columnSchools & Higher Education

Harvard resignation is a DEI debacle

Claudine Gay’s brief reign at the Ivy League institution illustrates everything that is wrong about the woke ideology dominating our culture, especially its enabling of antisemitism.

Claudine Gay (center), the president of Harvard University, testifies during a House committee hearing about antisemitism on campus on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Claudine Gay (center), the president of Harvard University, testifies during a House committee hearing about antisemitism on campus on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the end, not even the support of former President Barack Obama and one of his former cabinet members was enough to save Claudine Gay from being forced out as president of Harvard University. Nor did the initial support of the Harvard Corporation itself, the endorsement of much of the Harvard faculty or the student newspaper allow Gay to remain in office at one of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions. After a month of controversy that began with her appalling testimony in front of Congress on Dec. 5, along with the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, and was prolonged by a series of revelations about her history of plagiarism, the drama concluded on Jan. 2 when she issued a statement declaring her intention to resign.

The coup de grace was administered the day before when The Washington Free Beacon published a story alleging more instances of plagiarism in her scholarly work. By that point, eight of her 17 published works were under scrutiny for stealing the work of others. This latest charge didn’t merely involve a failure to make proper attribution when making points in a paper but a matter of lifting half a page of material verbatim from the writing of another scholar. Such misdeeds usually involve the most severe consequences for students accused of this.

The idea that the president of Harvard should be given a pass for doing what would get someone barely out of high school expelled became less and less viable, even though that was exactly what her defenders thought was appropriate, largely because of her status as the first black president of Harvard. But as the evidence showing that she was an academic fraud began to pile up, the university’s board realized that their reputation was being tarnished along with hers.

Defending antisemitism

But as far as some of her remaining defenders on the left are concerned, her fate is still wrong because they know that the scrutiny of Gay’s past was the result of the controversy over her congressional testimony. When asked by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard’s code of conduct, Gay, along with Penn’s Liz Magill and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth, declared that it depended on the “context.”

The indifference of three of America’s most prestigious universities to the open antisemitism that has become routine on college campuses even before the Oct. 7 Hamas atrocities rightly sparked outrage. Given that everyone knows that discipline against students or faculty who call for violence against protected minority groups like African-Americans or Hispanics at these schools would not be a matter of context, the congressional hearing and the viral video that it produced was a turning point in the discussion about Jew-hatred and the safety of students. Magill and Gay backtracked from their statements. Within days, Magill, who gave the weakest performance of the trio and whose university had already been under fire for enabling Jew-hatred and demonization of Israel, tendered her resignation on Dec. 9.

Kornbluth held her ground with little sign that she would suffer any consequences for her stand. And Gay, too, would probably have survived, if not for the determination of billionaire donor Bill Ackman to hold her accountable. Once he and others started digging into her past—as always happens to public figures involved in a controversy—they found the sort of damning evidence that led to her academic downfall.

But there’s more to this story than hers being the shortest presidential tenure in the long history of Harvard.

The reason why Gay was so vulnerable to criticism wasn’t just the testimony but the fact that her career embodied everything that is wrong about an ideology helping to fuel the surge in antisemitism in the United States.

She fully embraced the dogma of the woke diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) catechism. That was evident in her reaction to the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust on Oct. 7 when she not only failed to condemn Hamas but defended the 34 Harvard student groups that placed the blame for the terrorists’ crimes on Israel as an expression of free speech. That was hypocritical given Harvard’s standing as the lowest-ranked college in the country when it comes to free speech since conservatives are often silenced there. Her subsequent efforts to investigate antisemitism on her campus were quickly seen as a sham by those involved.

The problem there, as elsewhere in academia, was that the elevation of critical race theory and intersectionality from dubious extremist theories to the position of unchallenged orthodoxy was a victory for antisemites.

The woke mindset divides the world into two immutable groups locked in perpetual conflict: white racist oppressors and victimized people of color. And it falsely labels Jews, especially Israel, as white oppressors of Palestinians even though Jews are not “white” and the conflict in the Middle East isn’t about race. Misrepresenting the Palestinian war to destroy the only Jewish state on the planet as morally equivalent to the struggle for civil rights in the United States has consequences. DEI dogma makes Jews the one minority group against which discrimination, intimidation and even violence is not only permitted but actually encouraged. That is exactly what we saw happen at Harvard and at other college campuses, and on the streets of American cities after Oct. 7.

While some justify Gay’s stand as one in defense of free speech, that’s a lie. There is no free speech at Harvard for advocating the lynching of blacks or encouraging harm against Hispanics or Asians. How then can it be permissible to call for the genocide of Jews in Israel or anywhere else, as the pro-Hamas students and their fellow travelers are saying?

But defending DEI was also synonymous with Gay’s survival in her office. She was raised to the pinnacle of academia despite having the sort of flimsy scholarly record that would not otherwise have merited her consideration for such a high position. That was largely because as a black woman, she punched the diversity ticket in a way that made her particularly attractive despite her lean and (as it turned out) largely dubious credentials. To even note this fact is enough for leftists, who were willing to go to any lengths to defend her after her congressional testimony, to charge her critics with racism. Indeed, Gay raised the charge herself in a pathetic attempt to attack her critics even as she resigned. But it is impossible to imagine such a marginal scholar compromised by ethical misdeeds being chosen as president of Harvard under any other circumstances.

Not a victim of racism

This is a shame because the cause of equal opportunity for groups like African-Americans, who have faced centuries of racist discrimination in the United States, should not be mixed up with this toxic ideology. DEI seeks to replace the principle of equal opportunity in which everyone is judged on their individual merits—the “dream” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—with one of “equity,” which demands quotas in which our race or ethnicity is the most important aspect of our identity and qualifications.

In this way, DEI exacerbates racial division rather than building on the incredible progress America has made in the last 60 years since the death of Jim Crow. But it is also particularly dangerous for Jews, who were subjected to restrictive quotas only a century ago at places like Harvard.

People like Obama and Penny Pritzker, the liberal Jewish billionaire who served as his Commerce Secretary and whose donations put her on the Harvard board, were most eager to save Gay because her fate was bound up with the defense of DEI. And they might well have succeeded in keeping her in office had not the drip-drip of plagiarism charges made it too embarrassing for the school to retain her.

Still, this episode is not just about the fall of a person who was unqualified as well as clearly unsuited to a post associated with the most scrupulous academic ethics.

The reign of DEI, which substitutes race for merit and enshrines a leftist dogma targeting Jews as an unchallengeable faith, makes appointments like hers inevitable. The problem is not just that Claudine Gay was the president of Harvard. Rather, it is that as long as DEI is in place and enforced by woke commissars who fill the ranks of the DEI offices that govern admissions, discipline and even curricula at many schools, debased standards and out-of-control antisemitism are going to be the result.

While she will be falsely portrayed as a martyr to racial intolerance, the truth is that her tenure at Harvard—in which conservatives continued to be discriminated against, but the “free speech” of Jew-haters was defended and an unqualified plagiarist was held up as a role model—epitomized what happens when DEI rules. The only way to save Harvard and the rest of the educational system is to throw out such an ideology that not only threatens Jews but dooms America to a future of perpetual racial conflict.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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