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Following new accusations of plagiarism, Harvard president resigns

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The search is on for a new president of Harvard University.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah. Six months after she took the job, Claudine Gay, Harvard's first Black president, resigned yesterday. She's been taking a lot of heat for her comments to a congressional committee about antisemitism on campus and accusations of plagiarism in her past academic work.

FADEL: NPR's Tovia Smith has been following the story, and she joins us now. Hi, Tovia.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So what was it that pushed Gay to resign all these weeks later after the congressional hearing?

SMITH: Well, it seems it was these multiple allegations of plagiarism that ultimately brought her down. There was, of course, fierce backlash to her testimony last month after she said that calls for genocide against Jews would not necessarily violate campus rules. But at that point, Harvard still had her back.

Things really seem to have changed this week, when we learned of even more allegations that she lifted chunks of language without attribution. In her resignation statement, Gay said it was difficult beyond words to have doubt cast on not only her commitment to confronting hate, but also now on her scholarly rigor. And she said she's resigning so as not to be a distraction.

FADEL: Now, I know this is happening during Harvard's winter break, and so there's not really anyone on campus. What kind of reaction are you hearing?

SMITH: Well, it's split. There are those who've been calling for Gay's resignation all along who say they're thrilled now that she's finally gone. That includes a Harvard grad student I spoke to named Shabbos Kestenbaum.

SHABBOS KESTENBAUM: Whether it was her disastrous congressional testimony, whether it was her inability to enforce policies about antisemitism on campus, or whether it was creating a hostile culture at Harvard where people don't feel that they have the ability to exchange ideologies that are not in favor at the moment, it was just time and time again she did the wrong thing.

SMITH: I'll add that many people who've called for Gay's ouster have said that Harvard's problem is not a single person, but a culture. And that was also echoed by Elise Stefanik, the congresswoman who grilled Gay and the presidents of Penn and MIT at that hearing.

FADEL: OK, so how much do those comments from Stefanik about Harvard actually point to a bigger, broader political battle here?

SMITH: Very much. As one faculty member I spoke to put it, this is not about Harvard; it's about New Hampshire and Iowa. Or as another put it, the committee is using the pretext of fighting antisemitism to actually fight DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as to fight how schools approach things like race and gender.

I spoke with Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who called Gay's resignation a terrible moment for higher ed.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: That is the witch hunt that is unfolding right now, where the argument has now been extended in Claudine Gay as the first Black woman as a diversity hire who is supposedly unqualified as proof that Harvard had lowered its standards and was being ruined from within. And that is not going to stop at Harvard.

SMITH: Gay herself noted in her statement that she's faced personal attacks, quote, "fueled by racial animus," and Harvard's board also cited racist vitriol directed at her.

FADEL: So now that Gay is out, what happens next? Who leads Harvard, the battle over what speech is protected on campus?

SMITH: Yeah. Gay stays at Harvard as a tenured faculty member and an interim president takes her job until a permanent one is found. But no, don't expect her resignation to be the end of it, either in terms of the tussle over what's taught on college campuses or on where to draw the line between protected speech and hate speech on campus.

FADEL: NPR's Tovia Smith. Thanks, Tovia.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MF DOOM SONG, "WHO YOU THINK I AM?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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