Three Strikes and Harvard’s Claudine Gay Is Out

One controversy can be enough to doom a university presidency. In Harvard's case, three proved too much to overcome.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on January 4, 2024
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  • Amid waves of controversy, Harvard's president resigned Jan. 2.
  • Claudine Gay's resignation comes only six months into her presidential tenure.
  • Several factors led to her ultimate demise, including the congressional hearings on antisemitism and accusations of plagiarism.
  • Race also provided a contextual backdrop for Harvard's first Black president.

Just as the higher education community was settling into 2024 following a welcome holiday break, Harvard University dropped the news many were expecting: Claudine Gay, its embattled president, was resigning.

As a Harvard alum and longtime observer of the university, known even to offer advice to incoming presidents, I embraced this announcement with a mix of sadness and relief. To paraphrase former President Gerald Ford, the brief Cambridge nightmare was over.

Watching this unfold over the past months reminded me of two blockbuster movies from around the turn of the century. Gay's demise was akin to the inexorable sinking of the Titanic following its encounter with the iceberg — a slow, methodical, predictable ending to what should have been a spectacular, history-making maiden voyage for the university's first Black female president.

At the same time, Gay's actions initiated a "Perfect Storm" from which she — and the university — could not escape, a fatal combination of factors converging at once to seal her fate.

Each misstep constituted one strike against her presidency. And as we know, three means you're out.

The first misstep was the public relations disaster that captured the nation's attention and even birthed an ill-conceived "Saturday Night Live" cold open. Of course, we're talking about the congressional hearings on Dec. 5, during which Gay and her presidential colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced allegations of antisemitism on their campuses stemming from Israel-Hamas war protests.

When asked by New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik if calling for the genocide of Jews violated Harvard's rules on harassment, Gay said it depended on the context. Penn's Elizabeth Magill said the same thing and resigned her position four days later. So did MIT's Sally Ann Kornbluth, though she survived.

And like Magill, Gay quickly issued a clarifying statement in which she stated what she should have said during the hearings: that "calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard and will never go unchallenged."

Too late. Gay and her counterparts failed to reject the premise, a false dilemma fallacy based on a hypothetical situation. Matters of free speech, especially within the realm of higher education, are always context-based.

Reducing such complex issues to the "yes or no" answer demanded by Stefanik was a ludicrous exercise designed to entrap these presidents and generate damning soundbites destined to enrage a nation and cast a pall on these elite campuses and, by extension, American higher education.

Instead of castigating Stefanik for ignoring nuance and relying on such simplistic reductions, these presidents toed the legal line thanks to bad advice from counsel.

To be sure, hate speech indeed has a place on American campuses — not as vitriol aimed at individuals or groups but as concepts and ideas to be explored, debated, discussed, and, perhaps, dismissed. If controversial ideas, even hateful ones, cannot be entertained on college campuses under the banner of free speech and the pursuit of truth, then where does free speech truly exist?

Yet the bigger picture here for Gay was public perception.

A university president embodies the institution, constitutes its face, but that individual cannot become the story. Campus public relations aims to deflect bad news away from the presidency in protection of the brand. In this case, the heat was intense enough to melt any PR shield the university could muster. Crisis not averted.

Amid this imbroglio, several of Harvard's top donors, mainly Jewish alumni upset over the administration's handling of the antisemitic campus climate, lined up to withdraw their financial support.

Strike two.

Harvard, as everyone knows, isn't exactly hurting for money. With a $50 billion endowment, it's the wealthiest university in the world by far. The university's last campaign netted almost $10 billion.

That campaign ended in 2018, suggesting the university could be eyeing another one. The advent of a new presidency always provides the momentum necessary to wage such an effort, exciting donors about the potential of fresh leadership and new horizons to explore.

The relentless pursuit of cash never ends, even for the richest schools.

If Harvard's leadership had such plans, they were put on hold in light of the turbulent philanthropic attitudes among some of the university's primary donors. Perhaps those relationships would have remained fractured had Gay stayed in office.

In any event, today's university president, especially one leading a private university, is foremost fundraiser-in-chief. It's often the main barometer by which presidencies are judged. When key donors threatened to withhold donations because of the president's leadership, or seeming lack thereof, the die was cast.

Still, the Harvard Corporation stood by Gay, proclaiming its full-throated support for the president in a message on Dec. 12.

"Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing," the Corporation confirmed.

That confirmation came even as Gay was swinging at what would become strike three. At a world-class university, the president is normally a world-class scholar. And world-class scholars shouldn't plagiarize.

Universities hold students to high standards when it comes to academic honesty, a battle waged with ever-increasing difficulty in today's AI-dominated world, and so too should they hold their leadership.

Stanford's Marc Tessier-Lavigne learned that lesson when he was forced to resign last year over allegations of scientific fraud.

In Gay's case, she was accused of plagiarizing passages within her doctoral dissertation and several published articles. The Harvard Corporation dismissed these as "a few instances of inadequate citation" that were not in "violation of Harvard's standards for research misconduct." Gay promised to redress these academic grievances.

But as eager watchdogs dug up yet more examples of "inadequate citations," the mounting evidence proved too incriminating to ignore. A few instances might be deemed sloppy scholarship. A pattern of such behavior is unforgivable.

Thus the tipping point. One public relations nightmare plus waning donor support plus questionable scholarly ethics equals one doomed presidency. The only way for this to go away was for Gay to step down and return to the faculty.

Let's also not ignore the optics of the situation, the elephant in the room known as race. Gay put it front and center in her resignation letter to the Harvard community, in which she said it was "frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus."

Likewise, the Harvard Corporation noted the backlash against Gay had "taken the form of repugnant and in some cases racist vitriol directed at her through disgraceful emails and phone calls."

Despite her purported academic misconduct, Gay was seemingly deserving of the Harvard presidency, having held the exalted position of dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences among other administrative accomplishments. She was not, as some would have us believe, simply an affirmative action hire.

But the exquisite irony that Harvard's first Black president would resign on the heels of affirmative action being deemed unconstitutional thanks largely to the university's own admissions practices proved too enticing for the higher education gods to ignore. Hollywood scriptwriters should be so creative.

It's easy to understand why Harvard's board stood behind its besieged president, a trailblazing leader only six months into her tenure. Presidential transitions can be highly disruptive, even those that are anticipated well in advance. Sudden changes such as Gay's mid-year departure are jarring. Now layer on top of that the symbolism of Harvard's first Black female president foundering so publicly and you're left with a narrative too convenient for critics to assail.

Harvard's quest for a new president might take a year or more, assuming the university can convince qualified candidates to endure the crucible of leading America's most visible university in a climate predisposed to distrust anything associated with it.

Yet here's my plea to those who might step into the breach — consider the singular opportunity to right the ship, not just for Harvard but for all of higher education. It's time to fight back and stop playing defense. Reaffirm what true learning demands, extol the values that have endured for almost 400 years, and reinforce this fidelity to purpose that spawned and sustained an educational system still envied worldwide.