Claudine Gay took the helm as president of Harvard University in July 2023, becoming the first person of color to lead the institution in its 388-year history.
Just six months later, the academic scholar stepped down from her position amid controversy over accusations of antisemitism and mounting claims that she plagiarized past work. Her tenure is the shortest in the school’s history.
“It has been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor—two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am—and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus,” Gay wrote in her resignation letter.
Gay’s resignation comes after she and other university presidents testified before Congress in November 2023 about how their campuses were addressing antisemitism. She and the others did not explicitly say that on-campus calls for genocide of Jewish people constituted bullying and harassment. Days later, Gay apologized for her words.
Many criticized Gay for her statements to Congress, which occurred weeks after Hamas attacked Israeli civilians on Oct. 7. White House spokesperson Andrew Bates told Axios, “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”
Antisemitism has skyrocketed in the weeks following the Oct. 7 attacks. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 312 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7 and Oct. 23—190 of which were directly linked to the Israel-Hamas war.
Kenneth L. Marcus, the founder and leader of the Louis D. Brandeis Center, an institution dedicated to advancing the civil and human rights of Jewish people, said Gay’s words were “similar to the insensitive, tone-deaf responses we hear in many circles.”
He said each university president who testified before Congress “live[s] within the same echo chamber, exchanging views with similarly-minded people, and became oblivious to how their words would sound to the great bulk of Americans who don’t inhabit the same chambers.”
The Race Factor
Scrutiny against Gay reignited when conservative website The Washington Free Beacon published accusations that she had lifted language she used years ago in multiple papers, including her dissertation, from another professor.
“Multiple episodes of improper or omitted citations were found,” said Stephen Paskoff, a former litigator with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Everyone makes mistakes, but many believe that the nature of what happened here was more than a single, solitary episode of executive misconduct.”
Gay wrote in The New York Times that she has never misrepresented her research findings nor claimed credit for the research of others. She said those who “relentlessly campaigned” to oust her since the congressional hearing “recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament” and “pushed a false narrative of indifference and incompetence.
“It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution,” Gay wrote.
Janice Gassam Asare, a DE&I consultant and public speaker in New York City, said the scrutiny Gay faced is not unlike that encountered by other Black women leaders elevated into prominent positions.
As Gassam Asare explained, Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female U.S. Supreme Court justice, dealt with microaggressions from conservative politicians and prominent media members during her confirmation hearings.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The New York Times Magazine, was initially denied tenure by the University of North Carolina despite the school appointing her to a position that typically comes with tenure. After public pressure, the school eventually granted Hannah-Jones tenure, but she declined the position.
“Being excellent for Black folks, and especially Black women, will not shield you from harm,” Gassam Asare said.
Holding Leaders Accountable
After Gay’s promotion to president of Harvard, some conservative activists deemed her a “diversity hire” despite her credentials. Gassam Asare believes that her resignation is only the beginning of more attacks on inclusion, equity and diversity and on people of color.
“We must watch what is happening closely and come together to fight against the takedown of DE&I … while also preparing for and strategizing against more attacks in the future,” Gassam Asare said. “There is clear evidence that concerted efforts aimed at recruiting and retaining underrepresented staff members can be effective, but HR professionals must be prepared to defend the efforts in the current climate we’re in.”
Paskoff also emphasized the need for organizational accountability. He said a company’s principles and practices need to be consistently and uniformly applied by leaders to showcase their commitment to these efforts. A person’s role in the organization, he explained, should have no bearing on if or when these principles should be applied.
“In any industry, especially academia, clear standards of behavior and organizational values must be acted on fairly and consistently,” Paskoff added. “Applying core values within an organization is essential to preserving the integrity of its culture.”
Making exceptions to rules due to status, such as president or CEO, implies that organizational standards don’t apply to those in powerful positions, he added. Such exceptions happen often when leaders face no consequences for engaging in behaviors that would get others fired.
“People know about misbehaviors, or eventually find out about them,” Paskoff explained, “which undermines both the credibility and the pillars of value that drive culture.”