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A Second Look at the Resignation of Harvard’s First Black President

A Second Look at the Resignation of Harvard’s First Black President

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If you’re like me, you probably consume most of your news via social media. While scrolling through Instagram to get my daily fix of funny skits and small bits of world news, I came across @iamlegallyhype’s page. I learned that in recent events, another successful Black woman has had to forfeit her success due to the inscrutable and judgemental standards of society. 

Dr. Claudine Gay, an educated Black woman and Harvard alum, has recently resigned as the president of Harvard after a short six-month tenure. 

Here is more on the story of a Black woman’s slow and steady rise to success and her unfortunate swift fall. 

Who is Dr. Claudine Gay?

As an educator, Gay has focused her research on the influence of politics on the lives of African Americans. She has studied how the political environment shapes Black Americans’ perceptions, actions, and attitudes. 

In 1998, she earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Government at Harvard University. Additionally, she was awarded the department’s Toppan Prize for the best dissertation in political science. To add to her list of accomplishments, she did her undergraduate at Stanford University and graduated with honors. 

Her commitment to her field and her alma mater led her to become the dean of social science for the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University.

For about 182 days, Dr. Gay held office as Harvard’s first Black president and their second female president in the 388 years of the school’s history. She was also the professor of government and African and African-American studies, a position to which she has recently returned.

So how did such an accomplished woman become the center of unfavorable news attention, leading her to leave her title?

The Situation

It’s plain to see that issues regarding the Israel-Hamas war have divided many Americans. Perhaps the already boiling tension of the situation contributed to what seemed to be a personal attack on Dr. Gay after her comments regarding anti-Semitism. 

Dr. Gay, as well as other Harvard faculty, took part in a congressional committee hearing to discuss specific political acts that were occurring on campus. The meeting was said to have been over four hours long. However, one response from Dr. Gay left attendees in an uproar.

New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik posed the question, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?” It would seem that this was a loaded question. 

Dr. Gay responded by saying that every situation is different. She said, “Antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.”

People often speak from their emotions and personal sentiments in heated political discussions. As a result, their feelings can lead them to view responses as wrong or incorrect. 

Dr. Gay has never condoned acts of violence or bullying against Jews. Her response attempted to honor the students’ right to freedom of speech. Yet, she noted that Harvard would draw a line if that freedom of speech led to violence or bullying. 

Yet this not-so-neat and pretty answer seemed to have lit a fire under certain groups of people, particularly Stefanik, who stated that since Dr. Gay didn’t respond to the question with a firm yes, it was reasonable to demand that Dr. Gay resign. 

Additionally, several prominent media outlets looked into her academic record and found alleged instances of plagiarism. The Harvard Corporation investigated the matter and found no violation of their research standards, only a few cases of inadequate citations. 

Nonetheless, numerous influential alumni and politicians demanded that Dr. Gay step down. 

The Aftermath

Dr. Gay gave a politically straightforward answer rather than an empathic one. Anti-Semitism across the country has been on the rise, and people are looking to leaders to make them feel safe.

Days after the speech, Dr. Gay realized that her response had caused pain and discomfort among her students and apologized for not speaking her truth. She even issued a public apology, saying, “I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” Dr. Gay said in the interview. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard and will never go unchallenged.”

However, the call for her resignation was unwarranted. Leaders and influencers could have demanded that she take a stronger stance against anti-Semitism. They could have called for harsher policies against hate speech or perhaps redefined what freedom of speech can allow.

Yet, her opponents unreasonably questioned her academic integrity instead of disagreeing with her response. It was as if they started a witch hunt, looking for any excuse to remove her from her position.

If a country can allow a man who has blatantly made misogynist and racist comments to run an entire country for four years, why wasn’t Dr. Gay given an opportunity to lead better?

Why was she shunned after one comment that didn’t accurately convey her feelings about what she would be willing to do to protect the students at Harvard? 

Universities are the place where intellectual minds meet. It is a place where people can challenge their viewpoints. Yet with this incident, one of the country’s most prestigious schools seemed to be reminiscent of high school, where those with popularity and influence have the most control. 

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