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Claudine Gay’s resignation was a mainstream victory for conservative media

Harvard controversy fuels 'culture war' in academia
WATCH: As reporter Ivy Scott explains, Claudine Gay's resignation highlights the pressure conservatives are placing on universities to reform.

Criticism of Harvard University from conservative quarters would normally find its audience in right-wing echo chambers. But the torrent aimed at president Claudine Gay broke through in a big way, ultimately scoring a rare direct hit against one of the premier institutions in liberal academia.

The conservative coverage of Gay was a departure from the usual partisan playbook: While there were plenty of the usual appeals to ideology over Gay’s handling of antisemitism on campus, the most distinguishing content was based on vintage news reporting. Gay resigned this week after a series of plagiarism allegations that emerged from the right.

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“A great scoop can come from anywhere,” said Brian Stelter, a media reporter who previously hosted CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “Right wing media historically has talked about others reporting, but done very little reporting on its own.”

Gay was just months into her presidency when she faced an acute crisis over her testimony before Congress in December on campus antisemitism triggered by the Israel-Hamas war. Despite calls for her resignation from outside campus, she received the backing of Harvard’s governing board, which issued a statement of support the following week.

However, her position became more tenuous when the Washington Free Beacon published additional stories that questioned Gay’s academic writings. The ongoing revelations helped fuel growing discontent among Harvard’s students and faculty — some of whom worried the university was holding its president to a lower academic standard than a typical undergraduate.

The outcome points up the complex calculus that an increasingly fragmented media landscape has created for institutions and leaders, who must figure out how to respond to critiques that may raise valid points even when they’re made to advance an agenda.

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Charles Fried, a professor at Harvard Law School who was a former US solicitor general in the Reagan administration, stated the dilemma plainly in an interview on Dec. 20 with The New York Times.

“If it came from some other quarter, I might be granting it some credence,” Fried said of the plagiarism accusations against Gay. “But not from these people.”

Christopher Brunet, who writes a newsletter on Substack and reported some of the key allegations against Gay, said his indignation over what he saw as hypocrisy at Harvard was intensely personal.

“I was angrily blogging about academia, because I got rejected from every PhD program I applied to,” he said in an interview. “That was pretty nakedly my motivation.”

Brunet, a former reporter at the Tucker Carlson-founded website the Daily Caller, cowrote a key article on the Gay allegations that was published on Dec. 10. His fellow author was Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who has hailed Gay’s resignation as “the beginning of the end for DEI in America’s institutions,” referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Their article on Rufo’s Substack newsletter alleged Gay plagiarized sections of her PhD dissertation by improperly paraphrasing sections from other works and not using quotation marks around what appeared to be borrowed material.

Brunet said he’s been writing about academic misconduct for years. He had previously written pieces critical of Gay, but those articles never gained any traction. So he turned to Rufo.

“I needed the platform, I needed firepower,” Brunet said. “I brought the plagiarism to him and I was like, ‘Look, I have this story, would you be interested in working on it together?’ And he said yeah.”

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A pedestrian passes a gate to Harvard Yard in Cambridge on Dec. 12, 2023. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The day after Rufo and Brunet published their article, the Washington Free Beacon — which boasts that it covers “the enemies of freedom the way the mainstream media won’t” — published a story that alleged Gay plagiarized fellow academics in four papers she authored.

But many mainstream news outlets did not publish the allegations of plagiarism until after the Harvard Corporation — the university’s highest governing body — acknowledged them in its statement supporting Gay on Dec. 12. The board said it had conducted an independent analysis and “found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.” However, it noted Gay had requested several corrections on attribution to two articles.

Interestingly, the impetus for that review had been a media request from the New York Post, which had not yet published any articles about the plagiarism allegations.

The matter, though, was not settled. The Free Beacon published two more articles that detailed additional plagiarism allegations in Gay’s writings.

That the plagiarism allegations against Gay originated from conservative outlets, rather than from mainstream media, wasn’t a huge shock to Susan Walker, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University. She said she’s not sure that “any major news outlet would be reviewing the citations and footnotes of a Harvard president’s dissertation or published academic journal articles.”

Free Beacon reporter Aaron Sibarium said he continued to follow the story in part because “it matters what a massive and heavily publicly subsidized research university is doing.”

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“I think it is relevant what standards it holds its own employees — its own president — to, especially if those standards diverge from the standards to which it holds its own students.”

It wasn’t the first time Sibarium broke a big, national story. In addition to his scoop on Gay, he’s broken news on guidance from the Food and Drug Administration that allowed states to apportion COVID drugs based on race.

In a November article, Politico reported Sibarium is “providing Old School, shoe-leather reporting from a conservative point of view,” with the caveat that, politically, he’s not conservative.

Sibarium said that he believes Gay’s resignation and the plagiarism allegations against her will only increase scrutiny on higher education.

“I’m sure there will be more academic scandals that surface, at least partly in response to this,” Sibarium said. “And I am interested in covering those.”

Mike Damiano of the Globe staff contributed to this story.


Aidan Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@globe.com. Follow him @aidanfitzryan.