CAMBRIDGE — Claudine Gay’s tenure as the first Black president of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious university came to a bitter end Tuesday after her brief term was derailed by controversies stemming from the Israel-Hamas war, campus antisemitism, and allegations of plagiarism in her scholarly works.
A daughter of Haitian immigrants who rose through the sharp-elbowed politics of higher education to reach the pinnacle of academia, Gay described her decision to resign as “difficult beyond words” in a message sent to the Harvard University community.
But she said that “after consultation with members” of Harvard’s top governing board, it became clear to her that “it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.” She will return to teaching and scholarship as a tenured faculty member.
Harvard provost Dr. Alan Garber will serve as interim president, the board said Tuesday.
Gay’s resignation is an embarrassment for the elite university and its powerful oversight board, known as the Harvard Corporation, which selected Gay and helped orchestrate her ascension from within Harvard’s ranks.
Gay’s six-month tenure as president is the shortest in Harvard’s history.
Since Oct. 7, Gay pinballed from one controversy to another, never managing to fully resolve the last before the next arose.
It began with withering criticism that her initial statement about the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel was late and weak, and then escalated with allegations that she was too slow to respond to reports of resurgent campus antisemitism. Public pressure for her ouster intensified after she gave legalistic answers during a Dec. 5 congressional hearing to questions about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard’s rules.
Finally, allegations emerged in December that she had committed plagiarism in some of her scholarly works. Harvard has publicly acknowledged instances of “inadequate citation” and “duplicative language” in two of Gay’s peer-reviewed journal articles and in her PhD dissertation, completed in Harvard’s government department in 1997.
Gay’s decision comes at an unsettled and anxious moment for higher education, especially the country’s most elite institutions. Conservative leaders have denounced universities as incubators of a rigid progressive ideology, at odds with meritocracy and open debate. Supreme Court justices and lawmakers have moved to restrain, through political force, what they view as universities’ excesses, including the way top universities factored race and ethnicity into admissions decisions.
Those battles were the backdrop for an extraordinary political conflagration in recent weeks in which some conservatives attacked Gay’s academic lapses and caricatured her as a kind of diversity, equity, and inclusion apparatchik, while Harvard professors denounced the attempts of lawmakers to intervene in the university’s affairs.
The partisan rancor, and a sense that right-wing elements were weaponizing Gay’s missteps to fight other ideological battles, scrambled internal debates, especially among faculty, about the gravity of the plagiarism claims and the seriousness of her misstep at the congressional hearing.
Asked at the hearing whether calls for genocide of Jews would violate Harvard’s rules, Gay said, “It depends on the context.” She later apologized.
University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill was criticized for offering similar testimony at the hearing, and subsequently resigned on Dec. 9. MIT president Sally Kornbluth, who also answered similarly and faced denunciations, received a public and unconditional vote of confidence from the executive committee of MIT’s governing board days after the hearing.
Some Harvard professors and students viewed the backlash over Gay’s testimony as motivated, at least in part, by racism. Some also viewed the unearthing of the plagiarism allegations as a partisan campaign to damage a university known for left-leaning values, and to smear a leader who has championed diversity initiatives and affirmative action in higher education admissions. (The plagiarism allegations were first widely circulated by a conservative activist and a conservative news outlet, the Washington Free Beacon.)
A Globe review of the allegations found that some sentences and passages in Gay’s work matched, nearly verbatim, language from other sources. Several scholars said some amounted to plagiarism. Some faculty members and students also argued that an undergraduate would face discipline, including suspension, for similar transgressions.
On Monday, the Free Beacon published additional allegations of plagiarism against Gay. By that time, Gay had already decided to resign, according to a person close to her.
“[I]t has been distressing,” Gay wrote in her Tuesday message, “to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor — two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am — and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.”
Gay, 53, will now “return to the faculty, and to the scholarship and teaching that are the lifeblood of what we do,” she wrote.
Lawrence Bacow, Gay’s predecessor as president, said he was saddened by Gay’s resignation.
“Claudine is a person of great intellect, integrity, vision and strength,” he said in an email. “She had much to contribute not just to Harvard, but to all of higher education. I regret that she will not have that opportunity.”
Her resignation follows months of unrest at American universities prompted by the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, and Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza.
Protesters at numerous campuses have occupied buildings and barged into lecture halls with megaphones to protest Israel’s prosecution of the war, which has killed more than 20,000 people, according to Palestinian officials.
“People are calling this the Vietnam War moment of our generation,” Nadine Bahour, a recent Harvard graduate who is Palestinian, said of the protests.
Meanwhile, some Jewish students, at Harvard and other campuses, have reported that antisemitism is on the rise. They pointed to controversial protest slogans, such as “Globalize the intifada” or “From the river to the sea,” that some Jews hear as calls for violence against Jews and Israelis, but that pro-Palestinian protesters say are peaceful calls for liberation.
The maelstrom over antisemitism and free expression came to a head at the Dec. 5 congressional hearing, convened by a Republican-controlled committee. Gay’s answers to the genocide question prompted new calls for her resignation, and pushback from faculty against outside influence on the university.
After the plagiarism allegations emerged several days later, the corporation publicly backed her on Dec. 12.
“Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,” the board’s 11 appointed members formally known as the Fellows of Harvard College wrote in a statement.
But they also acknowledged her missteps and said an independent review of her academic writings had revealed “a few instances of inadequate citation.”
Calls for her resignation intensified after Harvard announced, on Dec. 20, a second round of updates to her scholarly work due to “duplicative language” in her PhD dissertation.
In her resignation message, Gay wrote, “Sad as I am to be sending this message, my hopes for Harvard remain undimmed. When my brief presidency is remembered, I hope it will be seen as a moment of reawakening to the importance of striving to find our common humanity — and of not allowing rancor and vituperation to undermine the vital process of education.”
Gay is the second Harvard president in two decades to step down amid controversy, following the resignation of Lawrence Summers in 2006 after clashes with faculty members and blowback about remarks he made about women in science. His tenure lasted five years.
Garber, an economist and physician, who is Jewish, will serve as interim president “until a new leader for Harvard is identified and takes office,” according to the corporation’s Tuesday message. He has been Harvard’s provost since 2011 and helped guide the university through the COVID-19 pandemic.
But his ascension isn’t stopping the cavalcade of critics taking aim at Gay.
In October, in the days after the Oct. 7 attack, an activist group called Accuracy in Media sent trucks to Harvard Square displaying photos of pro-Palestinian students beneath the words “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”
This week, the group’s president, Adam Guillette, said he will send U-Haul trucks to Harvard as Gay moves out of the presidency.