Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 4 January 2024



Harvard head shows how far academia has sunk

The Times

In being ousted only six months into her tenure this week, Claudine Gay, the first black female president of Harvard, also became the shortest-serving leader in the 390-year history of America’s most prestigious university. The juxtaposition of these two standards has prompted a predictable effort to portray her academic early bath as an example of deep-rooted racism, to assign to her that most cherished status in the iconography of modern secular American sainthood: victim of white male oppression.

In a column published in The New York Times yesterday, Gay warned of dark forces at work. She denounced her critics for recycling “tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament”. Professional black activists and their allies raged. “Racist mobs won’t stop until they topple all Black people from positions of power and influence,” Ibram X Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, posted on X.

This attempt to anoint Gay, who, despite her defenestration gets to stay on at Harvard in a $900,000-a-year professorship, as a kind of latter-day Rosa Parks, the black seamstress who sparked a long-overdue civil rights revolution, is a nice try. But even in a nation that has been hijacked by a regnant narrative about embedded racial inequity and white supremacism, and cowed by the vocal proponents of an extremist, racially exclusionary ideology that is tearing the country apart, it won’t wash.

Unlike genuine victims of discrimination, Gay was hit with claims of being a serial offender against the most sacred rule of her profession: plagiarism. But she was always an academic lightweight, elevated to the pinnacle of American academia because of her skin colour and her facility with articulating the prevailing ideological nostrums.

Far from being a victim of discrimination, Gay is a testament to the intellectual corruption and monomania not only of American higher education but of the wider culture. And the desperate attempt to enrol her in the martyrology of racial discrimination is itself wholly discrediting of the very race-based ideology of oppression that has such a grip on American public discourse.


Gay’s downfall began when she appeared last month before a congressional committee with the heads of two other leading universities, and found herself unable to say whether anyone calling for the genocide of Jews on her campus should be disciplined. Despite protests from leading Harvard alumni, many of them Jewish, at this apparent insouciance to the plight of a genuinely persecuted class of students (in contrast with the protections offered those who need trigger warnings about hurtful language in Victorian literature) she would have comfortably survived. It was only when the episode prompted some enterprising journalists to do a little digging into Gay’s academic standing that the trouble started.

It would be an understatement to say Gay’s scholarly credentials are thin. In more than 20 years in academic life, she had published not one book and only 11 articles in scholarly journals. Some of her peers publish that much in a single year. Moreover, her specialism, such as it was — the sociology of black political representation — was as predictably fashionable as it was intellectually unrevealing. Yet the real problem was not the slender body of research nor the banality of its findings, but that much of it allegedly wasn’t her own work. News outlets found at least 40 instances where Gay appeared to have lifted passages and data from other academic work without proper attribution.

In a pure example of the level of intellectual corruption now rife at top colleges, Harvard’s protective board had previously cleared Gay of such allegations and had threatened legal action against The New York Post when it investigated. But as evidence mounted, it gradually dawned on the ideological obsessives and intellectual charlatans who run these places that clinging to the wreckage of Gay’s reputation was going to drag the university down with it and she was, as they say, let go, with a tearful handshake and a platinum goodbye.

Gay was the most prominent example — and beneficiary — of the wholesale takeover of higher education by the diversity, equity and inclusion craze that is crushing intellectual freedom, degrading academic standards and deepening the ruinous rifts in American society. The elevation of unqualified ideologues promoting unsupported ideas on the basis of dodgy scholarship has weakened the very foundations of American intellectual life.

As it happens, and of note to those who insist that only a black woman would be treated this way, the previous record for short-lived tenure as Harvard president belongs to Larry Summers, a brilliant but famously combative economist. Summers is no conservative, having been Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary and later Barack Obama’s chief economics adviser, but he is a stickler for intellectual rigour and fell out repeatedly with the Harvard faculty and its extreme identitarian orthodoxies. He was eventually ousted for daring to suggest that disparate gender performance in the hard sciences might be rooted in part in innate differences in mathematical ability.

Summers once told me that after one especially acrimonious session with top faculty he said to them: “At least I understand now where you and I differ. I believe achievement is the route to self-esteem. You believe self-esteem is the route to achievement.” But as he soon discovered, he was wrong — at least about this. Towering though it is, it’s not academic self-esteem that is the route to achievement in American universities, but rigid commitment to an ideological conformity that would make Joseph Stalin or Kim Jong-un proud.

Gay’s thoroughly merited and welcome departure won’t change that but it, and the highly questionable attempts to exculpate her, may offer a glimmer of hope.

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