The Real Harvard Scandal

Claudine Gay is not the real story. Academics debase their profession when they redefine plagiarism to suit their politics.

The Real Harvard Scandal

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Haiyun Jiang / Bloomberg / Getty; Kevin Dietsch / Getty.

laudine gay is gone. The Harvard president’s slow-burning plagiarism scandal was finally fanned into a full-blown conflagration that neither she nor the university could stamp out. After weeks of mounting accusations, several new instances of alleged plagiarism uncovered Monday night—added to about 40 earlier examples—appear to have been the final straw. Her resignation was tendered yesterday afternoon.

The conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who helped kick off this controversy when he and fellow conservative Christopher Brunet leveled a round of accusations against Gay last month, has spent the past 24 hours doing a victory lap. It is this unseemly context that many academics are hung up on: In their minds, a college president succumbed to conservative pressure. And this fact is melting their brains and obliterating their standards for professional conduct. As Harvard Law’s own Charles Fried told The New York Times, “It’s part of this extreme right-wing attack on elite institutions.” And: “If it came from some other quarter, I might be granting it some credence … But not from these people.” Although the donor revolt and conservative pressure campaigns on elite universities—and, more important, public universities—are deeply worrying, the response of some faculty members to this plagiarism scandal is bound to make things worse.

The true scandal of the Claudine Gay affair is not a Harvard president and her plagiarism. The true scandal is that so many journalists and academics were willing, are still willing, to redefine plagiarism to suit their politics. Gay’s boosters have consistently resorted to Orwellian doublespeak—“duplicative language” and academic “sloppiness” and “technical attribution issues”—in a desperate effort to insist that lifting entire paragraphs of another scholar’s work, nearly word for word, without quotation or citation, isn’t plagiarism. Or that if it is plagiarism, it’s merely a technicality. Or that we all do it. (Soon after Rufo and Brunet made their initial accusations last month, Gay issued a statement saying, “I stand by the integrity of my scholarship.” She did not address those or subsequent plagiarism allegations in her resignation letter.)

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