ACTA in the News | Free Speech

Her truth, her Harvard, her failure

Claudine Gay’s resignation as Harvard’s president creates a small opening that could lead to reform. But it is more likely that America’s top Ivy League school will continue down the same mediocre path.
BLAZE MEDIA   |  January 5, 2024 by Steven McGuire

Claudine Gay’s tenure as president of Harvard was the shortest and perhaps the most scandalous in the institution’s history.

Initially celebrated as the first black woman to serve in the role, she will be remembered as a serial plagiarist and free speech hypocrite who presided over the punishment of heterodox thinkers but was unable to condemn calls for the genocide of Jews.

Most of all, she will be regarded as a symbol of the folly of hiring for diversity without regard for merit — another hard lesson on affirmative action for Harvard just six months after it was told by the U.S. Supreme Court to stop racial discrimination in admissions.

Harvard responded to that decision with arrogance, or what it called “resolve,” indicating that its desire to discriminate remained unhindered. The university’s ultimate response to the current fiasco remains to be seen. Will it finally learn the right lesson? Will it take this opportunity to reform itself, abandoning ideology and repression to embrace truth and freedom? Will it retreat into the ivory tower and refocus on the intellectual life after getting walloped in the political arena?

Gay’s resignation is barely an occasion for hope. While it is remarkable that the president of Harvard — a rich, powerful, and independent institution — was compelled to resign, neither she nor the Harvard Corporation, the board that elected her president, have shown any sign of true remorse.

Instead, Gay has portrayed herself as a victim. In the New York Times, she wrote, “Trusted institutions of all types . . . will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility,” without any apparent reflection on how her own history of plagiarism and her failed leadership at Harvard does just that.

And no member of the Harvard Corporation has accepted any responsibility, including Senior Fellow Penny Pritzker, who led the search that resulted in Gay’s selection. Unlike her counterpart at the University of Pennsylvania, Scott Bok, who resigned immediately after Liz Magill did, she has announced she will not resign.

Worse than the lack of remorse, there is little indication that anyone in charge recognizes or cares about the deeper problem Harvard faces, of which Claudine Gay was an avatar.

As two eminent Harvard professors, Harvey Mansfield and James Hankins, independently observed, the very selection of Gay as president illustrated the fundamental problem: Harvard wants to be a political actor advancing progressive ideology rather than an institution dedicated to the life of the mind. Gay said as much in her first speech as president-elect, pronouncing that “the idea of the Ivory Tower, that is the past, not the future, of academia” and that she wanted Harvard “to be engaged with the world.” As Mansfield quipped, that “turned out to mean having to face Elise Stefanik in Washington and answer her questions.”

Not only is Harvard ill-equipped to play such a political role, but, as Professor Hankins points out, “the path of political engagement . . . undermines its true mission.” Harvard’s motto, which it still parades around on shields like a war prize, is Veritas, or truth. The key to fixing Harvard is returning to that motto and recognizing that Harvard is an institution whose purpose is not political activism, which demands ideological conformity, but truth seeking, which depends on openness to heterodoxy.

Whether Harvard will be reformed ultimately depends on the Harvard Corporation. The immense pressure from donors, alumni, journalists, and even Congress, all of which have played essential roles so far, should continue, but the necessary changes will take place only when those who bear fiduciary responsibility for the university accept their duty and exercise their authority to lead.

One cause for the slimmest of hopes is a reported dinner between two members of the corporation and a few faculty representatives of Harvard’s Council on Academic Freedom. That group included Jeffrey Flier and Steven Pinker, two long-standing defenders of free expression and intellectual diversity. Professor Flier has defended institutional neutrality and urged the board to live up to its responsibility. Professor Pinker has laid out a five-point plan for Harvard that includes embracing free speech and viewpoint diversity and seriously curtailing DEI work on campus.

As donor Bill Ackman has learned, that last point is critical. DEI offices and programs have had a pernicious effect on American campuses, including Harvard’s. The explosion of anti-Semitism last fall fueled by the “oppressor-oppressed” framework advanced by DEI made that plain to see. Campuses should be open and welcoming to anyone admitted through merit and initiative, regardless of background or immutable characteristics.

The free and open pursuit of truth cannot coexist with an ideology that favors some groups over others and expects everyone to think the same.

Claudine Gay’s resignation creates a small opening that could lead to reform at Harvard, but it is more likely that Harvard will continue down the same path it has been on. Now is not a time for those who care about the future of higher education in this country to rest satisfied but to keep pushing — not to destroy Harvard but to reform it before it destroys itself.

This post appeared on Blaze Media on January 5, 2024.


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