How Harvard dean39s resignation reveals a 39culture war39 at US

How Harvard dean's resignation reveals a 'culture war' at US universities


Harvard Dean Claudine Gay has been heavily criticized by some Republican politicians

Item information

  • Author: Anthony Zurcher
  • Role: BBC North America correspondent
  • 2 hours ago

The resignation of Claudine Gay, the first Black woman to become dean of the prestigious Harvard University in the United States, is being hailed as a major victory by conservatives who have opposed her on ideological grounds since she took office in July 2023.

While allegations of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation were crucial to Gay's departure from Harvard's top post, her departure is more than just a scandal of academic dishonesty.

Tepid and bureaucratic responses from panel members, including Gay, to questions about how to handle calls for genocide against Jews led to the resignation of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill.

After this episode, Harvard continued to offer support for Gay's tenure as dean. But the fight is not over yet.

To his rightwing critics, Gay represents much of what they loathe about modern American higher education, which they say is dominated by a leftwing ideology that places more emphasis on ethnic and gender diversity than academic rigor.

“It was a veiled exercise in race and gender when they chose Claudine Gay,” Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, a Harvard graduate, wrote on social media after his resignation.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens drew attention to the 53yearold Gay's relatively poor academic record, which includes no published books and just 11 articles in academic journals. He condemned what he called the “social justice model of higher education.”


Rightwing activist Christopher Rufo helped publicize Gay's plagiarism story

He wrote that the “intellectual rot” in American higher education “will not stop spreading until universities return to the idea that their central purpose is to identify, nurture, and liberate the best minds, not to in designing social utopias.”

The plagiarism allegations that led to Gay's resignation were brought to light by Christopher Rufo, a rightwing activist known for the culture war over the alleged teaching of critical race theory in US schools.

In a social media post in December 2023, Rufo outlined a strategy for conservatives who want to give visibility to stories they say are being ignored by major media outlets.

“We launched Claudine Gay’s plagiarism story from the right,” Rufo wrote.

“The next step is to introduce this into the leftcontrolled media apparatus and legitimize the narrative for centerleft actors who can overturn it. Then apply pressure.”

Rufo's efforts were amplified by media outlets including the New York Post and the Washington Free Beacon, which published details of a new anonymous complaint to Harvard on Monday (Jan. 1), including additional evidence of alleged plagiarism in Gay's published work.

In his resignation letter, Gay said he had “received personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animosity,” adding that the last few weeks had made it clear that more needed to be done to “prevent prejudice and hatred in all its forms fight”.

It was a sentiment echoed with more focused fury by the left.

“So what we’ve learned is this: Bad faith bigots who claim to care about antiSemitism will happily use women of color — especially black women — as scapegoats and lightning rods for major systemic problems,” novelist Celeste Ng wrote on social media .

“And that people who want to maintain this status quo will do everything to ensure that it remains unchanged.”


On social media, author Celeste Ng accused Harvard of giving in to “fascists.”

The current controversy at Harvard reached its peak with Gay's resignation, but broader conservative efforts to undermine and ultimately displace liberaldominated higher education institutions continue.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis the current Republican presidential candidate replaced the leadership of New College of Florida, terminated its diversity and inclusion programs, fired faculty members and installed rightwing activists, including Rufo, in the administration.

Its goal is, in part, to provide a conservative counterpoint to the modern liberal arts college.

Donald Trump has called for changes to the way American universities are accredited as part of his “Agenda 47” plan for a second term to emphasize “defense of American tradition and Western civilization.”

He also promised to eliminate equity programs, force universities to reduce overall costs and tax donations from schools that don't respect these points.

Harvard could ultimately replace Gay with someone who has similar academic and political outlook and remains committed to ways to diversify Harvard's student body.

But by ousting the president of one of the country's most prestigious universities the one embroiled in the Supreme Court's battle over racial preferences in admissions earlier this year conservatives have won a significant victory to build on.