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Harvard seeks to move past firestorm brought on by school President Claudine Gay's resignation

A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school's conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school's conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Harvard University on Wednesday sought to move beyond the firestorm brought on by the plagiarism allegations, congressional testimony and resignation of Claudine Gay, the school's first Black president, as it seeks a new leader and tries to heal divisions at the elite Ivy League school.

But Gay, in a column published online by the New York Times, cautioned Wednesday that the campaign against her was about more than one university and one leader.

"This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society," Gay wrote. "Those who had relentlessly campaigned to oust me since the fall often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults," she added.

Gay also wrote that there was a racial element to the attacks, saying that she's "been called the N-word more times than I care to count."

"It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution," she wrote.

The search for a new president will begin "in due course" and will include "broad engagement and consultation with the Harvard community," the Harvard Corporation, the school's 11-member governing board, said in statement Tuesday, adding that will be driven by "core values of excellence, inclusiveness, and free inquiry and expression."

"At a time when strife and division are so prevalent in our nation and our world, embracing and advancing that mission -- in a spirit of common purpose -- has never been more important," leadership said.

As it looks for a new president, the corporation also needs to examine its role in Gay's appearance before Congress, according to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who teaches history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and directs the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project.

Muhammad said Harvard capitulated to "a McCarthy-style political attack" in accepting Gay's resignation and not calling out "the misinformation and outright lies" leveled at her by Republican critics, which he described as a "political witch-hunt."

"The first mistake was accepting the terms of the congressional inquiry as legitimate," said Muhammad, who added that he's equally concerned about another person of color stepping in as president and "having to carry the weight of unfair accusations and character assassination connected to their racial identity."

The school has tapped Alan M. Garber, provost and chief academic officer, to serve as interim president until a permanent replacement can be named.

Gay is the second Ivy League president to resign in the past month following the congressional testimony: Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned Dec. 9.

Following the congressional hearing, Gay's academic career came under intense scrutiny by conservative activists who unearthed several instances of alleged plagiarism in her 1997 doctoral dissertation.

The Harvard Corporation initially rallied behind Gay, saying a review of her scholarly work turned up "a few instances of inadequate citation" but no evidence of research misconduct. Days later, the corporation said it found two additional examples of "duplicative language without appropriate attribution."

Gay's resignation drew a range of reactions from campus groups.

The Harvard Republican Club said the school has a chance to strengthen its commitment to truth.

"We hope that our next President will continue Harvard's long-standing commitment to fostering an intellectual community where open discourse is not only protected, but expected," the group said in a written statement.

The Harvard Black Students Association said that while Black students often hold opinions that don't align with Gay's, they are "deeply dismayed by the message the University continues to send about who is worth defending and who is not."

"We understand the representation that Claudine Gay provided to Black students, Caribbean students, and Black women in particular," the group said in a statement. "We sympathize with and condemn the hatred and unwarranted scrutiny that Gay has had to face."

Gay's resignation was celebrated by the conservatives who put her alleged plagiarism in the national spotlight.

"Two Down. One to Go," New York Rep. Elise Stefanik said Wednesday in a post on X, formerly Twitter. "Your silence is deafening @MIT. Not even an apology issued by your school to date. And zero commitment from your school to combat antisemitism and protect Jewish students."

Gay, Magill and MIT's president, Sally Kornbluth, came under fire last month for their lawyerly answers to a line of questioning by Stefanik, a graduate of Harvard, who asked whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" would violate the colleges' codes of conduct. Kornbluth has retained her job.

The three presidents had been called before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce to answer accusations that universities were failing to protect Jewish students amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel's intensifying war in Gaza,

In her column, Gay acknowledged mistakes, saying that in her initial response to the atrocities of Oct. 7, she should have stated more forcefully that Hamas is a terrorist organization that seeks to eradicate the Jewish state.

"And at a congressional hearing last month, I fell into a well-laid trap. I neglected to clearly articulate that calls for the genocide of Jewish people are abhorrent and unacceptable," she wrote.

While she acknowledged attribution errors in some of her academic writing, she wrote that she's "never misrepresented my research findings, nor have I ever claimed credit for the research of others."

John Pelissero, an ethics scholar at Santa Clara University, said the rancor that led to Gay's departure as president is emblematic of how national politics have crept into institutions of higher learning.

"I think that what has changed in universities in the last few years is there is much more scrutiny being given politically to what goes on on university campuses and what kind of a learning culture is there versus a political or ideological culture," he said.

The episode marred Gay's tenure at Harvard -- she became president in July -- and sowed discord at the Ivy League campus.

Gay, who is returning to the school's faculty, said in her resignation letter that it has been "distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor -- two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am -- and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus." Top Stories

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