OPINION: Did Harvard Betray Dr. Claudine Gay?

After watching their first Black president relentlessly attacked by the conservative right, it’s time the Ivy League school took some responsibility.

Dr. Claudine Gay, the first Black and second woman president of Harvard University, resigned her position on Tuesday (Jan. 2), after months of attacks from right-wing media and politicians. Her resignation is a shameful outcome of a smear campaign that exploited antisemitism to undermine her leadership and credibility. As a fellow scholar and advocate for Black people, I am outraged by how President Gay was treated and the complicity of Harvard in her downfall. I demand answers to these questions that expose the injustice and hypocrisy behind this travesty.

There are six main issues that I believe Harvard should address. And yes, I do believe they owe us an explanation.

Dr. Claudine Gay is now the former president of Harvard University.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay Resigns

Why would Harvard entertain a request from New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, a promoter of White nationalism, without a subpoena? Why didn’t Harvard’s legal team fight Dr. Gay’s involvement in such a partisan spectacle?

President Gay testified before Congress on antisemitism on college campuses, along with two other women presidents. Rep. Stefanik, who has a history of spreading lies and conspiracy theories, presided over the hearing. Why would Harvard allow its president to be subjected to such a hostile interrogation without a subpoena? Why didn’t Harvard’s legal team challenge the legitimacy and authority of the hearing and protect its president from being ambushed and humiliated?

Why were women the only university presidents called to testify?

Only 33 percent of college presidents in the U.S. are women, and only 28 percent are people of color. Yet, the only presidents who were summoned to testify were women, and one of them was Black. This is not a coincidence, but a deliberate attempt to target and undermine the authority and achievements of women in higher education, especially women of color. Why were no male presidents, especially White male presidents, asked to testify? Why were these three women (Gay, former Penn president Liz Magill, and MIT president Sally Kornbluth), singled out and scapegoated for a systemic and complex issue that transcends their individual campuses?

Why didn’t Harvard’s communication team properly prepare Dr. Gaye for the hearing? How could they be so negligent and irresponsible with their most valuable asset? Is it because she’s Black and a woman?

Dr. Gay’s testimony was criticized for her failure to say whether students calling for the genocide of Jewish people would be disciplined. She said that it depended on the context. She later apologized for her remarks and said that she regretted causing distress to the Jewish community. 

However, her apology was not enough to quell the outrage and backlash. She was accused of being insensitive, incompetent, and unfit to lead Harvard. But why was she put in such a difficult position in the first place? Why didn’t Harvard’s communication team prepare her for the hearing and anticipate the questions and challenges that she would face? 

Why didn’t they coach her on how to respond effectively and convincingly? How could they be so negligent and irresponsible with their most valuable asset, the leader and the face of Harvard? Was it because they did not care about her, respect her, or want her to succeed? I have to ask, was it because she is Black and a woman?

How could Harvard be so gullible and complicit in Christopher Rufo’s plot to destroy Dr. Gay?

Dr. Gay also faced plagiarism accusations from Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who has been leading a crusade against critical race theory. Rufo claimed that he had evidence that Gay had plagiarized parts of her dissertation and papers from other scholars. He also revealed his plans and motivations to take down Gay in a series of tweets and in the media.

He said that he was motivated by Gay’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Rufo’s accusations were baseless and malicious, as they conflated errors in citation with plagiarism, which is the illegal act of passing off someone else’s work as your own. Gay acknowledged and corrected her citation errors, saying that they were unintentional and did not affect her research. 

However, Harvard did not defend their president or challenge Rufo’s allegations. Instead, they launched an investigation into her academic integrity and gave credence and legitimacy to Rufo’s smear campaign. How could Harvard be so gullible and complicit in Rufo’s plot to destroy Dr. Gay? How could they betray their president and their values by siding with a dishonest and vindictive culture warrior who had no interest in the truth or the welfare of Harvard?

Why didn’t Harvard’s legal team fight against the slander that existed with the accusations of plagiarism?

President Gay’s resignation was the culmination of a relentless attack on her character and reputation, fueled by racism, sexism, and antisemitism. Right-wing media and politicians slandered and defamed her, accusing her of being a plagiarist, an antisemite, and an ineffective leader. Harvard failed to support her and shield her from the lies and threats, which resulted in abandonment and betrayal. She was forced to resign, not because she did anything wrong, but because she is a Black woman who dared to lead Harvard. 

Why didn’t Harvard’s legal team fight against the slander that existed with the accusations of plagiarism? Why didn’t they sue Rufo and his accomplices for defamation and libel and demand a retraction and an apology? Why didn’t they stand up for Dr. Gay and her rights and defend her honor and dignity?

This resignation is a tragedy and a travesty, not only for Harvard but for the higher education community and the nation. It signifies the loss of a brilliant and visionary leader who made history and inspired millions. It is a victory for the forces of hate and ignorance that seek to divide and destroy us. It is a wake-up call for all of us who care about justice and equity, who value diversity and inclusion, and who believe in academic freedom and integrity. We cannot let this happen again. 

We cannot let Dr. Gay’s legacy be tarnished and erased. We must demand answers and accountability from Harvard and from Congress. We must expose and resist the lies and the agenda of Rufo and his ilk. We must continue to support and celebrate Claudine Gay and her achievements. We must honor and continue the work she started at Harvard so when the next Black president is named, it won’t be in vain. 

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D is a Professor of the Counseling Psychology Program at Howard University, National Director of Education Innovation and Research for the NAACP, and Editor-in-Chief, The Journal of Negro Education.

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