Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images
Claudine Gay had a historic presidency at Harvard University.
She was the first Black person, and the second woman, to lead the institution, and her tumultuous time at the top—roughly six months—marks the shortest presidency in Harvard’s 388-year history.
Her brief tenure was marked by a disastrous appearance at a House hearing on antisemitism in December, at which she and two other college presidents drew national scrutiny for equivocating when asked about threats to Jewish students on campus. In the same month, Gay was accused of plagiarism and subsequently submitted corrections for some of her work. More allegations have followed, and Congress has also taken an interest in how Harvard has addressed the claims.
In a deeply polarized nation, Gay achieved a rare feat: bipartisan agreement, with both liberals and conservatives blasting her performance before Congress and her failure to adequately address campus tensions inflamed by the war between Israel and Hamas.
When Gay stepped down last week, she cited “racial animus” as a factor in the attacks against her. She took pains to defend her scholarship, largely playing down the corrections she submitted after the plagiarism allegations.
The Harvard Corporation, the more powerful of the university’s two governing boards, has said little beyond statements of support both before and after her resignation. Now, as the dust settles on her truncated presidency, some critics are playing the blame game. Did Gay fail the university with her various missteps? Or did the Harvard Corporation let the university down by failing to properly vet Gay—and then remaining quiet when pressure on her reached a fever pitch?
The Vetting Process
A product of Harvard, Gay earned her Ph.D. there in 1998, joined the faculty in 2008 after teaching at Stanford University and became dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2018. Her hiring as president was celebrated both inside and outside the university; Harvard Corporation members praised her as “a brilliant scholar.”
At a time when, statistically speaking, few women and Black people lead institutions of higher education, Gay offered hope for changing the face of the college presidency.
Now, with Gay out, it is unclear how Harvard vetted her, or why the world’s richest university was unable to identify problems with her academic work that Chris Rufo—a conservative activist with access to antiplagiarism software—first shared publicly. Was Harvard unwilling to act on information it has acknowledged it received and reviewed in October, or was a university with a $6 billion annual operating budget simply outflanked by a stalwart DEI opponent with a large social media following?
To get a sense of how Gay was vetted, Inside Higher Ed reached out to all 12 members of the Harvard Corporation for insights. None responded to questions about her hiring process, nor did search committee members responsible for elevating Gay as a candidate.
Inside Higher Ed also sought answers from Harvard, sending more than a dozen questions for this article to its public relations team, which declined to answer all but one of those questions. It also failed to provide requested interviews with Gay or any Harvard Corporation members.
A December 2022 article in The Harvard Crimson noted that before the board settled on Gay to replace outgoing president Lawrence Bacow, officials “considered more than 600 nominations over the span of just five months, making it the shortest Harvard presidential search in almost 70 years.” The list was whittled down to 50 and then about 12 candidates, the Crimson reported, citing former Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, a member of the Harvard Corporation.
According to The New York Times, the board has not identified which members were responsible for reviewing Gay’s work.
Before the Search
Some observers believe red flags should have been raised about Gay’s scholarship long before Harvard launched its search.
Former Bucknell University president Brian Mitchell, who co-wrote a book about higher education leadership and currently serves as president of the consulting group Academic Innovators, considers Gay guilty of “academic sloppiness”—not plagiarism. But he suggested that any breakdown in her vetting likely first happened at Stanford University, where she earned tenure in 2005 with limited scholarship; at that time, she had published only five articles, according to her résumé. And last month she corrected one of them: “The Effect of Black Congressional Representation on Political Participation,” published in 2001.
When Inside Higher Ed contacted Stanford to ask about any citation problems during her tenure process, the university declined to provide any information.
(Stanford dealt with its own academic integrity scandal last summer when President Marc Tessier-Lavigne stepped down over issues related to his research from years before.)
Former Macalester College president Brian Rosenberg, who wrote a book on higher education’s challenges and currently serves on the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, agrees that any problems with Gay’s work should have been flagged decades ago.
The citation issues connected to her Harvard dissertation should have been caught and corrected when she was still a graduate student, he said. In other instances, the journals that published Gay’s work should have raised concerns. Rosenberg doesn’t fault Harvard or Stanford for trusting her peer-reviewed work.
“I don’t think Harvard’s mistake was in the search process,” he said. “I think their mistake was, beginning in October when these things started to bubble up, that they didn’t bring in an independent, visible outside group to look at it and not have it caught by people like Christopher Rufo.”
Gay Speaks Out
Gay has framed the criticism of her leadership as a conservative witch hunt. To her point, Rufo and power players like Congresswoman Elise Stefanik—the New York Republican who ruthlessly questioned Gay and her peers at the antisemitism hearing—made it clear from the start that they were gunning for the president’s job.
“The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader,” Gay wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times that acknowledged her mistakes during the congressional hearing. “This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda.”
But she also faced plenty of criticism from legacy media outlets. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic published opinion pieces calling for her to resign. Harvard’s hometown paper, The Boston Globe, accused the university of waffling on the issue of plagiarism. (In October, Harvard told The New York Post that Gay’s work was properly cited.)
The Harvard Corporation has also come under fire for its role in Gay’s downfall. Critics have questioned whether Penny Pritzker, the head of the Harvard Corporation, should follow the lead of Scott Bok, chairman of the Board of Trustees at the University of Pennsylvania, who resigned alongside Penn president Liz Magill in December over campus tensions related to the Israel-Hamas war and similar missteps during the congressional hearing.
“Senior Fellow Penny Pritzker is not resigning,” Harvard spokesman Jason Newton said by email, the only response the public relations team provided to questions from Inside Higher Ed.
Over the weekend, The New York Times published an article—sourced largely anonymously—recounting how the corporation’s firm support for Gay after the congressional hearing began to waver and fracture last month as the plagiarism charges continued to mount.
“The board had been ground down by new allegations of plagiarism, the drumbeat of news articles, and the barrage of criticism and advice from influential strangers and loved ones,” the Times reported. By the day after Christmas, “board members agreed that they were dealing with a crisis of leadership and that the best path forward for Harvard was without Dr. Gay in the president’s chair.”
Who Failed Whom?
In addition to questioning Gay’s hiring process, critics have raised concerns about the way the university prepared her for the congressional hearing. Some have zeroed in on the role of William Lee—a Harvard Corporation member until 2022 who reportedly helped coach Gay—and the quality of his guidance, given her jarring, overly legalistic responses.
(Lee did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Harvard Crimson has suggested that Lee led Gay’s preparation for the congressional hearing while crisis communications experts and others were largely sidelined. Both she and Magill worked with WilmerHale, the law firm where Lee is a partner; Sally Kornbluth, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology president who appeared with them at the congressional hearing, also reportedly met with WilmerHale and so far is the only one of the three who has kept her job.
Gay argued in her New York Times op-ed that she “fell into a well-laid trap” at the hearing.
Rosenberg agrees that Gay fell into a trap but believes it could have been prevented.
“Somebody should have been able to tell them, ‘Look, you’re walking into a trap here. And if you walk into this, you should be prepared, and you should have appropriate answers for the trap that’s being set for you.’ Someone didn’t do their job, I suspect, in preparing them appropriately,” Rosenberg said.
Some critics say Gay has no one to blame for her short-lived presidency but herself.
Frederick Hess, senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute (and a onetime classmate of Gay’s), has argued that she isolated herself within a liberal institution and failed to build bridges, leaving her without conservative allies to defend her when “right-wing muckrakers” launched an attack using Harvard’s own institutional norms against her.
Other observers have accepted Gay’s version of events: that conservative activists and politicians caused her downfall. It’s credit that Rufo, Stefanik and others are eager to accept.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist behind the Times’ “1619 Project,” compared Gay’s situation to her own 2021 experience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the governing board, under pressure from donors, did not initially offer her tenure when they hired her to teach journalism. After tenure was belatedly approved, Hannah-Jones walked away from the offer and joined Howard University instead.
“Let’s be real. This is an extension of what happened to me at UNC, and it is a glimpse into the future to come. Academic freedom is under attack. Racial justice programs are under attack. Black women will be made to pay. Our so-called allies too often lack any real courage,” Hannah-Jones wrote on X.
Meanwhile, some—including members of the Harvard faculty—see the Harvard Corporation as the driving force behind Gay’s exit.
“My assessment is that the Harvard Corporation crafted the plot and arranged the stage for the play where Gay was an actor. The primary responsibility is on the Corporation’s shoulders, and Gay must have done the best she could within the constraints,” Avi Loeb, a Harvard astrophysics professor, said by email. He noted that multiple factors were likely at play in Gay’s ouster, including a recent decline in early admissions as well as the plagiarism concerns and donor pressure.
Amid the ongoing fallout, Loeb said it’s time for the Harvard Corporation to take some responsibility.
But Rosenberg is among those who don’t expect many insights to emerge from the corporation, which has closed ranks, offered few public statements and—in his view—been too self-congratulatory in the limited remarks members have made about the swirling scandals.
“I think one thing that virtually everybody agrees on is that the Harvard Corporation has not showered itself in glory. Harvard operates with a level of secrecy that would make the CIA proud,” Rosenberg said. “Decisions are made by a very, very small group of people.”
While Gay has accepted at least partial blame for her downfall, the Harvard Corporation has not. And as the controversy plays out, the governing board doesn’t appear eager to offer a look into its decision-making process, ignoring calls for transparency amid heightened scrutiny.