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Claudine Gay Had to Go. She Was Right About the Big Things.

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Claudine Gay’s resignation as Harvard’s president for having repeatedly engaged in low-level plagiarism is a strange and sad ending to her brief tenure as a symbol in the culture wars. The tragicomedy of it lies in the disjuncture between the picayune scale of her sloppiness and the broader ideological stakes she came to symbolize. On those stakes, Gay was right. But on the morally insignificant matter that doomed her — the discovery that she had violated rules of attribution in her academic work — she was frustratingly defenseless.

Until a month ago, Gay’s most potent critics were on the political left. Radical students repeatedly disrupted her public appearances, first demanding things like an expansion of ethnic studies and later pressuring her to endorse their viewpoint on the war between Israel and Hamas. The aftermath of October 7 created a swirling cauldron of competing pressures, which Gay, like many university presidents, navigated awkwardly but more or less evenhandedly. She infuriated Israel hawks off campus by declining to crack down on criticism of the Jewish state but infuriated the left by denouncing terrorism and expressing solidarity with the fears and loneliness experienced by many Jewish students and faculty.

Then came the hearings. They were a trap. At one point in the proceedings, which lasted some five hours, Republicans tried to get Gay and her fellow presidents to admit that protest slogans like “From the river to the sea” amounted to calls for genocide of the Jewish people. This charge was an oversimplification: The slogan means different things to different people, all of them bad but not all of them necessarily genocidal. (This is the sinister nature of the pro-Palestinian movement’s willingness to bind together naïve proponents of an unrealistic one-state solution with bloody-minded supporters of Hamas’s murderous theocracy.) Not all dumb criticism of Israel is antisemitic, and not all antisemitism is genocidal.

Having established that the terms of the argument were an effort to define large swaths of pro-Palestinian activism as antisemitic incitement, Representative Elise Stefanik sprang the trap shut. She asked her subjects if their universities would ban calls for genocide. That clip, omitting the context in which Republicans had previously defined genocide in ludicrously broad terms, went viral.

The infamous clip made Gay and her colleagues appear emotionally indifferent to antisemitism. That impression couldn’t have been further from the truth. “Our Jewish students have shared searing accounts of feeling isolated and targeted,” Gay had told students at Harvard’s Hillel chapter. “This shakes me to my core — as an educator, as a mother, as a human being.” Harvard correctly resisted demands from the right to oust Gay over the hysterical outrage generated by this trumped-up episode.

But then the right-wing activist Christopher Rufo and conservative journalist Aaron Sibarium discovered evidence that papers by Gay had violated academic rules of attribution on multiple occasions. Plagiarism is the shorthand for this offense; it is a term that describes a wide array of errors and crimes of vastly different scales. The word generally conjures the notion of intellectual theft — one person makes an original discovery, and another steals it and passes off the work as their own. Gay’s offenses were more minor. She sloppily failed to employ correct citations and quotes for her citations. Those errors were not necessary for her advancement. She could have fixed them easily.

For better or worse, though, Harvard maintains strict, unforgiving standards on plagiarism. Gay’s offenses, while immaterial to the main thrust of her work, would have invited stern punishment if committed by an undergraduate. So Harvard faced a terrible choice. Firing her would hand a victory to the braying mob. It would be seen as a repudiation of her careful attempts to defend free speech while denouncing antisemitism.

On the other horn of the dilemma, keeping her would mean allowing the president of the university to follow a lower standard than its undergraduate students. That is intolerable for an institution of higher learning. No decent institution, really, can declare a standard and then let its leader flout it without consequence.

This is the kind of trap Rufo specializes in exploiting. He attacks targets that maintain high ethical standards, which he himself doesn’t care about at all, forcing them to choose between maintaining their standards and resisting his nakedly political agenda. Like many journalists, I have faced this kind of attack before, with Rufo trying to use rather small factual corrections to support his farcical narrative of a left-wing media conspiracy.

Ultimately, the painful decision to maintain the institution’s standards is usually the correct one. What operators like Rufo wish to do more than anything is to bring their targets down to their level. Claiming scalps is a small victory, while disproving the commitment to truth and rigor in institutions like academia and media is a much greater prize. Stripped of that commitment, the culture wars are nothing but a struggle for power. That is a kind of war the enemies of liberalism will win.

Gay had to forfeit her job for stupid but ultimately inescapable reasons. What matters for the institution — any institution — is not to defend her personally but to uphold the values she awkwardly but nobly stood for.

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