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The Tragedy of Darth Plagiarism

Who cares whether Harvard president Claudine Gay is a plagiarist? Had she not blown up for her response to Rep. Elise Stefanik’s question as to whether calling for genocide was against the rules and policies of Harvard, few of you would have known her name, and certainly nothing about her spartan scholarly works. And yet, Republicans in the House are now calling for hearings into her academic veritas.

Harvard last week cleared Gay of “research misconduct” after plagiarism allegations emerged, but Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) announced Wednesday that the panel had begun a review of Harvard’s handling of the allegations that she said were “credible.”

It’s entirely understandable why this would be an issue of significance to Harvard and to academics. Dr. Gay, if that really is her name, leads the premier brand in higher education, and if it turns out that she lacks the academic integrity to allowed into Harvard Yard, no less to hold the position of president, then the integrity of an institution is at risk. Or is it, as defender of the race Mark Lamont Hill argues, nothing more than “a bunch of mediocre White men dismiss[ing] the intellectual abilities and professional competence of an extraordinarily successful and gifted Black woman”?

The latest developments also raise questions about the Harvard Corporation, the insular governing board that hired Dr. Gay — a professor of government and African and African American studies, former dean and the first Black president of the university — after a relatively fast search last year. The board had just days ago cleared Dr. Gay of “research misconduct.

John McWhorter, a Columbia linguistics prof in his spare time, writes that her academic integrity matters.

It has always been inconvenient that Harvard’s first Black president has only published 11 academic articles in her career and not one book (other than one with three co-editors). Some of her predecessors, like Lawrence Bacow, Drew Gilpin Faust and Lawrence Summers, have had vastly more voluminous academic records. The discrepancy gives the appearance that Dr. Gay was not chosen because of her academic or scholarly qualifications, which Harvard is thought to prize, but rather because of her race.

There is an argument that a university president may not need to have been an awesomely productive scholar, and that Dr. Gay perhaps brought other and more useful qualifications to the job. (She held the high-ranking post of dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard before the presidency, and so may have administrative gifts, but that job is not a steppingstone to the modern Harvard presidency.) But Harvard, traditionally, has exemplified the best of the best, and its presidents have been often regarded as among the top in their given fields — prize winners, leading scholars, the total package.

Was Gay chosen as president of Harvard because of her mad administrative chops, or her scholarship? Or could it be something else?

That Dr. Gay is Black gives this an especially bad look. If she stays in her job, the optics will be that a middling publication record and chronically lackadaisical attention to crediting sources is somehow OK for a university president if she is Black. This implication will be based on a fact sad but impossible to ignore: that it is difficult to identify a white university president with a similar background. Are we to let pass a tacit idea that for Black scholars and administrators, the symbolism of our Blackness, our “diverseness,” is what matters most about us? I am unclear where the Black pride (or antiracism) is in this.

Does Claudine Gay lack the heft of her cousin, Roxane? Perhaps so, but why is that a subject for the government to stick its mucous-filled nose into? In reply to my raising the impropriety of the House holding hearings about how many sheets of toilet paper uncited phrases are used in Gay’s handful of scholarly articles, the reply guys’ argument is that the government sends checks to Harvard which therefore entitled the government to give her a public colonoscopy. This is the chaos theory of rationalization preferred by people who will seize upon any argument, no matter how irrelevant, to reach their endgame. It’s a game anybody can play, as long as you aren’t troubled by the need for logical nexus.

So who cares whether Claudine Gay really wrote Larry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Rock? I don’t. I’m neither connected to Harvard nor an academic for whom plagiarism matters. Much as I care about a great many things that come out of Cambridge, Gay’s ethics are the problem of academics in general, and Harvard in particular.

If it is mobbish to call on Black figures of influence to be held to the standards that others are held to, then we have arrived at a rather mysterious version of antiracism, and just in time for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in less than a month. I would even wish Harvard well in searching for another Black woman to serve as president if that is an imperative. But at this point that Black woman cannot, with any grace, be Claudine Gay.

McWhorter can say this. He comes by it honestly. I demur.

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