Harvard’s Bundy Standard

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Written By Pinang Driod

In The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam described the elevation of McGeorge Bundy first to full professor, then to the deanship of Harvard in 1953. Bundy had a lowly appointment in the government department when his colleagues submitted his name to Harvard’s president, the distinguished chemist James Bryant Conant, for tenure. One wonders what could have been in Bundy’s dossier: He hadn’t written much, and his sole degree was a bachelor’s in mathematics from Yale. But Bundy was a known genius. Conant, according to Halberstam, signed off with a sigh. Tenure in government, for a man who had no Ph.D.—in fact had never taken a class in government—and few publications? “All I can say is that it couldn’t have happened in Chemistry,” Conant said.

Yesterday, another Harvard president, Claudine Gay, announced her intention to resign, after nearly a month of critique, justified and not, of her response to alleged campus anti-Semitism and her academic record. Her publication record is extremely thin, and much of it contains passages cribbed from other scholars. The end of her presidency took too long to come, and the delay was at her expense. Once the conservative gadfly Christopher Rufo and the Washington Free Beacon reporter Aaron Sibarium sensed her weakness, they found more and more instances of cribbing.

Those who rose to defend her as a scholar were left unsure whether the most recent plagiarism accusations, or criticism of her research methodology, would be the last. Eventually the uncertainty wore those defenders down. They may also have noticed that Gay herself remained mostly silent and preferred to communicate through university press releases. To be the public face of Harvard means to go out in public, and she was not doing much of that, either on her own behalf or on behalf of the university. A university president needs to be a scholar or a politician, and by yesterday one could seriously doubt whether she was either.

The Bundy story illustrates how standards have changed over the years, and how they have not. Like Bundy, Gay was a product of extreme privilege. Gay did not have a ridiculous WASP-y name or pallor, but she comes from a wealthy family and attended Exeter and Stanford. (Bundy was a Groton man.) Bundy was installed as dean in a manner that no Michigan State grad, no matter how brilliant, ever would have been. Gay’s rise, similarly, depended on the willingness of various members of America’s power elite to overlook her shortcomings and defend her when others with similar deficiencies would have been cut loose.

Gay compares, in this sense, favorably with Bundy. But what about Conant, one of the great chemists of his era? Harvard has, in the past century, had two rough categories of president: those notable for their scholarship, and those notable for something else—past success in administration, say, or origins in a particular part of the country. Gay’s defenders erred in trying to suggest that she was, like Conant or Lawrence H. Summers, one of the scholars. When she was appointed, the university’s alumni magazine heralded her as “a scholar’s scholar,” and when Rufo and others impugned her scholarship, they were accused of racism. (In her resignation, Gay herself suggested that the critique of her scholarship was “fueled by racial animus.”) In truth, Gay was more like Nathan M. Pusey. Pusey was apparently a classicist, but no one has ever read anything he wrote about the classics; in 1953, Harvard wanted a white-bread midwesterner as a president. Gay also resembled Neil Rudenstine, in that her days of academic research were long past. The excellence of Rudenstine’s writings on the poetry of Sir Philip Sidney had nothing to do with his hiring as Harvard’s president in 1991. He had been a popular Princeton administrator for years, and donors liked him.

The honest defense of Gay would have acknowledged that she was supposed to be more of a Rudenstine, and was instead being judged against Summers. Whether Gay was expected to have a Midas touch with donors, I do not know, but she was likely expected to have a kind of charisma with the social-justice and racial-equity constituencies reckoned to have power on American campuses. As a Black woman who studied the political effects of race and led initiatives on race, she was supposed to be safe against accusations that Harvard did not take seriously its mission to study and correct racial issues.

Harvard seems to have overestimated the power of those constituencies. The plagiarism accusations never impressed me much. Yes, Gay plagiarized, and students found guilty of the same crimes would be punished. But she is a quantitative social scientist, and I can see how quoting previous research with perfect fidelity might lead to a lifted sentence here and there. It is still plagiarism—and mortifying—but the stronger case against her was that her insistence on the centrality of race to Harvard’s mission conflicted with a university’s commitment to research and education of all types, not just those best studied with the bespoke tools developed for the study of race in America from her own rather narrow political perspective. (I say this as a onetime African American–studies major at Harvard, who regrets none of the education received from that department.)

Gay’s testimony before Congress and failure to speak to the issue of anti-Semitism in a convincing and satisfying way revealed another deficiency. When asked whether chanting anti-Semitic slogans would violate Harvard’s policies, she gave a legalistic and equivocal answer. This failing was harder to forgive. One of the first burdens of a university president is to interact with the outside world, in a way faithful to the mission and values of the university. Because universities are, as I have written previously, properly filled with nutjobs, extremists, and eccentrics, representing them publicly is a challenging task—at which Gay and the other university presidents failed horribly.

Compare Gay’s legalese to how Rudenstine answered a question about the limits of free speech. “I confess to be quite far on the spectrum along the way of defending First Amendment rights,” Rudenstine said, in a public appearance early in his presidency. He said that to stop speech would be to “[give] up a rather fundamental principle of the institution.” Rudenstine was on his own campus, not in a Capitol Hill star chamber, so the performances are not directly comparable. But note the fluency and humanity of his clearly unrehearsed reply: his commitment to his students’ freedom of speech, his simultaneous commitment to presiding over a campus marked by respect and decency.

In the month since Gay’s testimony, she has spoken with Harvard’s student newspaper contritely about her missteps, and she has issued statements. But since the testimony, I know of no public appearances or interviews in which Gay has offered herself to scrutiny and questioning that would allow a fair observer to decide whether she had the mettle to lead a diverse institution, filled with people who have different and incommensurable views, and who insist on being full members of the faculty or student body without having to compromise on those views.

Who would want this job, now that it is the most scrutinized position in higher education? Anyone who asks this question must lack a certain will to power, which is another entry-level criterion of a successful politician or university president. The person who might want this job is someone whose academic record is sterling, who has a history of speaking with poise about matters of public concern, and who does not mind being watched, closely, by the world. I find it interesting that Danielle Allen—a classicist with a bulletproof résumé, including publication in America’s greatest magazine, and demonstrated political ambition—has not been mentioned more often. Allen currently occupies the James Bryant Conant chair at Harvard. Last month, after Gay’s missteps, she wrote a Washington Post column that was a model of sanity and political caution. I wonder if the column was an audition. It acknowledged the failings of campus initiatives on diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, and made Rudenstine-like noises about how best to pursue those underlying values.

Gay has said she will return to her tenured position in Harvard’s government department and the career in political science that she left several years ago to become an academic administrator. She waited too long to make this move. But she is young enough to have a great opportunity before her. Rufo and others took her down by questioning the quality of her work, and finding real flaws in it. The proper form of revenge would be to demonstrate every virtue she was accused of lacking—by publishing in top journals, by training another generation of scholars, and proving that the initiatives she championed as a dean and president were worthy of her emphasis. Or she could quietly draw a tenured professor’s salary and, like many tenured professors, do nothing. By the McGeorge Bundy standard, that might not be so bad, either: He left Harvard for the White House, and got us into Vietnam. Sometimes a padded room in an Ivy or ivory tower is safer for everyone.

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