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‘All the hallmarks of a political hit job’: Historian explains how Claudine Gay became a conservative target

Nancy MacLean, who studies conservative social movements, says that the unceremonious departure of the Harvard president is part of a longstanding, well-funded campaign to overhaul higher education.

Claudine Gay, former president of Harvard University.Haiyun Jiang/Bloomberg

College campuses have always been places of disagreement and debate. But recently, the ideological battles at universities have reached a new pitch.

Exhibit A: The unceremonious departure of Claudine Gay — Harvard’s first Black president — after only six months.

Right-wing activists took a victory lap over her resignation. Gay, in a New York Times op-ed on Jan. 3, warned that her exit was “merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society.”

What did Gay mean by that?

Nancy MacLean, a history professor at Duke University who studies conservative social movements, provided her insights on the Say More podcast. She is the author of “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.”


Listen at globe.com/saymore and wherever you find your podcasts.

Here is an edited excerpt of the conversation:

When you saw the campaign forming against Claudine Gay at Harvard, what went through your mind?

What was going through my stomach was almost as important as what was going through my mind. I could just see that it had all the hallmarks of a political hit job, of a kind that I was very familiar with, having studied the right for a number of years. The entire right-wing media and political ecosystem lighting up using the same language and terminology, whipping up outrage, that outrage breaking into the mainstream media, and seeing political provocateurs boasting about what they had done. I thought, ‘Oh, no, this is going to be ugly.’

Some of the activists had nothing to do with Harvard. Two of them were Chris Rufo and Phillip Magness. Who are they?

These are very, very committed actors on the political right. Mr. Magness has gone after me personally. The more skilled operative is Christopher Rufo. I was already familiar with him when he came into the news about the attacks on President Gay at Harvard. He is the person who started the attack on what he called critical race theory a few years ago. When I saw that those two were involved, I said, “Uh-oh, this is going to be bad.”


The gates of Harvard University in Cambridge. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Gay truly bungled her congressional testimony when Representative Elise Stefanik asked her how she would handle a call for the genocide of Jews. Some Harvard students, faculty, and alumni wanted her gone, too. So it’s not just the right wing. Ultimately, two of the three university presidents who testified that day resigned under pressure.

Stefanik is a diehard Trump supporter now, so she’s not particularly interested in the factual universe, or making a better Harvard. This was really a kind of gotcha operation.

After they were fired, Elise Stefanik, tweeted “Two down.” Christopher Rufo tweeted “scalped.” I can tell you that someone who would use the word scalped in triumph is not someone who has the best interests of Harvard or higher education in mind.

Now I don’t think Gay’s congressional testimony did her in. I think it was the plagiarism.

I would never defend plagiarism. But my point is that what we’re seeing is character assassination, somebody who has a whole body of work, a lifetime of hard work and achievement, suddenly has their reputation eviscerated. That is the kind of thinking and strategy that we’re dealing with.


We have to be very deliberate because there’s so much big money involved. We have to really track who is funding these actors. We all have to calm down, follow the facts, don’t fall for these campaigns. We have to stop and say, “What’s going on here?”

Should Claudine Gay still be president of Harvard?

That’s also the kind of question that Christopher Rufo would like us to ask. My approach would be I believe in the rule of law. I believe in the Constitution. I believe in fairness, and I believe in due process. Anyone who is accused of a serious offense, whether it is a criminal offense, whether it is an alleged scholarly offense people deserve due process. I want to see evidence. I want to see facts. I want to see testimony. But I don’t want to act in a precipitous manner, particularly when I know that there are malign actors who want us to act in a precipitous manner.

Do you think the right is succeeding at destabilizing or changing universities in a meaningful way?

We are at the beginning, maybe in the first or second inning of of something that is really going to surge from here on in. It’s a kind of a hold-onto-your-hats and buckle-your-seat-belts situation.

What’s the next shoe to drop in higher education? Will we see more presidents stepping down?

I don’t know which institutions will find themselves in the crosshairs, but I do believe that will happen. We can expect attacks on university leaders — particularly leaders of color and women because that’s exciting to the base. We can expect them to go after any kind of ethnic studies, women and gender studies, which they’ve already done in many places.


You know that old [Latin] question “Cui bono?” — who stands to benefit from this? When we understand that, then we can do a more comprehensive reporting job and protect vital institutions that we need for our society to thrive.

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist and host of the Globe Opinion podcast “Say More with Shirley Leung.” Find the podcast on Apple, Spotify, and globe.com/saymore. Follow her on Threads @shirley02186

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Anna Kusmer can be reached at anna.kusmer@globe.com.