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How a GOP Campaign Ousted Harvard’s Claudine Gay

A Harvard Professor says plagiarism became a “pretext” to oust Gay, and discusses the larger right-wing war on education aimed at undoing progress on race, gender and addressing inequality.

Claudine Gay, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, speaks during the 368th Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 30, 2019,Brian Snyder | Reuters

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The first African American and second woman to lead Harvard University resigned Tuesday after allegations of plagiarism and backlash over her testimony at a congressional hearing on antisemitism last month that’s part of a broader effort to restrict pro-Palestinian speech on college campuses. Claudine Gay’s six-month tenure is the shortest of any Harvard president in history. Claudine Gay will remain at Harvard as a tenured professor of government and African and African American studies.

In a letter Tuesday, she wrote, quote, “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,” she wrote.

The plagiarism allegations against President Gay were part of a campaign started last month, led in part by conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who cheered her resignation on X, writing in all capital letters, ”SCAPLED” [sic]. The conservative website The Washington Free Beacon published new plagiarism allegations against Gay Tuesday. One of the authors Rufo accused Gay of plagiarizing was her thesis adviser, Gary King, who has dismissed the allegations, telling The Daily Beast, quote, “There’s not a conceivable case that this is plagiarism. … Her dissertation and every draft I read of it met the highest academic standards,” he said.

The Harvard Corporation issued a statement Tuesday, saying Gay, quote, “acknowledged missteps” and showed, quote, “remarkable resilience in the face of deeply personal and sustained attacks,” unquote.

Claudine Gay’s resignation comes after the University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill also resigned, just days after the two appeared, along with MIT President Sally Kornbluth, at a congressional hearing led by right-wing Republican Congressmember Elise Stefanik. This is Stefanik questioning President Gay.

CLAUDINE GAY: … free speech extends —

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: It’s a yes-or-no question. Let me ask you this. You are president of Harvard, so I assume you’re familiar with the term “intifada,” correct?

CLAUDINE GAY: I have heard that term, yes.

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REP. ELISE STEFANIK: And you understand that the use of the term “intifada” in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?

CLAUDINE GAY: That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me. …

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: Well, let me ask you this: Will admissions offers be rescinded or any disciplinary action be taken against students or applicants who say “from the river to the sea” or “intifada,” advocating for the murder of Jews.

CLAUDINE GAY: As I have said, that type of hateful, reckless, offensive speech is personally abhorrent to me.

AMY GOODMAN: That was last month. On Tuesday, Congressmember Stefanik celebrated Gay’s resignation on social media, writing in all caps, ”TWO DOWN.” Stefanik added this is, quote, “just the beginning of what will be the greatest scandal of any college or university in history,” and vowed to hold more hearings.

Congressmember Stefanik is a major Trump ally and a Harvard alumna who was removed from a Harvard advisory board in 2021 over her comments about voter fraud in the 2020 election that had, quote, “no basis in evidence.”

Meanwhile, the conservative activist Christopher Rufo announced Tuesday evening he was, quote, “contributing an initial $10,000 to a 'plagiarism hunting' fund.”

For more on all of this, we’re joined by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He’s the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

Professor, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. First, if you can respond to, and were you surprised by, the resignation of Claudine Gay yesterday?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Thanks, Amy, for having me on.

I have to admit I wasn’t surprised, but I was extremely disappointed. This is a terrible moment for higher education. Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania are just the beginning. The political attacks that you’ve just profiled by Elise Stefanik and most other members of the House committee that held those hearings on December 5th have actually declared war on the independence, on academic freedom, on the truth of American history and our present at all colleges and universities, just as Governor DeSantis has done in Florida and Greg Abbott has done in Texas and other governors and legislative bodies in many other states.

This is the next step in now a three-year-long campaign to destroy this country’s capacity to address its past and its present, to deal with the structural racism, the systemic inequalities that cause premature death amongst millions of Americans every year. And right now the Republicans and their allies are winning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can put Claudine Gay in context? The first Black president, the first Black woman president, the second woman to lead Harvard University, now her presidency is the shortest in Harvard’s history. And put it in the context of the whole attack on DEI, the whole attack on critical race theory. And if you can talk about this campaign by Stefanik, by Rufo, as they go from the congressional hearing, which didn’t succeed in taking her down, to this issue of plagiarism?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: OK. Well, let me start with the fact that Harvard is the oldest, wealthiest, most prestigious university in this country and globally. So, for almost 400 years, Harvard has systematically excluded white women and people of color, by and large, from its hallowed corridors, from entering its gates. That’s just an absolute fact, a fact that the university, under the previous president, Larry Bacow, admitted to in a report called the Harvard Legacy of Slavery report, that was issued just over a year ago, a report that points out precisely how not only did the university exclude people of color from getting an education, but in fact collected the bodies of Indigenous people and enslaved people for scientific research, and led, into the 20th century, calls for scientific racism that helped to construct the racial hierarchies that we still live with in this country today. That’s Harvard’s own history as a leader.

So the very university that finally arrived at a moment where it not only reckoned with its own history, but also recognized the talent is universal and that the best of us actually have the ability to move this country and world forward, in a time when the planet is literally on fire and most people who will suffer most from that will be people of color, that is the context that brought Claudine Gay to the presidency. And she was ably and excellently qualified for that role. She had proven herself in previous administrative roles as a dean of the largest school on Harvard’s campus.

So, when we put that in context, the affirmative action decision last June was the first victory for the conservative right in this country to dismantle the very possibility that people like Claudine Gay would have the qualifications, the Harvard and Stanford degrees, necessary to take on such positions. And so, within that political context, the attack on affirmative action is one example of what’s been going on, which is 30 years old, a battle. But additionally, and more proximate to this moment, people like Christopher Rufo in late 2020, in response to George Floyd’s killing, have initiated an effort, what we would call a whitelash or a backlash, forms of misinformation to essentially define a body of knowledge known as critical race theory, that is the intellectual basis for understanding how systemic and structural racism work, as anti-American, as Marxist, as a threat to American civilization. And that led to 24 states criminalizing the teaching of history in all its truth about race, about racism, about sex, about gender. That led to the banning of DEI in places like Florida and, to some degree, in Texas.

And what we saw happen here with this campaign against Claudine Gay, where plagiarism became the pretext, kind of like a Black motorist with tinted windows being stopped only to look for drugs so that they could be incarcerated as part of a war on Black people during mass incarceration, that is the context where Christopher Rufo, who initiated the critical race theory, anti-woke campaign, has now culminated in yet another victory with taking down Claudine Gay over a very, very minor offense within academic context.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. I want to turn to an op-ed published in The Harvard Crimson by Bernie Steinberg. He was the executive — he was the executive director of Harvard Hillel from 1993 to 2010. It’s headlined “For the Safety of Jews and Palestinians, Stop Weaponizing Antisemitism.” In his essay, Steinberg supports President Gay.

He wrote, quote, “During my long career as a Jewish educator and leader — including thirteen years living in Jerusalem — I have seen and lived through my community’s struggles. Now, as an elder leader, with the benefit of hindsight, I feel compelled to speak to what I see as a disturbing trend gripping our campus, and many others: The cynical weaponization of antisemitism by powerful forces who seek to intimidate and ultimately silence legitimate criticism of Israel and of American policy on Israel.

“In most cases, it takes the form of bullying pro-Palestine organizers. In other [cases], these campaigns persecute anyone who simply doesn’t show due deference to the bullies.”

Steinberg continued, quote, “The recent effort to smear our new University President, Claudine Gay, is a case in point. I applaud the decision by the Harvard Corporation to stand by Dr. Gay amid the ludicrous charges that she somehow supports genocide against Jews, and I hope Harvard will continue to take a clear and strong stance against any further efforts by these powerful parties to meddle in university affairs, especially over personnel decisions.”

Now, again, those are the words of Bernie Steinberg, who was the executive director of Harvard Hillel from 1993 to 2010. Of course, this was before the resignation of Claudine Gay. And we can only assume that the Harvard Corporation, the kind of board of overseers of Harvard, made a deal with her, you know, helped to force her out. So, they had first supported her, and now, with tremendous pressure also from billionaire donors, she is out. If you can talk about the significance of Harvard Hillel — the former head of Harvard Hillel talking about the weaponization of antisemitism as a way to suppress dissent over what Israel is doing in Gaza right now, Professor Muhammad?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Well, I think that his comments and his testimony in the op-ed that he wrote from his vantage point speaks very clearly to the absence of a balanced discussion about Claudine Gay’s testimony, as was true of the two other presidents, Liz Magill and Kornbluth. The truth is that they all performed as they should have. They spoke clearly and directly to personally condemning expressions of antisemitism, of which “intifada,” by definition, is not necessarily, which we could talk about more. But putting that aside, they were following the instructions of general counsel and, likely, the board chairs of their various universities. In the case of Claudine Gay, for example, you can see Alan Garber, who is now the current president, the interim president, sitting behind her in glasses and a beard, almost mouthing her responses, because as second in charge of the university, they were both prepared to explain the current policies that deal with hate speech and academic freedom.

And so, what Mr. Steinberg is talking about is the context in which that entire hearing was a setup, where there was no correct answer to a lawful question, a legal question, about whether or not certain forms of speech violate the code of conduct. It always depends. And the weaponization of Jews in this case, as he described in his op-ed, suggested to me, in watching that hearing for five hours and 40 minutes, that people like Virginia Foxx had no intention of extending protections to Jews at Harvard or anywhere else. This was a setup to take down DEI and antiracism and all of the other things that the right has been going after, because that’s what she said when she opened the hearing. She described the hearing as a case of people like me teaching classes which she identified in her opening remarks as the real problem, as a prime example of antiracism and critical race theory creating institutional antisemitism. That’s a lie. It’s a form of fascist propaganda. I actually teach about antisemitism in that class.

And so, what Mr. Steinberg is describing is exactly what is happening here. Jews have been used as a wedge for the right to take down all the entire edifice that has been put in place to deal with structural racism in the society.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel a chill at the Kennedy School? What about other African American professors? Your response to Christopher Rufo cheering the resignation of Gay, writing the word “scalped”?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Well, listen, I mean, you know, speaking of history, in order to even understand that reference, one would have to understand the war against Indigenous people, the genocide committed against them and forms of settler colonialism that birthed this country. This is an evocation of that history in Christopher Rufo, who is leading the charge against people like me, against Claudine Gay, against everyone who works in a university who believes in truth and justice and a future that is better than our past.

It’s not an accident that in the same news week that ultimately brings us the resignation of Claudine Gay, Nikki Haley was on tape being a slavery denier. I mean, this is the debate we’re having in this country about whether you can actually be honest about the country in all of its complexity. No one is saying that is the whole story, that all the terrible things that happened in the past are the only thing that matters. But the truth is that in half the states — let me repeat — you can’t teach that. And the way things are going now, you won’t be able to teach it at private universities, either.