Higher Education

Harvard Crisis Signals Broader Fight Over What a University Should Be

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: WSJ:
January 4, 2024 at 13:48
Claudine Gay during a congressional hearing on antisemitism last month. HAIYUN JIANG/BLOOMBERG NEWS
Claudine Gay during a congressional hearing on antisemitism last month. HAIYUN JIANG/BLOOMBERG NEWS

.Claudine Gay was at the center of a campus debate over the direction of education.

On its face, the resignation Tuesday of Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, was a direct response to mounting allegations of plagiarism.

Yet even before those accusations emerged—and before Gay attracted sharp criticism for her testimony at a congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses—Gay was at the center of a raging debate on the Harvard campus over a much bigger question: what a university should be.

Gay ascended to the presidency just days after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action last summer, a ruling that unleashed a roiling debate across the country about the very issues she pursued most stridently. As dean of faculty, Gay had played the role of change agent and pushed progressive ideals, including more racial diversity among faculty and academic disciplines.

The emphasis won fans but also brought detractors, as the school sometimes sanctioned scholars and disinvited speakers with conservative viewpoints, and fell to the bottom of an influential ranking of colleges for free speech.

Under Gay’s leadership, said Avi Loeb, a theoretical physicist in Harvard’s department of astronomy, the mandate of the administrative state of the university continued to expand and shift from serving faculty to monitoring them.

“The message was, don’t deviate from what they find to be appropriate,” Loeb said. “It became more of a police organization.”

Gay’s supporters said she guided efforts to expand student access and opportunity. When she was selected as president, Penny Pritzker, the senior fellow of Harvard’s board, said Gay had already strengthened “Harvard as a fount of ideas and a force for good in the world.”

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