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Harvard president Claudine Gay resigns amid plagiarism claims, backlash from antisemitism testimony

Jan 2, 2024, 7:00 PM | Updated: 7:02 pm

Harvard President Claudine Gay resigns amid controversy...

Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Dec. 5. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

Gay is the second Ivy League president to resign in the past month following the congressional testimony — Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned Dec. 9.

Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, announced her departure just months into her tenure in a letter to the Harvard community.

Following the congressional hearing, Gay’s academic career came under intense scrutiny by conservative activists who unearthed several instances of alleged plagiarism in her 1997 doctoral dissertation. The Harvard Corporation, Harvard’s governing board, initially rallied behind Gay, saying a review of her scholarly work turned up “a few instances of inadequate citation” but no evidence of research misconduct.

Days later, the Harvard Corporation said it found two additional examples of “duplicative language without appropriate attribution.” The board said Gay would update her dissertation and request corrections.

The Harvard Corporation said the resignation came “with great sadness” and thanked Gay for her “deep and unwavering commitment to Harvard and to the pursuit of academic excellence.”

Alan M. Garber, provost and chief academic officer, will serve as interim president until Harvard finds a replacement, the board said in a statement. Garber, an economist and physician, has served as provost for 12 years.

Gay’s resignation was celebrated by the conservatives who put her alleged plagiarism in the national spotlight — with additional plagiarism accusations surfacing as recently as Monday in The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication.

Christopher Rufo, an activist who has helped rally the GOP against higher education, said he’s “glad she’s gone.”

“Rather than take responsibility for minimizing antisemitism, committing serial plagiarism, intimidating the free press, and damaging the institution, she calls her critics racist,” Rufo said on X, formerly Twitter. “This is the poison” of diversity, equity and inclusion ideology, said Rufo, who has led conservative attacks on DEI both in business and in education.

Gay, in her letter, said it has been “distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor — two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am — and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.”

But Gay, who is returning to the school’s faculty, added “it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge.”

Yoel Zimmermann, a visiting research undergrad from Munich, Germany, studying physics at Harvard, said that as a Jewish student he’s noticed fellow members of the Jewish community have felt uncomfortable with the climate on campus.

“I think it was about time that Claudine Gay resigned,” Zimmerman said. “She just did too many things wrong, especially with her testimony in Congress. I think that was just the kind of final tipping point that should have led to her removal immediately.”

Supporters of Gay lamented her resignation.

“Racist mobs won’t stop until they topple all Black people from positions of power and influence who are not reinforcing the structure of racism,” award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi, who survived scrutiny of an antiracist research center he founded at Boston University, said in an Instagram post.

The Rev. Al Sharpton in a statement called pressure for Gay to resign “an attack on every Black woman in this country who’s put a crack in the glass ceiling” and an “assault on the health, strength, and future of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Critics welcomed her decision.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx called Gay’s resignation welcome news but said the problems at Harvard are much larger than one leader.

“Postsecondary education is in a tailspin,” the North Carolina Republican said in a statement. “There has been a hostile takeover of postsecondary education by political activists, woke faculty, and partisan administrators.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, in a statement on X, also weighed in on Gay’s resignation.

“A little context. A failure in leadership and denial of antisemitism have a price. I hope that the esteemed Harvard University will learn from this dismal conduct,” he wrote.

Gay, Magill and MIT’s president, Sally Kornbluth, came under fire last month for their lawyerly answers to a line of questioning from New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate the colleges’ codes of conduct.

The three presidents had been called before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce to answer accusations that universities were failing to protect Jewish students amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza, which faces heightened criticism for the mounting Palestinian death toll.

Gay said it depended on the context, adding that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies.” The answer faced swift backlash from Republican and some Democratic lawmakers as well as the White House. The hearing was parodied in the opening skit on “Saturday Night Live.”

Gay later apologized, telling The Crimson student newspaper that she got caught up in a heated exchange at the House committee hearing and failed to properly denounce threats of violence against Jewish students.

“What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged,” Gay said.

The episode marred Gay’s tenure at Harvard — she became president in July — and sowed discord at the Ivy League campus. Rabbi David Wolpe later resigned from a new committee on antisemitism created by Gay, saying in a post on X that “events on campus and the painfully inadequate testimony reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped.”

The House committee announced days after the hearing that it would investigate the policies and disciplinary procedures at Harvard, MIT and Penn. Separate federal civil rights investigations were previously opened at Harvard, Penn and several other universities in response to complaints submitted to the U.S. Education Department.

___

Binkley contributed from Washington.

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Harvard president Claudine Gay resigns amid plagiarism claims, backlash from antisemitism testimony