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The culture war came for Claudine Gay — and isn’t done yet

Harvard’s former president is just one target in the conservative uproar over higher education.

Claudine Gay speaks into a microphone.
Claudine Gay, former president of Harvard University, testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee on December 5, 2023, in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing to investigate antisemitism on college campuses.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Days after the resignation of Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard University, students, faculty, alumni, observers, and Gay herself are sounding alarms that her resignation was the outcome of mounting political pressure from conservatives on colleges and universities.

Now, her rocky tenure and stunning downfall have emboldened conservative activists to keep up their fight.

Gay stepped down as president on January 2 amid numerous accusations that she had plagiarized some of her academic writings and that she’d failed to address antisemitism on campus in the wake of Hamas’s October attack on Israel; Gay and Harvard have since acknowledged that Gay made “missteps” and “mistakes” both in a failure to initially cite materials from other authors and better communicate Harvard’s commitment to confronting antisemitism.

Meanwhile, conservatives and billionaire donors are jostling for credit for a departure that they say was warranted and overdue, arguing that Gay lacked the merit to lead Harvard through campus unrest or exemplify academic integrity.

But the fallout at one of the nation’s elite universities is also illuminating the ways in which the political right is increasingly targeting education, with deliberate efforts to “take on” elite schools by stripping them of federal student loan money and undermine diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, and a parallel movement to undo K–12 education with laws that limit the teaching of history or ban books and classroom libraries.

People on both sides of the controversy have portrayed the resignation as something much bigger than just Gay or plagiarism or antisemitism.

“This is the beginning of the end for DEI in America’s institutions,” conservative activist Christopher Rufo, one of Gay’s most vocal detractors on the right, posted on X after Gay’s resignation. “We will expose you. We will outmaneuver you. And we will not stop fighting until we have restored colorblind equality in our great nation.”

In an op-ed published in the New York Times on January 3, Gay, highlighting the racist and violent rhetoric that accompanied calls for her ouster, wrote, “The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader. 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 such campaigns don’t end there.”

Gay’s undoing shows how conservatives are increasingly at odds with elite institutions and higher education more broadly, and growing coordinated — and more persistent — in their attempts to undo the academic systems and progress that they say are destroying the United States.

How Claudine Gay’s presidency was undone

Claudine Gay became the 30th president of Harvard on July 1, a move that made her the first Black person and person of color, and second woman, to lead one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.

Her appointment was widely hailed by students and administrators. But quickly, after the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, her presidency sank into turmoil. It began when more than 30 Harvard student groups published an open letter stating that they held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” in the attack that killed about 1,200 Israelis. Initially, Gay neither publicly condemned Hamas nor denounced the student letter, though she eventually issued numerous statements in the following weeks that vigorously condemned Hamas’s “terrorist atrocities” and denounced the use of the term “from the river to the sea.”

But her response led to weeks of controversy, in part led by billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alum Bill Ackman. It came to a head at a House committee hearing on campus antisemitism where Gay, alongside the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testified before House committee members about anti-Jewish prejudice on their campuses.

When Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York asked, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?” Gay responded, “It can be, depending on the context.” She added, “Antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.”

Gay was widely criticized for failing to unequivocally say that calling for the genocide of Jews is a violation of school policy. Gay later apologized in a Harvard Crimson interview, stating, “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.” But donors and conservative pundits had already begun calling for the university to remove Gay from the presidency.

Meanwhile, another avenue for criticism of Gay opened up. Conservative activists began bandying about an explosive charge: that Gay had plagiarized in her academic work.

Rufo, who has orchestrated a number of right-wing attacks on so-called wokeism, published a newsletter accusing Gay of plagiarism in her 1997 dissertation, noting on X that he and another journalist had “sat on the Claudine Gay plagiarism materials for the past week, waiting for the precise moment of maximum impact.” Rufo’s accusation singled out sentences and paragraphs in her academic work that were identical to those in other sources.

The conservative online publication the Washington Free Beacon released its own investigation into alleged plagiarism in four of Gay’s works published between 1993 and 2017, including in her dissertation, arguing there were “clear-cut cases” of plagiarism because two paragraphs were copied almost verbatim from a paper by political scientists Bradley Palmquist and Stephen Voss.

The New York Times also identified phrases, sentences, and sections that critics have singled out for plagiarism.

For example, Gay has been accused of copying two sentences in the acknowledgments of her dissertation from the acknowledgments of political scientist Jennifer L. Hochschild’s 1996 book, Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation. In that example, Hochschild thanked her adviser who “showed me the importance of getting the data right and of following where they lead without fear or favor,” and “drove me much harder than I sometimes wanted to be driven.”

In Gay’s acknowledgment, she thanked her dissertation adviser who “reminded me of the importance of getting the data right and following where they lead without fear or favor” and her family who “drove me harder than I sometimes wanted to be driven.”

In the other instances, Gay replicated entire phrases and sentences, sometimes altering a few words. Harvard’s plagiarism policy, which students and faculty must adhere to, states that when writers are using information from another source they “must give credit to the author of the source material, either by placing the source material in quotation marks and providing a clear citation, or by paraphrasing the source material and providing a clear citation,” according to the Crimson.

While conservative activists had dubious motives, their accusations launched a fraught conversation about academic standards — whether Gay’s conduct was the result of sloppiness or misattribution or whether she intended to represent the work of other scholars as her own. Since there was a pattern of misattribution throughout several papers over several years, and since the Harvard governing board initially tried to dismiss the allegations without conducting its own investigation, Gay has been unable to dodge the “plagiarist” label. Some scholars have come to Gay’s defense, including her thesis adviser, whom she was accused of plagiarizing.

Gay has said she stands by the integrity of her scholarship. “Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards,” she said. After the independent board of judges investigated her work, it found two areas where she needed to add citations, but said that the violations didn’t constitute “research misconduct.”

On December 20, the school said it found two more instances of “duplicative language without appropriate attribution” in her work, this time in the dissertation. Congress then requested that Harvard share all documents related to the plagiarism investigation. On January 1, Gay was hit with a new set of anonymous plagiarism accusations published in the Washington Free Beacon, prompting her resignation. Gay will resume her faculty position in the political science department as the university searches for a long-term president.

The broader right-wing culture war against higher education

Gay’s resignation cannot be separated from the broader culture war that conservatives have waged on K–12 and higher education — sites where “radical left indoctrination” has thrived, according to conservatives.

This culture war has seen several stages: laws to limit the teaching of history; attacks on concepts such as critical race theory and intersectionality; the banning of books and classroom libraries; the rejection of African American Studies; a denunciation of social-emotional learning; the defunding of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; the weaponization of anti-semitism to curtail DEI; the battle against affirmative action; the reworking of sex education; and the overhaul of entire education systems, from tenure to course offerings, in various states, including Florida.

“TWO DOWN,” Stefanik wrote on X following the resignation, with three red siren emojis, referring to Gay’s resignation and that of former Penn president Liz Magill last month. “I will always deliver results,” she said in another statement. “The resignation of Harvard’s antisemitic plagiarist president is long overdue. [...] Our robust Congressional investigation will continue to move forward to expose the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions.”

After Gay’s resignation, the term “affirmative action” began trending on X, as users echoed the arguments of Rufo and other conservatives that Gay was simply a DEI or “affirmative action hire” not qualified for the role. Though many conservative commentators never explicitly mentioned her race, Gay and Harvard’s governing board say it was one motivating factor all along.

As conservatives turn their attention to other university leaders to take down, including MIT President Sally Kornbluth, some are raising concerns about the clashes to come. Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad told Democracy Now!, “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.”

In its letter acknowledging Gay’s resignation and announcing the interim president, Harvard’s governing board acknowledged this seemingly perfect storm.

“While President Gay has acknowledged missteps and has taken responsibility for them, it is also true that she has shown remarkable resilience in the face of deeply personal and sustained attacks,” they wrote. “While some of this has played out in the public domain, much of it has taken the form of repugnant and in some cases racist vitriol directed at her through disgraceful emails and phone calls. We condemn such attacks in the strongest possible terms.”

When Gay assumed the role, she hoped that her presence would help open doors. “As a woman of color, as a daughter of immigrants, if my presence in this role affirms someone’s sense of belonging at Harvard, that is a great honor,” Gay said in a video announcing her appointment. “And for those who are beyond our gates, if this prompts them to look anew at Harvard, to consider new possibilities for themselves and their futures, then my appointment will have meaning for me that goes beyond words.”

Just months later, her tone was different. “College campuses in our country must remain places where students can learn, share and grow together,” she wrote in the Times, “not spaces where proxy battles and political grandstanding take root.”

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