not turned up plagiarism. This is not a large-scale study, but it’s certainly plausible that lower academic standards for ‘diversity and inclusion’ hires could be correlated with a disparity in plagiarism and other forms of academic incompetence. This is, in one way, definitional to DEI hiring.”

There’s a reason he’s focused on DEI and “grievance departments,” Rufo said. “I am demonstrating that an academic discipline and its bureaucratic counterpart is not only wrong philosophically—which I argued in my book—but also rife with fraud, which helps make the argument for terminating continued public subsidy,” he wrote. “I am very open about the political objectives of my work, so there is no duplicity or misdirection. I’d be happy if other journalists investigated other disciplines, but this is the focus of my work.”

Rufo responded to Inside Higher Ed’s interview requests and questions about his aims and sources with an email saying “Kindly fuck off. Gratefully, Christopher.”

Observers such as Isaac Kamola, director of the Center for the Defense of Academic Freedom at the American Association of University Professors, see “a coordinated attack” behind it all. He said “it’s clear there’s a bunch of resources, there’s somebody who has a lot of money, plagiarism software,” and is fishing for misconduct.

Kamola also founded Faculty First Responders, which monitors about a dozen conservative websites that write about higher education and offers aid to faculty members mentioned in these articles. He said complaints about issues like harassment require anonymity for the accuser, but that people should put their names behind complaints about the merits of scholarship.

“If it’s being done through an anonymous complaint process, then that indicates to me that it’s a political hit job,” he said. “It’s a mockery of academic peer review.” An allegation of plagiarism “needs to be evaluated outside of a right-wing ecosystem that is committed to destroying the careers of Black scholars,” he said.

So far, the post-Gay allegations have not prompted resignations—at least none that have been made public. None of the universities that employ the accused academicians answered Inside Higher Ed’s questions about whether they had been disciplined. Investigations may be ongoing.

Ivan Oransky, a Distinguished Journalist in Residence at New York University and co-founder of the Retraction Watch news site, said he hasn’t dug into the various allegations himself. But he said at least some look potentially serious, based on the opinions of experts he trusts.

“It can be both true that a group is trying to shut down DEI and that the people whose work they’re targeting did commit plagiarism,” Oransky said. “The fact that people are targeted [for] speeding doesn’t mean they weren’t speeding, it just means that you’re targeting people in a very biased way.”

The Playbook

In a Politico interview the day of Gay’s resignation, Rufo detailed the way he and others helped bring down Gay. He said he had run the same playbook before, and that it would work again. His “primary objective” going forward, he proclaimed, was to “eliminate the DEI bureaucracy in every institution in America and to restore truth rather than racialist ideology as the guiding principle of America.”

Rufo characterized the push to oust the Harvard president as a team effort. “Narrative leverage,” he said, came primarily from himself and Brunet, his co-author on the Substack piece, and Aaron Sibarium, a writer for the conservative Washington Free Beacon. Rufo said his and Brunet’s Substack piece made the plagiarism allegations “the top story for a number of weeks in conservative media and right-wing media. But I knew that in order to achieve my objective, we had to get the narrative into the left-wing media.”

After the left at first “ignored the story,” he said, “I engaged in a kind of a thoughtful and substantive campaign of shaming and bullying my colleagues on the left to take” it seriously. Then, “CNN, BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications started to do the actual work of exposing Gay’s plagiarism, and then you see this beautiful kind of flowering of op-eds from all of those publications calling on Gay to resign.” He said his targeting of Gay “had nothing to do with her race or sex.”

Who’s funding this campaign to tear down DEI, if anyone? It’s unclear.

After Gay resigned and Business Insider published allegations Jan. 4 against Neri Oxman, the former MIT professor, Bill Ackman—Oxman’s billionaire husband and a vocal critic of Gay and DEI—announced he’d launch a plagiarism review of all faculty members and others at MIT. He then suggested a “deep dive into academic integrity at Harvard” and other elite institutions.

Is Ackman involved in this spate of plagiarism and research misconduct allegations? A spokesman for Pershing Square Capital Management, of which Ackman is chief executive officer, told Inside Higher Ed in an email that “Bill has absolutely nothing to do with this whatsoever.”

The Free Beacon broke the stories on five of the scholars accused of plagiarism or research misconduct—with Rufo immediately amplifying its articles. Sibarium, the author of most of those stories, wrote in response to an interview request that “We stand by our reporting—and we don’t comment on our sources.” His editor-in-chief, Eliana Johnson, said the Free Beacon didn’t coordinate or work with Rufo or Brunet.

‘It’s Not Just Claudine Gay’

Gay’s resignation and the allegations against Oxman came in the first week of January. Things seemed to go quiet until Jan. 30, when the Free Beacon published a story on plagiarism and research fraud accusations against Sherri Charleston, the Harvard chief diversity and inclusion officer. The story also implicated her husband, LaVar Charleston, who is UW Madison’s chief diversity officer, with accusations of trying to pass off his old research as new, and Jerlando F. L. Jackson, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education, with allegations of taking credit for work he didn’t do. All are Black.

“It’s not just Claudine Gay,” Sibarium’s article begins. He cites an anonymous complaint sent to Harvard but also “a Washington Free Beacon analysis” of the accusations. He interviews a plagiarism expert and calls the accused and others for comment. Unlike the type of article many other conservative sites might publish, it suggests Sibarium did real reporting, something he’s won plaudits for before.

(LaVar Charleston and Jackson didn’t respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment Friday. A UW Madison spokesperson said the university had received the complaint against LaVar Charleston and would follow policy, but also that he’s “a valued member” of the university “leadership team and we continue to support his work.” A Harvard spokesman answered the interview request sent to Sherri Charleston, saying he had no further comment beyond the university’s statement. That statement said Harvard has procedures “for responding to complaints related to allegations of research misconduct,” but it doesn’t “comment on individual cases or on the existence of investigations.”)

It was the start of what would become a pattern. Big conservative media outlets such as National Review, the New York Post and Fox News quickly spread accusations, followed by mainstream outlets including The Boston Globe and NBC News, all citing the Free Beacon.

Two weeks later, in an aberration, The Harvard Crimson student newspaper broke the story of an anonymous complaint to the university alleging Shirley Greene, a Harvard Extension School administrator who handles Title IX complaints, had plagiarized in her diversity-focused dissertation. The newspaper noted the trend from Gay, to Sherri Charleston, to Greene: “All three anonymous complaints … were leveled at Black women who hold or held leadership positions.”

The Crimson reported that Greene was accused of plagiarizing, among others, Sylvia Hurtado, a University of California, Los Angeles professor who was on Greene’s doctoral committee. But Hurtado told the newspaper that she didn’t consider herself to have been plagiarized.

The Free Beacon didn’t publish an article focusing on Greene, but Rufo did. “I have obtained the full complaint, which paints a much more damning indictment of Greene’s scholarship than the student newspaper had let on,” Rufo wrote in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. (Greene declined comment to Inside Higher Ed.)

On Feb. 29, Sibarium broke another story based on an anonymous complaint about another Black DEI official at another Ivy League institution: Alade McKen, the chief DEI officer for staff at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, allegedly plagiarized parts of his dissertation from Wikipedia and other sources, including from Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu, an African studies scholar. Ezeanya-Esiobu told the Free Beacon, “the passages you shared can definitely be classified as plagiarism.”

The McKen story made the Daily Beast and The New York Times. The New York Times reviewed portions of the dissertation and the Wikipedia page and found parts that appeared to be nearly the same,” that publication wrote. (McKen didn’t respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment Friday. An Irving Medical Center spokesperson said via email that “we take allegations about misconduct seriously. In keeping with university policy, we do not comment on the details of individual personnel matters.”)

The drumbeat of allegations continued on March 20, when the Free Beacon published another article, though not by Sibarium. This time, it was about a white Stanford University professor. The story said an “anonymous complaint, backed by a California-based group of math-and-science focused professionals,” had been filed against Jo Boaler, a professor in the Graduate School of Education, accusing her of misrepresenting “supporting research she has cited in her own work in order to support her conclusions.”

What might Boaler, a longtime advocate for reforming math education in the “math wars,” have to do with DEI? She wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that she conducts “studies on equitable mathematics approaches and was one of five writers of the [K-12] California Mathematics Framework, which is often labeled from the outside as having an equity focus.”

Criticisms of her work aren’t new, she said, but, “I see a strong, repetitive, strategic pattern between the recent attacks on Harvard faculty who work in DEI and the attacks on my work that started last week … It is the same individuals on social media, predominantly men in positions of authority and power, and the right-wing press that are working in concert to bring down academics who work on issues of equity.”

Where does Rufo’s campaign go from here? He has said he’s in it for the long haul.

“Havard’s [sic] president was a plagiarist. Harvard’s chief diversity officer is a plagiarist. We will keep exposing them, one by one, until the university restores truth, rather than racialist ideology, as its mission,” Rufo posted on X back on Jan. 30.

But one of the most recent in the series of accusations hasn’t gotten legs beyond Rufo’s X posts. It’s against Christina J. Cross, a Black Harvard assistant sociology professor. The Free Beacon didn’t write about her; instead, Rufo shared the accusations on March 19 in City Journal. He said he had the complaint against her but—unlike with the past articles on anonymous complaints—didn’t link to it. Conservative media didn’t pick up the story, nor did national media, and Cross’s fellow scholars have strongly defended her.

Two scholars whom Cross was accused of plagiarizing—Stacey Bosick, Sonoma State University’s associate vice president of academic affairs, and Ann W. Nguyen, a Case Western Reserve University professor—defended Cross in The Crimson. In a March 21 letter, 16 scholars who wrote that they “all serve in leadership roles on large publicly funded datasets,” including one at the center of the plagiarism allegations against Cross, called the allegations false. And Donald Moynihan, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, lambasted the allegations in his own Substack post, titled “Open season on scholars of race.”

“They’re not taking on the idea, they’re not taking on the analysis,” Moynihan told Inside Higher Ed. “They’re just trying to invalidate the work using other means.”

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