Why Claudia Gay’s Resignation Should Matter to You

Higher Education

Dr. Ryan F. Smith

Yesterday, Dr. Claudia Gay, the President of Harvard University, resigned after an embattled six-month tenure at the helm of our nation’s most prestigious institution. While these developments might seem localized, the issues related to Harvard are a bellwether of the American academy.

Her resignation centers around two issues: anti-Semitism and plagiarism. Last month, Congress summoned three female presidents to address the rampant anti-Semitism on their campuses: Harvard President Claudia Gay, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill (who has since resigned), and Sally Kornbluth of MIT. Students at the three institutions represented held protests calling for the eradication of Israel. During the Congressional hearing, Gay confirmed that she witnessed Harvard students chanting, “There is only one solution. Intifada revolution” and “Globalize the Intifada.”1

In Dr. Gay’s exchange with Rep. Elise Stephanik (R-NY), she was not able to unequivocally condemn the calls for genocide at Harvard. Instead, she repeatedly claimed that the actions were “personally abhorrent,” but at no point did she suggest that the protests violated Harvard’s policies. Instead, she appealed to the university’s “free speech” rights.

The nail in the coffin was the revelation that Dr. Gay pervasively committed plagiarism in her academic work, most notably in her dissertation. The evidence seems indisputable, yet she failed to accept responsibility for her academic dishonesty. As a point of reference, Harvard expelled 27 students for plagiarism during the 2021–22 academic year, but their president was apparently immune to the same rigorous standards.

The Dr. Gay scandal reveals much about herself and Harvard, but more importantly, it informs us about the state of higher education in this country. Publishers will hasten to produce books about this scandal shortly, but here are some key issues that they must address.

Moral Relativism

Her moral relativism is obvious, but it’s worth stating for the record. Dr. Gay consistently answered Rep. Stephanik’s questions about the Hamas-related protests by citing personal feelings. Actually, she only had one feeling that she parroted three times: “personally abhorrent.” She never appealed to a higher moral authority—not even the low-hanging fruit, the Harvard College Student Handbook. Dr. Gay lacks moral clarity to objectively and definitely reject genocide, which in itself speaks volumes about her institution’s condition.

Her testimony shows that the academy today is best compared to Israel during the era of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). This climate is not isolated to Harvard. It is the pervasive attitude in the secular academy, both at the pre-college and university levels.

Free Speech Has No Limits

Promoting the systematic murder of an ethnic group is acceptable speech at Ivy League schools. Let me repeat this: The call for genocide of Jews apparently qualifies as free speech in 2024.

Does this sound like Nazi Germany in the 1930s to anyone else? Hate crimes against Jews are, in fact, rapidly increasing here in the States. “Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021,” and they have only increased in the intervening period. The recent protests at these institutions suggest that colleges may be pushing this rhetoric.

Dr. Gay technically upheld the letter of the law in Harvard’s Student Handbook, page 51: “It is important to note here that speech not specifically directed against individuals (italics mine) in a harassing way may be protected by traditional safeguards of free speech, even though the comments may cause considerable discomfort or concern to others in the community.” I suppose she reasoned that since the protests were directed toward a class of people, not an individual, Harvard could ignore them.

Dr. Gay’s moral high ground is particularly disingenuous since Harvard’s record of free speech is the worst in the country. According to the 2024 College Free Speech Rankings, “Harvard University obtained the lowest score possible, 0.00, and is the only school with an ‘Abysmal’ speech climate rating.” When these protests offered Dr. Gay an opportunity to restore and reform Harvard’s speech, she only capitulated to the madness.

A university president’s unwillingness to denounce the murder of an entire population shows just how rotten the academy is. It doesn’t take a priest to determine that killing people is wicked. If a college’s highest office cannot condemn genocide, then you can rest assured that many heinous forms of free speech take place in the classroom.

Plagiarism and Academic Credentials

My father-in-law often says, “A double standard is better than no standard at all.” This is certainly the case for Dr. Gay. The mounting plagiarism charges have demonstrated that she and her supporters have much lower standards for her than Harvard does for its current students.

The amount of plagiarism in Dr. Gay’s work demonstrates pervasive negligence, both in her work ethic and in her discipline. Her dissertation advisors should have taken the time to check her work more thoroughly. Her peer reviewers who examined her articles should have done the same thing. It is astonishing how much she purportedly plagiarized.

Let me admit this fact as a faculty member: identifying every case of plagiarism is difficult, and students’ access to AI technology makes it even more so. Yet the academy has become irresponsible in adjudicating its publications. According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network, “Manuscript retractions represent attempts to officially withdraw published papers or posted preprints that contain errors, fraud, or other kinds of misconduct. Retractions have increased in both number and prominence over the past 2 decades.”

Dr. Gay is not a unicorn. The standards for academic integrity are in serious, and unsustainable, decline. Whom can we scholars trust, if not the person at the helm of our most prestigious university?

Racism as a Scapegoat

Dr. Gay penned a peculiar resignation letter that denies her failures, while noting that it is “frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.” In academic lingo, let me translate: “Any accusations of wrongdoing against a person of color are inherently racist.”

Her unwillingness to accept responsibility and apologize for her failures, rather than blame her critics and malign their motives, is tiresome. And the resignation letter is so problematic that I am unsure which fallacy her argument best represents: False Dilemma, Tu Quoque, or Ad Hominem. Maybe all of them.

The fact is that Dr. Gay attended the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard. Her rise to the presidency of the nation’s most prestigious university belies a life of racial persecution or an inability to climb the professional ladder.

The DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) movement that Dr. Gay championed contributes to the rot of higher education because it is, ironically, based on racism. And yet, somehow, the movement does not have space to protect the Jews.

Harvard as a Symbol of Academia

Where Harvard leads, other colleges follow. When the nation’s leading university president teaches how to be divisive, lawless, and to skirt responsibility, others do likewise. Dr. Gay’s scandal offers a frightening snapshot of secular higher education in America.

Even if you could send your child to an institution like Harvard, why would you?

  1. Intifada is an Arabic word that means “shaking off.” In its current context, it refers to a “call for violent armed resistance against the State of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews.” The term applied to two previous conflicts (1987-1993; 2000-2005).
  2. The image shown above was created by AI with the prompt, “Create an image of a crumbling library in the fall with dark gray skies, bare deciduous trees, and shadowy figures.”