How the Right Toppled Harvard’s President

A coordinated pressure campaign led to Claudine Gay’s resignation.

How the Right Toppled Harvard’s President

Claudine Gay’s departure marked the rare exit that occasioned widespread congressional comment. | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Conservatives who have long been at war with elite academic institutions have pointed to these universities’ responses to the conflict between Israel and Hamas as the latest example of the ivory tower’s skewed values.

On Tuesday, the right got a strong dose of satisfaction by engineering the departure of the head of the most influential university in the world.

Almost a month after a widely panned congressional hearing where she said it was context-dependent whether calls for genocide against Jews violated Harvard’s code of conduct, President Claudine Gay announced that she was resigning, a coda that followed a pronounced pressure campaign led by conservatives in Congress, prominent donors and right-leaning media and activists.

Gay’s departure marked the rare exit that occasioned widespread congressional comment. House Speaker Mike Johnson argued “the resignation of Claudine Gay is long overdue,” giving voice to the disdain held for Harvard and other elite institutions by an increasingly populist Republican Party.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the Harvard grad whose line of questioning during the hearing produced the viral moments that doomed Gay — and led to University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill’s resignation — took a victory lap Tuesday.

“TWO DOWN,” wrote Stefanik in a post on X.



Yet it was the conservative media ecosystem, not Stefanik, that struck the crowning blow leading to Gay’s resignation. Gay managed at first to escape Magill’s fate with the support of the Harvard Corporation, the smaller and more powerful of Harvard’s two governing boards. But a sustained pressure campaign that focused on allegations of plagiarism in her scholarship ultimately led to her downfall.

It began Dec. 10, when conservative activists Christopher Rufo and Christopher Brunet published a newsletter on Substack titled “ Is Claudine Gay a Plagiarist?

Rufo occupies a unique place in the culture wars. He describes himself as a policy scholar and a political combatant, a polemicist and a journalist; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him as a trustee of New College of Florida as part of his efforts to eliminate what he calls the “ideological conformity” of higher education. (Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) refers to Rufo as “a right-wing propagandist” on a “ campaign to destroy public education in America.”)

Rufo, who has spent much of his career fighting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and advocating for bans on teachers discussing LGBTQ+ issues in classrooms, compiled a provocative piece featuring evidence from Gay’s dissertation that wasn’t easily dismissed. Aaron Sibarium, a reporter at the conservative Washington Free Beacon, followed with a Dec. 11 article in which he spoke with scholars about the plagiarism accusations and uncovered new allegations — Sibarium has since reported on additional charges of plagiarism.

On the heels of a hearing that had Gay on the ropes, Rufo was frank about his intentions.

“We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right. The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze,” Rufo posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) on Dec. 19.

Rufo says it took a three-pronged attack to force Gay’s hand — with Stefanik leading from Congress, financier Bill Ackman ( who continually posted about Gay on X) galvanizing the university’s donor class and his own efforts, along with Brunet and Sibarium.

“We executed it to a really stunning degree of perfection,” Rufo said in an interview Tuesday.

Sibarium, for his part, says that it was a natural reporting process that led him to the story. “I was not sitting there twisting my thumbs asking ‘how do I time this exactly to cause maximum damage?’” he said. “I got a tip and I tracked it down.”

Questions about plagiarism involving Gay have swirled since before she assumed the job of Harvard president in July. An anonymous post on the online discussion forum econjobrumors from June 11 reads “Claudine Gay plagiarized several sources nearly verbatim … in her dissertation, according to a 100-page report circulated to the Harvard Board of Overseers.” A commenter responds “send it to chrisbrunet @ protonmail dot com.”

Brunet had his own history with Gay, dating back to at least April 2022, when she was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. He published a newsletter on Substack entitled “ The Curious Case of Claudine Gay,” where he opined on her connection to various scandals at Harvard and elsewhere.

But Brunet’s writing and various anonymous posts, though often filled with venom, included few verifiable facts and made little to no impact outside of conservative media at the time. The more rigorous reporting — actual reporting that more closely adhered to mainstream media standards — made the allegations harder to overlook.

“The right has excelled at and outperformed the left when it comes to television and radio opinion … where the right has always lagged is in reporting,” Eliana Johnson, the editor-in-chief of the Free Beacon, said (Johnson formerly worked at POLITICO).

By Dec. 20, mainstream news outlets were reporting on plagiarism allegations against Gay. The Free Beacon’s continued reporting during the holidays — as well as reporting and op eds in The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper — kept the spotlight on Gay, who began to bleed support among former allies who had to that point stood by her.

“Her support behind the scenes really had collapsed,” Johnson said.

Ian Ward and Jasper Goodman contributed to this report.

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