Claudine Gay’s Resignation Was Overdue

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Claudine Gay engaged in academic misconduct. Everything else about her case is irrelevant, including the silly claims of her right-wing opponents.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

  • Hamas doesn’t want a cease-fire, Graeme Wood argues.
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  • Whatever happened to Zika?

When Truth Comes From Terrible People

Claudine Gay is stepping down as the president of Harvard University. Her decision is right and even overdue.

Despite the results of an investigation commissioned by the Harvard Corporation last month that found cases only of “inadequate” citation, new charges about her work include episodes of what most scholars would recognize as academic misconduct, including plagiarism. Experts consulted by CNN consider the recent excerpts to be plagiarism, and I agree: I was a professor for almost 35 years, at multiple institutions, including Harvard, where I taught courses for their continuing-education and summer programs for 18 years. I have referred students for varying punishments based on similar misconduct; I have also sat on boards that adjudicated such claims.

There is no way around the reality that the person responsible for Claudine Gay’s predicament is Claudine Gay.

Perhaps in a few instances, Gay forgot to attribute a source or place a footnote. But that’s not the issue. All of us who write academic works (I’ve written seven books, five for university presses) could probably get called out for some clunky paraphrasing or a few bad footnotes. And sure, maybe her dissertation committee and her later peer reviewers and editors might have been too forgiving (or inattentive). No scholars carry a full compendium of their field’s works in their head; spotting plagiarism or poor attribution is difficult even with advanced software, and it was a lot harder to do before such technological innovations.

But these new revelations about Gay’s work seem to show a pattern that is too damning to ignore and transcends excuses about sloppiness or accidents. Any scholar—to say nothing of any student—with this many problems in their work would be in a world of professional trouble. And in the end, Gay’s name is on her dissertation and her published papers. She, like every author, is ultimately responsible for the integrity of her work. (Gay has defended her scholarship, but her letter announcing her resignation makes no mention of any of the various academic accusations regarding her work.)

None of this is to excuse the general awfulness of the people who have reveled in Gay’s problems. When the Harvard president, along with the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, fumbled their way through questions about campus anti-Semitism during a congressional committee hearing led by Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, a proud MAGA Republican, Stefanik and the right-wing gadfly Christopher Rufo used Gay’s appearance to put her in the spotlight. Penn’s leader, Liz Magill, has since resigned, and Stefanik now claims Gay’s presidency as another professional kill: “I will always deliver results,” she crowed today, as if her sham hearing on anti-Semitism was the cause of Gay’s downfall.

Issues of academic misconduct aside, I’d question the judgment of any university president who answers an invitation to argue with the likes of Stefanik. But Stefanik and Rufo did not write Gay’s dissertation, and they did not co-author her scholarly articles. Feel free to deplore the messengers, their vulturine creepiness, and their gleeful opportunism. Their own failings still do not make what they found any less true. In the real world, truth sometimes comes from terrible people with dishonorable motives; if we were to purity-test the motives of every defector who handed us documents during the Cold War, we’d have had to shred incredibly valuable information on the silly grounds that the people who gave it to us weren’t very nice.

Some of Gay’s defenders, especially in academia, have nevertheless taken the bait from right-wingers who always wanted to make Gay’s very existence as Harvard’s president into a larger debate about diversity and race on campus. Gay herself, in her resignation letter, speaks of racist attacks against her. (Gay has been subjected to harassment and threats since the moment she appeared on the Hill—and likely a lot earlier—and certainly before anyone had even bothered to look at her published work.)

But none of that is relevant to the charges themselves. Look, there is a term for the particular kind of plagiarism discovered by racists and other bad people:

Plagiarism.

Here, we should recall that Gay is not the first person whose scholarly work got another look because of sudden political notoriety. Back in 2001, for example, a professor at the University of Colorado named Ward Churchill wrote some ghastly things about the people who died in 9/11, including comparing the victims in the World Trade Center to the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann. After this bravura jerkitude came to light, Churchill’s critics pushed for investigation into his published works, and in 2006, the university found that he had engaged in misconduct, including plagiarism and fabrication. It dismissed him the next year.

Claudine Gay is no Ward Churchill, but her situation is the same: A burst of attention drew political opponents to look more closely at her work. Her appearance during the congressional hearing was a bad idea for many reasons, but what happened afterward, no matter how much anyone might deplore the kinds of people involved in this case, was not a witch hunt. Racists gladly joined this effort to oust Gay, but her shortcomings are not excused by the racism of her attackers, and Gay’s colleagues in the academic world should stop engaging people on the right who are making bad-faith arguments.

Every academic knows that putting their name on a published work verifies that they have done their utmost to observe their obligations as scholars. Gay failed in those obligations. She engaged in academic misconduct. The conduct was discovered (and how it was discovered does not matter). She must take responsibility for that misconduct, and so she has, by resigning her post.

Related:

  • An old-fashioned scandal fells a new Harvard president.
  • Harvard has a veritas problem.

Today’s News

  1. A drone strike on a Hamas office in Beirut killed multiple people, including Saleh al-Arouri, a high-ranking Hamas official who was “one of the architects” of the October 7 attack against Israel, according to Hamas. Israeli and U.S. officials confirmed to Axios that Israel was behind the drone strike, but Israel has not claimed responsibility.
  2. A 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit western Japan yesterday afternoon, according to the United States Geological Survey, killing at least 57 people.
  3. Federal prosecutors charged Senator Robert Menendez with accepting bribes from a prominent New Jersey developer in exchange for using his influence to help the Qatari government.

Evening Read

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

The Least Common, Least Loved Names in America

By Rachel Gutman-Wei

When my husband and I got married, we decided we should share a last name, and that the name should be hyphenated. He didn’t want to lose a marker of his Chinese heritage, and I didn’t want to co-opt one—or give up my name if he wasn’t giving up his. So we just smushed our names together on the marriage license, figuring this was a normal thing to do, or at least unobjectionable.

But objections have indeed been raised. Not yet to my face—the worst I’ve heard has been along the lines of “I’d never hyphenate, but that’s great for you.” But I also know that anti-hyphen sentiment is widely shared: Very few American newlyweds hyphenate their names, survey data show, and it’s not hard to find op-eds that describe the practice as “crazy” and “pretentious” …

My husband and I were both bemused to discover that names like ours could inspire so much antipathy. Why does a silly little hyphen make so many people uncomfortable, or unsettled, or even—God forbid—uncomfortable-unsettled?

Read the full article.

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Culture Break

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Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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