Why has Claudine Gay resigned as president of Harvard?

Gay’s resignation letter cited personal threats amid rising tensions about anti-Semitism and war on Gaza.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay
Claudine Gay's six-month tenure as president is the shortest in Harvard's history [Ken Cedeno/Reuters]

After just six months as president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay has stepped down following allegations of plagiarism and a backlash over what was described as an inadequate response to campus anti-Semitism.

Gay was the university’s first Black president and only the second woman to take the role in its 388-year history. Her tenure is the shortest in the history of the university. In her resignation letter, she cited personal attacks “fuelled by racial animus” and stated that she wished to act in the “best interests” of the Harvard community and to enable it to navigate current tensions sparked by the Israel-Gaza war.

Here is what you need to know about her resignation.

Who is Claudine Gay?

Gay, 53, was named the Wilbur A Cowett Professor of Government at Harvard in 2015. She is also a professor of African and African-American studies. She became the 30th president of Harvard University when she took the post on July 1, 2023. She succeeded Lawrence S Bacow, 72, who had served as president since 2018.

A political scientist by training, Gay previously served as dean of social science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. She first joined Harvard in 2006 as a professor in the Department of Government, where she also completed her PhD in 1998. Gay earned her bachelor’s degree in Economics from Stanford University in 1992.

Gay is the daughter of Haitian immigrants to the US. She spent much of her childhood in New York and, later, Saudi Arabia, where her father worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers. Gay also attended a private boarding school, Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and is the cousin of author and academic Roxane Gay.

Why did she resign?

Gay’s resignation follows mounting pressure for her to step down after a congressional hearing about anti-Semitism on university campuses on December 4. Since then, she has also faced allegations of plagiarism which surfaced in the days after the hearing, regarding her previous academic work.

In her resignation letter on Tuesday, Gay said her decision came following consultations with the Harvard Corporation – the smaller and more powerful of Harvard’s two governing boards.

“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,” Gay wrote.

She said it had been “painful to witness the tensions and divisions that have riven our community in recent months rising at Harvard” and “distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigour”. She also referred to being “subjected to personal attacks and threats fuelled by racial animus”.

What did Gay say at Congress?

At a congressional hearing to address the issue of rising anti-Semitism on US university campuses in early December 2023, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik accused Gay of not enforcing student code-of-conduct measures to stop what she described as anti-Semitic speech on campus.

Stefanik claimed that in the name of free speech, Harvard was enabling hateful language and threats against Jewish people.

Stefanik pressed Gay on phrases such as “Intifada” and “from the river to the sea” being chanted at pro-Palestine marches on campus. Some, including Stefanik, see these statements as inciting violence against Jewish people. However, those who use these phrases maintain that Palestinian liberation should not be conflated with anti-Semitism.

When challenged, Gay did not clearly answer yes or no to whether calls on campus “for the genocide of Jews” would violate the school’s conduct policy. Instead, she stated that it would depend on the context, whether the calls were directed towards an individual and whether they were “severe and pervasive”.

In a statement posted to X two days after the hearing, Gay clarified that commitments to free expression do not entail condoning calls for violence or genocide. However, some saw this clarification as too little too late.

Presidents of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also attended the hearing. Penn’s President also stepped down in the weeks after the hearing following similar backlash from the university’s students and alumni.

However, Gay’s colleagues at Harvard came to her defence. On December 11, more than 700 faculty members at Harvard signed a letter urging against public pressures to remove Gay.

What plagiarism accusations have been made against Gay?

Following Gay’s Congress testimony in December, a Washington Free Beacon report and a Substack post by right-wing activist Christopher F Rufo made claims about alleged plagiarism by Gay in research papers from 1993 and 2017, and in the acknowledgements of her 1997 Harvard dissertation.

Harvard’s board investigated these allegations in December and concluded that she did not violate their standards for research. Without specifying which work, the board said that some articles merely required additional citations.

“President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications,” Harvard Corporation said in an email to affiliates.

Who is the new president of Harvard and what’s next for Gay?

Gay will return to her faculty position at Harvard.

The university’s provost, Alan M Garber, 69, will lead in the interim until a new president is selected.

The Harvard Corporation stated that it would begin a search for a new president “in due course” without specifying a timeline or detailing procedures.

The Corporation also confirmed Gay’s resignation via email had been sent to affiliates a few minutes after her announcement on Tuesday and praised her commitment and service to the university.

“Her own message conveying her intention to step down eloquently underscores what those who have worked with her have long known – her commitment to the institution and its mission is deep and selfless,” read the email.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies