“Legalistic.” That’s one of the kinder adjectives that commentators inside and outside academia have used to describe the disastrous congressional testimony on December 5 by the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania, the last of whom resigned four days later.
It’s also accurate. However outrageous most people found their refusal to affirm that calling for the genocide of Jews violates their universities’ codes of conduct, the three presidents were legally correct that chanting such vile things as “Globalize the intifada!” and “We are Hamas!” is in most cases protected speech. Coached by highly paid lawyers at WilmerHale, all of them spoke—not wrongly, but now infamously—of “context”: “it depends on the context” (Claudine Gay of Harvard), “chants … can be anti-Semitic depending on the context” (Sally Kornbluth of MIT), and “[i]t is a context-dependent decision” (Liz Magill, formerly of Penn).
A little over a week before the hearing, constitutional scholar and Manhattan Institute fellow Ilya Shapiro gave a sharp account of where to draw the lines between rhetoric and “conduct,” on the one hand, and between general speech and targeted “true threats,” on the other. Notably, Shapiro answered the question of whether the First Amendment protects slogans like “Globalize the intifada!” with the phrase, “It depends on the context.” As Maya Sulkin and others have pointed out, however, the presidents’ testimony was galling because of their hypocritical double standards: the hasty retreat to legal niceties when, and only when, discussing anti-Semitism.
The hypocrisies are mounting at Harvard. The school’s academically undistinguished, DEI-happy, and arguably malevolent new president has been unmasked as a repeat plagiarist by Christopher F. Rufo and Christopher Brunet, Aaron Sibarium, Isabel Vincent and her colleagues at the New York Post, and Phillip W. Magness. After apologizing for her words before Congress with the admission, “Words matter,” President Gay, along with the rest of the Harvard machine, went straight back to disregarding basic codes of conduct and acting as though words didn’t matter. No more legalese for this president or for the 11 other members of the Harvard Corporation: just a behind-the-scenes legal threat of defamation against the Post, which was poised already in late October to break the story.
Unlike the conflict in the Middle East, which even I—an ardent supporter of Israel—admit is complicated, academic dishonesty is rarely complicated. In most cases, including Gay’s, there is no middle ground: either you are a plagiarist or you aren’t.
Gay is guilty of plagiarism by the code of conduct of any modern academic organization, certainly including Harvard and Phillips Exeter Academy, where she went to school and was a trustee until this past June.
Gay’s record of dishonesty is extensive. At last count, incontrovertible examples of plagiarism have been uncovered in seven publications spanning 14 years, including her Harvard dissertation. Any one of even her less egregious infractions—shorter phrases lifted from cited works without quotation marks—would land a Harvard student in hot water. Any one of her larger infractions—paragraphs lifted from works not cited at all—would almost certainly result in suspension. And any student who displayed this full range of behavior would be expelled.
Everyone knows this. The members of the Harvard Corporation know this. The five living former presidents of Harvard who “offer[ed their] strong support” know this. Those scholars from whom she plagiarized but who inexplicably deny that she did so, or say that they don’t care, know this. (Fortunately, some do care, most prominently Carol Swain.) Gay herself knows this, surely, despite saying, “I stand by the integrity of my scholarship.”
As long as Gay remains president—indeed, as long as she remains a member of the faculty—Harvard is in greater trouble than its higher-ups appear to understand. For one thing, lawyers will take note of the bizarre statement from the Harvard Corporation that “President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.” She has now made those requests.
Most students who have been suspended or kicked out for plagiarism (there were 47 recorded instances of plagiarism at Harvard in the 2020–21 academic year) will not wish to expose themselves by filing a lawsuit. But it’s easy to imagine that a few of the tougher ones will say to themselves, “Hey, if Harvard keeps a plagiarist in power, lauds her, and allows her to go back and ‘un-plagiarize,’ why should I have gotten into trouble?”
At Harvard and other elite institutions of higher education, words matter, then, except when they don’t. Legalistic codes of conduct matter, too, except when they are inconvenient, in which case they don’t. And everyone can see the hypocrisy.