Harvard president Claudine Gay has problems. Touted as the first black woman to run the nation’s most prestigious university, she assumed leadership with high expectations, but her tenure, which began this summer, has been mired in scandal. As dean and then as president, Gay has been accused of bullying colleaguessuppressing free speech, overseeing a racist admissions program, and, following the Hamas terror campaign against Israel, failing to stand up to rampant anti-Semitism on campus.

We have obtained exclusive documentation demonstrating that President Gay may face yet another problem: plagiarism of sections of her Ph.D. dissertation, which would violate Harvard’s own stated policies on academic integrity. (Emailed requests for comment to the Harvard president’s office were not returned.)

Gay published her dissertation, “Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics,” in 1997, as part of her doctorate in political science from Harvard. The paper deals with white-black political representation and racial attitudes. As evaluated under the university’s plagiarism policy, the paper contains at least three problematic patterns of usage and citation.

First, Gay lifts an entire paragraph nearly verbatim from Lawrence Bobo and Franklin Gilliam’s paper, “Race, Sociopolitical Participation, and Black Empowerment,” while passing it off as her own paraphrase and language. Here is the original, from Bobo and Gilliam:

Using 1987 national sample survey data . . . the results show that blacks in high-black-empowerment areas—as indicated by control of the mayor’s office—are more active than either blacks living in low-empowerment areas or their white counterparts of comparable socioeconomic status. Furthermore, the results show that empowerment influences black participation by contributing to a more trusting and efficacious orientation to politics and by greatly increasing black attentiveness to political affairs.

And here is the language from Gay’s work: 

Using 1987 survey data, Bobo and Gilliam found that African-Americans in “high black-empowerment” areas—as indicated by control of the mayor’s office—are more active than either African-Americans in low empowerment areas or their white counterparts of comparable socioeconomic status. Empowerment, they conclude, influences black participation by contributing to a more trusting and efficacious orientation towards politics and by greatly increasing black attentiveness to political affairs.

Though Gay does provide a reference to the original authors, she uses their verbatim language, with a few trivial synonym substitutions, without providing quotation marks. This constitutes a clear violation of Harvard’s policy, which states: “When you paraphrase, your task is to distill the source’s ideas in your own words. It’s not enough to change a few words here and there and leave the rest; instead, you must completely restate the ideas in the passage in your own words. If your own language is too close to the original, then you are plagiarizing, even if you do provide a citation.”

Gay repeats this violation throughout the document, again using work from Bobo and Gilliam, as well as passages from Richard Shingles, Susan Howell, and Deborah Fagan, which she reproduces nearly verbatim, without quotation marks.

Second, Gay appears to lift material from scholar Carol Swain in at least two instances. In one passage, summarizing the distinction between “descriptive representation” and “substantive representation,” she copies the phrasing and language nearly verbatim from Swain’s book Black Faces, Black Interests, without providing a citation of any kind. Swain writes:

phic characteristics . . . and more “substantive representation,” the correspondence between representatives’ goals and those of their constituents.

Gay’s version is virtually the same, with slight modifications to the diction and punctuation:

Social scientists have concentrated . . . between descriptive representation (the statistical correspondence of demographic characteristics) and substantive representation (the correspondence of legislative goals and priorities).

Gay’s use of Swain’s material is a straightforward violation of the university’s rule on “verbatim plagiarism,” which states that one “must give credit to the author of the source material, either by placing the source material in quotation marks and providing a clear citation, or by paraphrasing the source material and providing a clear citation”—neither of which Gay followed.

Later in the paper, Gay also uses identical language to Swain, without adding quotation marks, as required. “Since the 1950s the reelection rate for House members has rarely dipped below 90 percent,” reads Swain’s book, which is virtually the same as the language in Gay’s dissertation: “Since the 1950s, the reelection rate for incumbent House members has rarely dipped below 90%.” According to Harvard’s rules, this would be a violation of the policy on “inadequate paraphrase,” which requires that verbatim language be placed in quotations.

Third, Gay composes an entire appendix in the dissertation directly taken from Gary King’s book, A Solution to the Ecological Inference Problem. While she cites King’s book—in fact, King was her dissertation advisor—Gay does not explicitly acknowledge that Appendix B is entirely grounded in King’s concepts, instead passing it off as her own original work. Throughout the appendix, Gay takes entire phrases and sentences directly from King’s book, without any citations or quotation marks. In total, Gay borrows material from King in at least half a dozen paragraphs—all in violation of Harvard’s standard on academic integrity.

What should the consequences be for President Gay, given these violations? Some critics might object to any punishment, arguing that her dissertation is decades old, or that these instances of plagiarism appear to be highly technical, or even trivial. But the dissertation is the cornerstone of an academic career, and universities impose demanding standards of academic integrity, with severe consequences for violators. Harvard, in particular, has a strict policy on these matters. If a current Harvard student were to commit violations of the same nature as Gay’s, it would lead to “disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the College.” The same standard should apply to the university president.

In light of this troubling evidence, Harvard’s Board of Overseers should conduct a full investigation into Claudine Gay’s academic integrity. The precedent for such violations has already been set at other institutions: the president of the University of South Carolina, for example, resigned for plagiarizing remarks he made in a commencement speech; and the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges resigned due to plagiarism that he committed in part of his dissertation. Gay’s case should be treated with equal seriousness. If she has violated the code of academic conduct, she must resign—or get voted out by the board.

Photo by Boston Globe/Getty Images


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