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Harvard Let Itself and Gay Be Bullied

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

It’s telling that the most damning comments during the saga of the fallen ex-Harvard President Dr. Claudine Gay come from rabid fans of the twice-impeached, four-time criminally indicted man who wants to be a president again. That would be Donald Trump.

Emil GuillermoEmil GuillermoOne of the league of former Trump lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, a former Harvard Law professor, was one of those on cable TV leading the chorus calling Gay a DEI hire. For the uninitiated, DEI is “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the now established catchall phrase for race matters in the academic and corporate worlds. It is the focus of the second coming of the affirmative action battle, which despite the SCOTUS ruling last year, isn’t quite dead enough for some. But then, the anti-civil rights folks never give up trying to stop the arc of justice. And so right-wing opponents of DEI saw Gay, beginning with those her less than fiery Congressional hearing comments, as a gift.

They saw a pushover for attack dogs like Dershowitz to demonize Gay and go after her, not for her milk-toast, depends-on-the-context comments, but for what she stood for. DEI.

“That’s how she became president,” Dershowitz commented one night on cable. “She is the symbol of DEI and the symbol has failed.”

And what of the moral failings of the DEI attackers who back Donald Trump, a man who was so unqualified to lead the United States as president, who had never held public office, who lied or misled in his public statements thousands of times — he made presidential fact checking a cottage industry — and who is now under criminal indictment on 90-plus felony counts. That man is the prohibitive favorite to be the Republican nominee for president, and the only way it can be understood is that he is the extreme beneficiary of white affirmative action.

Keep in mind the thousands of Trump lies made during his first term. Not plagiarism. That is, after all, a common practice among politicians and corporate execs who have ghost writers and speech writers. Saying others’ words and passing it off as your own? In the real world of politics, it’s standard operating procedure. Trump was one better. He didn’t read his scripts after a while.  He just told bold-faced lies.

The plagiarism Gay was accused of was determined to be minor and not to be a violation of research misconduct. She was not an outright liar like Trump. She was allowed to make some minor corrections. But her right-wing critics made it the moral cause for her demise. Really? They allow for the lies of the Republican front-runner, and Gay is a president no more? There’s your damning double standard.

Sometimes a simple math concept like substitution is instructive in these matters.

If Claudine Gay were a white man, would she have been made a target?

If Donald Trump, or any other white man had answered the same way as Gay at that “fake” Congressional hearing (that was really all about getting campaign video rather than finding the truth), would the white male have been pilloried as Gay?

Of the three presidents who were called to testify before Congress, all three were woman. Magill of Penn was fired. But Kornbluth of MIT has hung on with MIT’s support.

Gay was, however, more vulnerable. Not just a woman, but also black. And that led to more scrutiny of her public work, essentially oppo research, to fuel even more attacks on Gay’s qualifications. Critics didn’t attack the two white female presidents on that score. And they wouldn’t have attacked a white male on credentials. Not even if he didn’t have any, witness Trump. They gave white a pass and dumped on Gay, the perfect Harvard president for the anti-DEI crowd.

Instead of supporting her, Harvard buckled. It’s a bad precedent for DEI’s future. Harvard buckled? Then certainly XXX State can dump DEI.

That is the sad thing. Harvard, as a private institution with its large $60 billion endowment, should have set an example and stood by their president.

It could have refused her letter of resignation on Monday that came when more allegations of plagiarism were surfacing. The number was rising to nearly 50 examples (many minor) were reported by an anonymous source to conservative media. That apparently was too much for Gay to want to fight on.

But Harvard, the institution could have. It didn’t. Gay clearly was not “perfect” enough for Harvard, and so it caved to the pressure. They knew what it had and, in the end, didn’t like the negative publicity. In Gay, they had a qualified African American academic leader who was the right person to lead the transformation of Harvard as it tries to undo its racist past where slaveholders and colonizers have names on buildings or are honored as heroes.

It could have stuck with Gay beyond six months.

But the real politics trumped the norm of even the most treacherous academic office politics. Wrote Gay in her letter to alumni: “After consultation with members of the Corporation, it has become clear 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.”

The anti-DEI charges hurled by billionaire right-wing alumni donors like Bill Ackman and Trump supporters that bullied Gay personally and individually were enough to topple Harvard.

The Harvard Corporation, made up of more former or current hedge fund runners and corporatists than is good for an institution, simply let Gay resign. No fight.

What does that say about Harvard’s dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion? For the right people. Gay was not to be its DEI hill to die on.

Not white enough? Not corporate enough. Harvard’s own letter to the community that began “With great sadness…” was more PR than real, which signifies people were working overtime on New Year’s Day. As an alumnus, I got both emails within minutes. And as a person of color, I felt what Gay felt.

The entire situation says a lot about Harvard’s commitment to DEI. They’ll back you. Just don’t hurt the brand.

Harvard wouldn’t fight the bullying of Claudine Gay. It took the easy way out and let her slip into the darkness.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist, commentator, and a former adjunct professor based in California.

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