Harvard president Claudine Gay has been embroiled in controversy for minimizing Hamas terrorism and plagiarizing material in her academic work on race. Both scandals have discredited her presidency, but neither should come as a surprise. Throughout Gay’s career at Harvard—as professor, dean, and president—racialist ideology has driven her scholarship, administrative priorities, and rise through the institution.
Over the course of her career, Gay quietly built a “diversity” empire that influenced every facet of university life. Between 2018 and the summer of 2023, as the dean of the largest faculty on campus, Gay oversaw the university’s racially discriminatory admissions program, which the Supreme Court found unconstitutional. Even after the court issued its ruling earlier this year, Gay said that it was a “hard day” and defended the university’s policies, which were deemed discriminatory against Asian and white applicants. Gay promised to comply with the letter of the law, while remaining “steadfast” in her commitment to producing “diversity”—a not-so-subtle message that Harvard would find a way, as the University of California has done, to evade the law in practice.
While affirmative action has been a longstanding practice at Harvard, other programs led by Gay were new. Following the death of George Floyd in 2020, Gay commissioned a Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, which released a series of recommendations the following year for engaging in the “historical reckoning with racial injustice.” The recommendations included a mandate to change “spaces whose visual culture is dominated by homogenous portraiture of white men.” In particular, the report maintained, administrators should “refresh” the walls of Annenberg Hall, which “prominently display a series of 23 portraits, none of [which] depict women, and all but three of [which] depict white men.” Who were these white men and why were they honored in the first place? The report does not say—their race and sex alone provided sufficient justification for their banishment.
In 2022, Gay implemented an initiative at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for “denaming” any “space, program, or other entity” deemed racist by the faculty and administration. According to the report, commissioned by then-president Lawrence Bacow, these decisions would be “based on the perception that a namesake’s actions or beliefs were ‘abhorrent’ in the context of current values.” In other words, Harvard would use the standards of present-day social-justice activism to pass judgment on men who lived hundreds of years prior—at best, an ahistorical and deeply ambiguous method. As part of this project, Gay sent an email to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences community soliciting “requests for denaming,” promising to address the situation “through the lens of reckoning.” Since then, the university has grappled with denaming multiple buildings, including Winthrop House, named after John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his great grandson, also John Winthrop, a Harvard professor and president.
As president, Gay leads a sprawling DEI bureaucracy—officially, the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging—that seeks to influence how students speak, think, and behave in relation to race. Though the university deleted nearly all DEI materials from its website following President Gay’s disastrous congressional testimony related to the Hamas terror attack, I have recovered some of these documents through an Internet archive. Harvard’s DEI administrators encourage students to internalize the basic narrative of critical race theory: America is a nation defined by “systemic racism,” “police brutality,” “white supremacist violence,” and the “weaponization of whiteness.” In another resource, students were invited to “unpack” their “white privilege” and “male privilege,” and to consider their “white fragility,” which stems from “the privilege that accrues to white people living in a society that protects and insulates them from race-based stress.”
What is one to make of Gay’s record as a whole? She is hardly a “scholar’s scholar,” as the university magazine tried to portray her, having published, according to her curriculum vitae, just 11 academic papers—nearly half of which include plagiarized material. Nor is she a competent administrator, having botched the response to rampant anti-Semitism on campus and, by one estimate, lost the university more than $1 billion in donations. But she plays one role perfectly: the dutiful racialist, skilled at the manipulation of guilt, shame, and obligation in service of institutional power. For instance, she wrote last year in a message to the campus announcing a report on Harvard’s historical connection to slavery: “We have been excluded and denigrated for centuries from an institution where we now work, study, and lead. Our presence here should not feel so extraordinary. But now we see it was anything but inevitable.”
The irony: Gay was, in fact, somewhat inevitable. In the long season of racial guilt and animus that followed George Floyd’s death, the university was desperate to recruit a “first,” as Gay put it in her inaugural address, and disrupt the university’s nearly 400 years of whiteness. As Harvard is now learning, however, naming as president someone who sees race and sex not as incidental human attributes but as ideological constructions that must be imposed on the institution comes with a significant downside. Consequently, Harvard’s trustees find themselves in a bind: they hired Gay in large part for her identity and cannot fire her for the same reason. They seem resigned to muddling through the “racial reckoning,” however long it lasts and whatever further damage it inflicts on America’s oldest university.
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images