How a Proxy Fight Over Campus Politics Brought Down Harvard’s President

The resignation of Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, on Tuesday followed a lengthening catalog of plagiarism allegations that appeared to steadily sap her support among the university’s faculty, students and alumni. But for many of Dr. Gay’s critics, her departure was also a proxy victory in the escalating ideological battle over American higher education.

Taking down Dr. Gay was a “a huge scalp” in the “fight for civilizational sanity,” Josh Hammer, a conservative talk show host and writer, wrote on the social media platform X.

“A crushing loss to D.E.I., wokeism, antisemitism & university elitism,” wrote the conservative commentator Liz Wheeler.

“This is the beginning of the end for D.E.I. in America’s institutions,” said the conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who had helped publicize the plagiarism allegations.

Until last month, conservative-inspired efforts to remake higher education had unfolded primarily at public universities in right-leaning states such as Florida and Texas, where G.O.P. lawmakers and state officials could exercise their legislative and executive powers to ban diversity offices, set up right-leaning academic centers and demand changes to curriculum.

But Dr. Gay’s resignation on Tuesday secured their movement a signal victory at the country’s most storied private university, which had for weeks resisted calls for a change in leadership.

“I think there are major problems with higher education, and Harvard represents a lot of those problems,” said John D. Sailer, a senior fellow at the National Association of Scholars, a conservative education nonprofit. “To the extent those problems have been exposed, and skepticism increases towards the current best instantiation of higher education, I think that puts a lot of wind in the sails of reform.”

“This is the beginning of the end for D.E.I. in America’s institutions,” said Chris Rufo, a conservative activist who pushed for Dr. Gay’s resignation and helped publicize allegations of plagiarism. Credit…Todd Anderson for The New York Times

Dr. Gay’s defenders seemed to agree, warning that her resignation would encourage conservative interference in universities and imperil academic freedom. (Though some experts have rated Harvard itself poorly on campus free speech during Dr. Gay’s tenure in leadership.)

“This is a terrible moment,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Republican congressional leaders have declared war on the independence of colleges and universities, just as Governor DeSantis has done in Florida. They will only be emboldened by Gay’s resignation.”

Barely a month had passed since Dr. Gay had appeared, along with the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism, where their lawyerly defense of a student’s right to engage in anti-Jewish speech provoked national outrage. Some Jewish students, faculty and donors also felt Dr. Gay had been too timid in her response to the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, as well as to complaints over antisemitism on campus.

Two of the three presidents who spoke at the hearing are now out of office. (The second of those is M. Elizabeth Magill, who resigned as the University of Pennsylvania president just four days after she testified before Congress.)

On Tuesday, Dr. Gay’s antagonists jockeyed for credit, sometimes hailing the effectiveness of their own political theater. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the Harvard-educated Republican, noted in a statement that her interrogation of Dr. Gay at last month’s hearing had “made history as the most viewed congressional testimony in the history of the U.S. Congress.” Republican lawmakers, she promised, would “continue to move forward to expose the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions.”

Even before the hearing, conservative activists and outlets had begun re-examining Dr. Gay’s acclaimed but relatively thin academic output, prompting further examination by mainstream news outlets.

The public drumbeat began almost immediately after the hearing with a post by Mr. Rufo, who had obtained an anonymous dossier of work published by Dr. Gay in which she had allegedly plagiarized other scholars, as well as a report in the Washington Free Beacon.

That outlet published a follow-up on Monday night with additional examples. All told, the plagiarism allegations spanned nearly half of her published academic articles, the report said.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, right, a Harvard-educated Republican, said last month’s questioning of college presidents “made history as the most viewed Congressional testimony in the history of the U.S. Congress.”Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

But along the way, Dr. Gay — a scholar of Black political participation and an architect of Harvard’s efforts to advance what she has called “racial justice” on campus — came to stand for the right’s broader critique of elite academia, which it views as intellectually narrow, lax in standards and overly focused on questions of identity.

Opponents attacked Dr. Gay, who attended Stanford University and Harvard before turning to an administrative career, as unqualified for the position she had assumed just six months ago, a charge her supporters rejected as racist.

“It was a thinly veiled exercise in race & gender when they selected Claudine Gay,” Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur and Republican candidate for president, wrote on X on Tuesday. “Here’s a radical idea for the future: select leadership based on *merit.*”

Harvard announced her departure without any indication that it believed that Dr. Gay had acted improperly; Dr. Gay’s resignation letter noted that she had made her decision to step down “in consultation with members of the corporation,” but did not elaborate. Some Harvard faculty and alumni were left to conclude that the school had simply caved to public pressure from activists and powerful donors.

“I am saddened by the inability of a great university to defend itself against an alarmingly effective campaign of misinformation and intimidation,” Randall Kennedy, a Harvard legal scholar and one of the university’s most prominent Black faculty members, wrote in a text message.

Like other major research universities, Harvard is supported by a huge volume of federal grants and other funding, a potential pressure point for Republican lawmakers going forward.

Whether the resignation of one or two college presidents will spur any broader remaking of higher education is unclear. As the Covid pandemic recedes, Republican officials and education activists have found it more difficult to interest broad swaths of voters in campaigns to restrict access to sexually explicit books, or in often-vague attacks on “wokeism” and “equity.”

The two Republican presidential contenders who have campaigned most explicitly against higher education institutions — the Yale-educated Mr. DeSantis and the Harvard-educated Mr. Ramaswamy — have failed to gain lasting traction in the race.

Efforts to stop schools from requiring job applicants to furnish diversity statements, or commitments to particular ideas about race and justice, have attracted support beyond the political right.

But more heavy-handed measures to require — or ban — the teaching of particular ideas have gained less traction, leading activists on the right to focus more on other areas, such as dismantling tenure protections and administrative programs related to D.E.I.

“If Rufo’s goal is to enlist the public into his war on higher ed, he has yet to succeed,” said Jeffrey Sachs, a scholar at Acadia University in Nova Scotia who studies academic speech policies. “The public, including a majority of Republicans, does not want government deciding what gets taught in America’s university classroom. Nor do they warm to the idea when specific legislation is presented to them for review.”

Dana Goldstein and Annie Karni contributed reporting to this story.

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