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Plagiarism claims give Harvard potential off ramp to remove president in antisemitism controversy

Claudine Gay plagiarized fellow black female academic and her own advisor among others in doctoral thesis, activist says. President has already lost a billion from "small group" of donors, influential alum claims.

Published: December 11, 2023 11:00pm

If Claudine Gay is still an Ivy League president by week's end, she'll likely have to credit the support of fellow black faculty amid alleged plagiarism of another black female academic.

Harvard's embattled president, inaugurated just two months ago, is facing the same fate as Liz Magill, who stepped down as president of the University of Pennsylvania on Saturday due to the fallout from the congressional testimony she, Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth gave about the rise of campus antisemitism since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.

The trio repeatedly refused to deem campus chants widely perceived as calling for genocide against Jews as punishable harassment, prompting a bipartisan call for their resignations from more than 70 lawmakers, campus populations and influential donors such as Harvard alum and hedge fund magnate Bill Ackman.

Their testimony was so cringeworthy that it prompted a parody on "Saturday Night Live." The actress portraying Gay answered a hypothetical question about Harvard's response to a student who admitted poisoning the water supply: "If they poisoned it with diversity, that could be wonderful."

Gay belatedly tried damage control, telling the campus newspaper The Harvard Crimson on Friday that she got "caught up in  [...] an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures" with New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik, producing a viral moment later lampooned on NBC-TV's Saturday night sketch comedy show.

She wishes that she had "return[ed] 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," Gay said.

"Claudine Gay has done more damage to the reputation of Harvard University than any individual in our nearly 500-year history," in part by "failing to enforce Harvard’s own rules on student conduct" as evidenced by her "it depends" testimony, Ackman wrote Sunday to its two governing boards, the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers.

Ackman also wrote that he was "personally aware of more than a billion dollars of terminated donations from a small group of Harvard’s most generous Jewish and non-Jewish alumni."


The Harvard Corporation met unexpectedly Monday after its regularly scheduled meeting Sunday, presumably to discuss Gay's future in light of what Ackman and others are saying. Magill lost Penn a $100 million donation two days before her resignation.

Civil liberties groups and activists have warned against expanding speech restrictions in the name of protecting Jewish students, as suggested by Magill in a walkback video before her termination and a professor on Penn's Open Expression Committee in The Washington Post.

"The right solution is to eliminate all speech codes and protect free speech consistently – not to censor consistently," the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression wrote Monday on X, formerly Twitter, while allowing that "the targeted, extreme, repetitive, unwanted nature" of genocidal chants can constitute punishable harassment.

"Magill’s original answer was right. Context does matter," FIRE Legal Director Will Creeley and UCLA First Amendment law professor Eugene Volokh wrote Sunday in the Los Angeles Times. "Indeed, any new rule prohibiting 'advocacy of genocide' could easily be used against pro-Israel speakers" for advocating killing Hamas fighters even with civilian collateral damage.

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo and investigative journalist Chris Brunet gave Harvard a possible way to save face by firing Gay without casting a pall over anti-Israel activism: plagiarism.

They published their research on Gay's 1997 doctoral dissertation Sunday night, claiming to find repeated "nearly verbatim" copying of others' work "without providing quotation marks" or crediting them. 

One is Carol Swain, a former Vanderbilt political science professor and member of President Trump's 1776 Commission who has long been targeted for espousing conservative views as a black woman. 

Swain added context to the allegations Sunday night, saying Gay's "whole research agenda is built around my pathbreaking book" on African-American representation in Congress, but not "directly engaging the ideas. The least important issue is her missing quotations."

Gay also passed off "an entire appendix" taken from her dissertation adviser Gary King's book as "her own original work," without disclosing it's "entirely grounded in King's concepts," Rufo and Brunet wrote, noting other college presidents have been fired for similar proven allegations.

"I stand by the integrity of my scholarship," Gay told The Boston Globe in response to the allegations, while King called them "false and absurd," prompting Rufo to note that Gay didn't specifically deny plagiarism.

More than a quarter of Harvard's nearly 2,300 faculty have signed letters supporting Gay, according to The Crimson, which said one letter alone had nearly 700 signatures as of Monday morning that urged Harvard to "resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom."

Another letter was signed by 85 black faculty including luminaries Henry Louis Gates and Randall Kennedy.

"The suggestion that she would not stand boldly against manifestations of antisemitism and any suggestion that her selection as president was the result of a process that elevated an unqualified person based on considerations of race and gender are specious and politically motivated," they wrote.

Ackman had alleged Harvard's presidential selection process "would not consider a candidate for president that did not meet [diversity, equity and inclusion] criteria," and he doubled down Sunday by claiming "multiple sources" confirmed the search committee "excluded non-DEI eligible candidates from the process."

Gay's tenure as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has been flagged by Ackman and others. Two years ago, Brunet alleged Gay covered up credible allegations that a professor fabricated data for a study on how demolishing public housing affects voting behavior to reach a preferred conclusion.

Clemson political philosopher C. Bradley Thompson published what he called Gay's summer 2020 memo, on the eve of her consideration for president, outlining a much greater role for race in FAS, which Thompson said "laid the groundwork for the anti-semitism & the anti-Americanism rampant at Harvard today."

Kornbluth's position at MIT does not appear to be in peril for now.

The MIT Corporation released a statement Thursday pledging its "unreserved support" for its president despite the House Education and Workforce Committee – before which Kornbluth testified – opening an investigation of MIT based on her testimony.

"She has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism," the governing body said the same day Accuracy in Media sent a billboard truck to MIT criticizing Kornbluth and promoting its new website  

Ackman and others are stepping up the pressure in response. The hedge fund magnate said he would spare MIT, the alma mater of his wife, a similar broadside if it "promptly terminate[s]" Kornbluth. 

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Holocaust research and advocacy organization, each called on Gay and Kornbluth to resign.

Legendary actor and vocal conservative James Woods shared a Babylon Bee parody article that said Magill had joined the "Hamas Institute of Technology," and he responded: "Take Sally Kornbluth with you."

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