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Elite US universities face a political crisis they can’t control

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — The resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay after new plagiarism claims closes her chapter in a storm that has dragged elite schools into bitter pre-election politics.

Gay announced she was stepping down on Tuesday, ending the shortest tenure atop the renowned Ivy League university in history, after weeks of criticism reignited when The Washington Free Beacon published new accusations that she had lifted language she used in a paper 20 years ago from another professor.

Her departure comes nearly a month after Gay and other university presidents were asked in a congressional hearing whether calls for genocide against Jews in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza were in violation of their schools’ codes of conduct. She answered: “It can be, depending on the context.” That technical and overly nuanced reply to a no-brainer question was seen by many critics across the political spectrum as deeply problematic. She later apologized for her remarks.

But her problems, which were then exacerbated by plagiarism claims, were seized upon, especially by Republicans increasingly targeting top schools as examples of “elite” American institutions they see as in the throes of a leftist political transformation.

Gay’s chief antagonist, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a Harvard graduate and leading ally of ex-President Donald Trump, was quick to celebrate her resignation in a statement that also hinted at future peril for universities from an investigation by the House GOP majority that could raise concerns over academic freedom.

“The resignation of Harvard’s antisemitic plagiarist president is long overdue. Claudine Gay’s morally bankrupt answers to my questions made history as the most viewed Congressional testimony in the history of the U.S. Congress,” said Stefanik, the chairwoman of the House GOP conference. She added, “This is just the beginning of what will be the greatest scandal of any college or university in history.”

There were also immediate warnings from prominent African American leaders that Gay had been driven out of Harvard because she dismantled racial impediments as the first Black woman president of the university.

“This is an attack on every Black woman in this country who’s put a crack in the glass ceiling,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network.

Given the political stakes at play, Gay’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the showdown between conservatives and elite American schools since it fits into the populist narrative on the right that prestigious American universities, with their push for diversity and inclusion on race and gender issues, have moved beyond the rest of the country.

In hindsight, the disastrous congressional hearing last year offered the university presidents’ critics a political opening. Then, despite Gay’s apology for her comments, the drip, drip of allegations about plagiarism made her position untenable.

“I think the answer that she gave on the question about antisemitism was not a good answer … (but) that wouldn’t have cost her her job,” Frederick Lawrence, the former president of Brandeis University, told CNN’s Jake Tapper Tuesday. “I think the plagiarism allegation is what really stuck and because it didn’t go away and because there was this sense of continuing investigations of that, I think it made it inevitable.”

Gay seemed to agree, saying in her resignation statement, “It has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.”

While there are clear political motivations at play in the right’s assault on the country’s most storied universities, the controversies are also unfolding at a fraught moment in higher education. Elite universities are being buffeted by claims that they are tainted by the political doctrines of the left and that colleges are becoming less a place to prepare new generations and more an incubator of radical ideology.

By definition, academia deals in nuance. Universities have traditionally been places where ideas are pushed to their limits, even those that many regard as unacceptable, in order to preserve the definitional need for free speech and inquiry. But, critics say the balance is off kilter and that necessary actions to reform institutions that for years discriminated on the basis of gender, race and class have become consumed by their own radicalizing social revolution.

Are university leaders held to the same accountability as their students?

A Harvard spokesperson told CNN last month Gay would update her 1997 dissertation to correct additional instances of “inadequate citation.” The new corrections, first reported by the Harvard Crimson, follow two previous updates Gay issued last week to scholarly articles she wrote in the 2000s.

A review published by CNN had found Gay’s previous requested corrections did not address even clearer examples of plagiarism from her earlier academic work, including her dissertation. Plagiarism charges against Gay were first circulated by conservative activists and later reported by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication.

Ivy League institutions are a favorite target for the new Trump populist right and reflect the evolution of the Republican Party in recent years away from its own elitist roots. And Gay’s latest troubles soon became a new opening for Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said last month she had widened an existing investigation into campus antisemitism to include the plagiarism allegations. “An allegation of plagiarism by a top school official at any university would be reason for concern, but Harvard is not just any university. It styles itself as one of the top educational institutions in the country,” Foxx wrote in a letter to Penny Pritzker, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation.

The showdown is made to measure for Foxx, an enthusiastic advocate for Trump, as it allows her to hit the MAGA sweet spot of assaulting one of the ultimate establishment institutions in the United States. She is heaping pressure on a Harvard president seen as a standard bearer for the kind of diversity and inclusion programs that many on the right see as antithetical to their view of American values.

Civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill called the investigation “shocking and dangerous” at the time and questioned why members of Congress are spending their time probing Harvard rather than passing a border bill or aid to Ukraine. “When you challenge the independence of private institutions, you are challenging a core element of our democracy. We should be on alert,” Ifill told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on “The Source” last month.

“If Harvard wants to do its own investigation, it is free to do so. But for members of Congress to decide that they want to meddle into the private affairs of a private institution in order to score political points and to target a Black president is incredibly dangerous,” added Ifill, the former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a graduate of Yale and Harvard, has made waging a fight against elite institutions a cornerstone of his tenure and his campaign. He wrote in his autobiography, “The Courage to be Free,” that he detected more wisdom in working-class communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania than he encountered at both schools, where “entitled and tenured professors reigned as potentates, sure in the smugness of their positions, but utterly unaware of the lives of most Americans, including those that they professed to care about.”

His comments may be self-serving attempts to bolster his political mythology – or hint at a sincere reaction to his education that powered his political rise – or both. But DeSantis is also tapping into a powerful seam in the Trump-era GOP that was also evident, for example, in the demonizing of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases specialist during the Covid-19 emergency.

But the plagiarism allegations, and the way Harvard handled them, also pose legitimatize questions over whether the university is holding its president — the guarantor and epitome of its standards of scholarship – to the same standards it’d apply to an undergraduate student. “If a university is willing to look the other way and not hold faculty accountable for engaging in academically dishonest behavior, it cheapens its mission and the value of its education,” Foxx wrote. “Students must be evaluated fairly, under known standards – and have a right to see that faculty are, too.”

Antisemitism controversy widened criticism of top academic presidents beyond conservatives

The heat on universities is likely to intensify this year as the presidential election heats up. But the appearance of Gay and two other university presidents at a hearing of the House Education Committee last month threatens to become a seminal moment that underscored how, especially in the age of social media, elite institutions and their leaders can quickly appear out of touch with American society.

The most high-profile questioning was conducted by Stefanik, who repudiated her more moderate Republicanism to emerge as a clarion for Trumpism — with swift benefits for her political career.

Stefanik asked Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth and then-University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill whether calls for genocide against Jews violated the codes of conduct at their respective institutions.

Gay said she found such speech personally abhorrent and offensive to Harvard’s values, but added that “when speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment or intimidation, we take action.” This answer came across as academic and overly technical given the shocking rise of antisemitism following the Hamas terror attacks on Israel. Many Americans believe that a call for genocide in itself constitutes abhorrent conduct. Gay later apologized for her remarks, telling the Harvard Crimson, “Words matter.”

Magill’s answers appeared even more evasive than those of Gay, crossing into apparent academic contempt for Stefanik’s black-and-white line of politicized interrogation. Magill later clarified her remarks but didn’t apologize and resigned amid a political firestorm and under pressure from University of Pennsylvania graduates and donors.

Some defenders of Gay and her colleagues argued that the situation was more complex than it seemed since Stefanik specifically asked the witnesses to comment on the phrase “globalize the intifada,” which has been used by pro-Palestinian demonstrators and others since the war erupted. The Arabic word intifada, meaning “shaking off,” refers to two, years-long popular uprisings by Palestinians in 1987 and 2000 against Israeli rule of the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip. The terminology was used to reference resistance to Israeli government policy not genocide against Jews.

But there have been instances in which the phrase was used by some pro-Hamas protesters following the group’s horrific terror attacks against civilians inside Israel.

So while the university presidents may have been protecting the core principle of free speech with their remarks, their distinction between someone advocating genocide and acting upon it came across as insensitive, absurd and morally barren.

The encounter presented a huge political victory for Stefanik, whose support for Trump has lifted her to the top echelons of leadership as chair of the House Republican conference. It prompted her critics, like Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, to ask why she failed to condemn the ex-president’s meeting with Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and Kanye West, now known as Ye, who has long been accused of antisemitic rhetoric.

But more than anything else, it encapsulated the public crisis facing top American universities and accusations that they are not just isolated from the rest of society, but are threatening their own intellectual mission with political equivocation.

This story, which was originally published on December 22, 2023, has been updated to reflect Claudine Gay’s resignation.

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