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Universities ‘dragged into the culture wars’ as right-wing leaders take aim

The fallout after Harvard's president steps down
WATCH: What does Claudine Gay’s resignation say about the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus? Higher education reporter Hilary Burns explains.

Claudine Gay’s resignation from her post as Harvard University’s president followed months of scathing criticism by conservative politicians and media personalities, a relentless campaign she denounced Wednesday as peddling in “recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament.”

“The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader,” Gay wrote in a New York Times opinion piece, a day after resigning. “This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in the pillars of American society.”

The university’s first Black president was one of several academic heads to face grievances not only from students, alumni, and donors, but also from right-wing leaders who have sought to steer education away from liberal ideas through legislation and targeting university leadership.

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“There’s no question that higher education has been dragged into the culture wars. Whether we like it or not, there are partisan attacks,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors.

Gay’s resignation came less than a month after a conservative activist and a writer published an article alleging several instances of plagiarism by Gay. The writers called for her resignation, underscoring what they called additional accusations of suppressing free speech and “overseeing a racist admissions program.” Two weeks later, a House committee launched a probe into Harvard’s response to the allegations.

Earlier last month, Gay was sharply criticized alongside the presidents of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania for failing to strongly condemn antisemitism on campus during a congressional hearing. Dozens of lawmakers called for Gay’s ouster following her answer to Representative Elise Stefanik’s questioning whether “calling for the genocide of Jews violate[s] Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?”

In response, Gay said, “It can be, depending on the context,” adding that such calls would violate the rules if it “targeted at an individual.”

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Academics and political experts were divided on whether it pushed the limits of political power for federal legislators to call for the resignation of university presidents or launch legislative probes into questions of academic integrity.

Ned Hall, a Harvard philosophy professor, said he believes it’s important for elite institutions like Harvard to take criticism seriously.

”It’s not OK to view ourselves like we’re in the ivory tower, so we can just ignore any kind of criticisms of what’s going on that come from outside,” he said.

Hall stressed that plagiarism allegations are serious matters that take time to carefully and deliberately investigate. Harvard has said that a re-review of Gay’s work showed “examples of duplicative language without appropriate attribution,” but the apparent failure to correctly cite “did not constitute research misconduct.”

Still, the speed of Gay’s resignation and the mounting pressure to oust her made Hall skeptical that any allegations against her were made in good faith.

”I do not for a minute think that Elise Stefanik is deeply concerned about antisemitism on college and university campuses,” Hall said. “She did not come out in strongly condemning President Trump back when he said, ‘There are very fine people on both sides,’ [at a white supremacist rally in Virginia] so it just looks like attacks made for nakedly political purposes.”

However, pollster and political analyst Jon McHenry said conservative leaders are simply fulfilling their responsibility to amplify the voices of the people they represent. He said he believes many of the critiques from the right reflect the concerns of conservative students and alumni “who feel aggrieved that they’re not getting the same opportunity to share their perspective as liberal students.”

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“Some of it’s the culture war and looking to restore America to what it was in the ‘80s,” he said. “Some of it is just an actual desire to see people treated equally, where we’re not going to use race as the determining factor in whether someone gets admitted to a school, [or] whether they get a job.”

Stefanik, and other Republican lawmakers leading the charge against university leaders, applauded the news of Gay’s resignation, and pledged to apply further congressional pressure on college campuses.

“Her answers were absolutely pathetic and devoid of the moral leadership and academic integrity required of the President of Harvard,” Stefanik said in a statement Tuesday. “Our robust Congressional investigation will continue to move forward to expose the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions and deliver accountability to the American people.”

Christopher Rufo, one of the conservative writers who first published an article on Gay’s alleged plagiarism, said Tuesday on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “this is the beginning of the end for DEI in America’s institutions.”

“We will expose you. We will outmaneuver you. And we will not stop fighting until we have restored colorblind equality in our great nation,” he wrote.

The pressure from conservatives is not new.

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McHenry traced the origin of conservative political focus on higher education to Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign, when he promised to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” in reference to ongoing campus protests for civil rights and other social causes at the California university. Reagan pointed to university staff as responsible for what he called “a leadership gap and a morality and decency gap” — language that strongly mirrors many of the conservative critiques of universities since 2020.

While the national pressure facing university leadership began mounting after Hamas’s attack on Israel, conservative politicians at the state level have steadily asserted their influence on universities over the past year with the passage of legislation that limits the implementation of diversity initiatives and the teaching of critical race theory, and even incentivizes students to report professors who discuss “divisive concepts” in class.

At the New College of Florida, where Rufo is now a board member, Governor Ron DeSantis overhauled the board of the public liberal arts school last year as part of his war on woke,” which also included dismantling the public university’s office of diversity and equity. And the Supreme Court’s decision to ban race-based affirmative action in June drew swift criticism from those who considered the ruling to be more reflective of the court’s 6-3 conservative-leaning than of a fair review of the law.

The consequences of political interference, some say, are dire.

Mulvey, of the professors’ association, said right-wing politicians’ efforts to meddle in university affairs have created an “existential threat” to colleges’ ability to independently decide what and how to teach. “That’s completely antithetical to the idea of American higher education,” she said.

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But other experts argued that — at least in the case of public universities — politicians ought to have a say in how state and federal money is being spent.

Even for private universities that receive some federal funding for research, “a Harvard, a UPenn, an MIT,” McHenry said that “by taking that money, you’re essentially giving the politicians the opportunity to have a voice in what’s going on on your campus.”

University of Virginia political scientist and professor James W. Ceaser said that while he found the “pressure put on universities” to adopt a more conservative approach unsurprising and, in some cases, warranted, he also warned against the “danger” of interference by political leaders in matters that are not strictly a question of law.

“Too much direct pressure from politics is not a good thing for higher education,” he said, adding that it takes away “the rights of [private] universities to form the kind of population, the kind of education that they want.”

Ceaser pointed to Catholic or Protestant universities that require students to take religious studies courses as one example, and said that, whatever the school’s values or affiliation, private universities should retain their right to “offer something they believe is worth promoting . . . [and ] reflects the diversity that’s important in this society.”

Others, however, argue that all universities, both private and public, should benefit from those same protections and flexibility.

“We are at risk of promoting authoritarian attitudes and creating a two-tier system of higher education,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “It shouldn’t be the case that only those who can afford to go to elite private institutions have access to the liberal arts traditions that are going to safeguard our democracy and promote the free exchange of ideas or flourishing in work, citizenship, and life.”

In her opinion piece, Gay acknowledged missteps, but defended the integrity of her research and said that critics had ignored the substance of her work, “which focuses on the significance of minority office holding in American politics.”

“Never did I imagine needing to defend decades-old and broadly respected research,” she wrote, “but the past several weeks have laid waste to truth.”





Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her @itsivyscott. Niki Griswold can be reached at niki.griswold@globe.com. Follow her @nikigriswold.