The resignation of Claudine Gay, Harvard’s embattled former president, doesn’t end the university’s troubles. Indeed, it doesn’t even end its plagiarism scandal. The Harvard Corporation (the formal name for the board of trustees) still must answer for sweeping the initial plagiarism allegations against Gay under the rug and hiring a law firm to threaten journalists who had the scoop. The school is still plagued by a toxic campus culture, ideological corruption, and bureaucratic bloat that stifle open inquiry and free discourse. In that, Harvard is by no means alone.

Claudine Gay is a mediocre scholar—having authored 11 insight-less papers and no books—and hardly a superstar of the Ivy League constellation. But she comes from a privileged background and was elevated for advancing progressive orthodoxy while checking the right intersectional boxes. Her ascent thus epitomizes the illiberal takeover of higher education. She is the apotheosis of an anti-intellectual movement that values DEI, identity, and activism over truth-seeking, merit, and education.

This illiberal takeover goes beyond what conservatives have criticized for decades: hippies invading the faculty lounge at Berkeley. It manifests in the shifting and narrowing of the range of permissible views, such that everyone on campus walks on eggshells and is unable to discuss certain ideas. University officials placate, facilitate, and even foment mobs that can’t be reasoned with, while everyone else keeps their heads down so as not to be caught in the cancellation crossfire.

The system those students and officials have created is designed to prefer political commissars over rigorous scholars, and it took a giant leap forward last year when Harvard picked Gay as its next leader and trumpeted her status as the first African American and second woman to hold the post. Gay now makes history again, this time for serving the shortest tenure—barely half a year—beating out Lawrence Summers, whose time at Harvard’s helm was cut short in 2006 after his “off-the-record” comments about the dearth of women in science and engineering were deemed politically incorrect.

Gay was previously the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, through which she made a name for herself—not for educational initiatives, but for deepening identitarian structures. For example, she shut down the research lab of brilliant young (and black) economist Roland Fryer, now my Manhattan Institute colleague, after he produced empirical work on policing that contradicted the progressive narrative. In 2020, Harvard’s alumni magazine breathlessly reported that Gay had announced “a series of initiatives to address racial and ethnic equality—including faculty appointments and the addition of an associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and belonging” despite Harvard already having an entire office dedicated to “equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.”

Ironically, these efforts at making students feel welcome have backfired. In its most recent rankings, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression named Harvard the worst school in the country for free speech—the only one earning an “abysmal” rating.

Gay’s fate was sealed beginning in the aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 attack, to which she responded with a series of unsatisfying statements as anti-Israel protesters ran amok; a Harvard Law Review editor even accosted a Jewish student. Two months later, Gay and other university presidents’ disastrous performance at a congressional hearing investigating campus anti-Semitism further revealed the depths of the academy’s rot. Finally came the plagiarism allegations.

It doesn’t take long to destroy reputations built over decades and centuries. The question now is whether Harvard and its peers are willing to “do the work” to restore their tarnished stature. A month ago, celebrated Harvard professor Steven Pinker laid out a five-point plan to accomplish just that. Given the lack of contrition in Gay’s resignation letter and her willingness to blame her situation on a racist witch hunt—both points supported by the Harvard Corporation’s parallel statement—I’m not holding my breath.

Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next