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Plagiarism charges downed Harvard's president. A conservative attack helped to fan the outrage

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American higher education has long viewed plagiarism as a cardinal sin. Accusations of academic dishonesty have ruined the careers of faculty and undergraduates alike.

The latest target is Harvard President Claudine Gay, who resigned Tuesday. In her case, the outrage came not from her academic peers but her political foes, led by conservatives who put her career under intense scrutiny.

Reviews by Harvard found multiple shortcomings in Gay's academic citations, including several instances of " duplicative language." The university concluded the errors "were not considered intentional or reckless" and didn't rise to misconduct. But the allegations continued, with new ones as recently as Monday.

Conservatives zeroed in on Gay amid backlash over her congressional testimony about antisemitism on campus. Her detractors charged that Gay -- who has a Ph.D. in government, was a professor at Harvard and Stanford and headed Harvard's largest division before being promoted -- got the top job in large part because she is a Black woman.

Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who helped orchestrate the effort against Gay, celebrated her departure as a win in his campaign against elite institutions of higher education. On X, formerly Twitter, he wrote "SCALPED," as if Gay was a trophy of violence, invoking a gruesome practice taken up by white colonists who sought to eradicate Native Americans and also used by some tribes against their enemies.

"Tomorrow, we get back to the fight," he said on X, describing a "playbook" against institutions deemed too liberal by conservatives. His latest target: efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in education and business.

"We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America," he said. In another post, he announced a new "plagiarism hunting fund," vowing to "expose the rot in the Ivy League and restore truth, rather than racialist ideology, as the highest principle in academic life."

In a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday, Gay acknowledged making mistakes. She said her published work contained passages where "some material duplicated other scholars' language, without proper attribution." But she said she never had claimed credit for others' work, and she stands by her original research. And at the December congressional hearing that started the onslaught of criticism, she wrote, "I neglected to clearly articulate that calls for the genocide of Jewish people are abhorrent and unacceptable."

Her departure comes just six months after becoming Harvard's first Black president.

As the figureheads of their universities, presidents often face heightened scrutiny, and numerous leaders have been felled by plagiarism scandals. Stanford University's president resigned last year amid findings that he manipulated scientific data in his research. A president of the University of South Carolina resigned in 2021 after he lifted parts of his speech at a graduation ceremony.

In Gay's case, many academics were troubled with how the plagiarism came to light: as part of a coordinated campaign to discredit Gay and force her from office, in part because of her involvement in efforts for racial justice on campus. Her resignation came after calls for her ouster from prominent conservatives including Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Harvard alumna, and Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has donated millions to Harvard.

The campaign against Gay and other Ivy League presidents has become part of a broader right-wing effort to remake higher education, which has often been seen as a bastion of liberalism. Republican detractors have sought to gut funding for public universities, roll back tenure and banish initiatives that make colleges more welcoming to students of color, disabled students and the LGBTQ+ community. They also have aimed to limit how race and gender are discussed in classrooms.

Walter M. Kimbrough, the former president of the historically Black Dillard University, said what unfolded at Harvard reminded him of an adage from his mother, a Black graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1950s.

As a Black person in academia, "you always have to be twice, three times as good," he said.

"There are going to be people, particularly if they have any inkling that the person of color is not the most qualified, who will label them a `DEI hire,' like they tried to label her," Kimbrough said. "If you want to lead an institution like (Harvard) … there are going to be people who are looking to disqualify you."

The allegations against Gay initially came from conservative activists, some who stayed anonymous. They looked for the kinds of duplicated sentences undergraduate students are trained to avoid, even with citation.

In dozens of instances first published by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, Gay's work includes long stretches of prose that mirror language from other published works. A review ordered by Harvard acknowledged she duplicated the language without using quotation marks.

Harvard previously said Gay updated her dissertation and requested corrections from journals.

Among her critics in conservative circles and academia, the findings are clear evidence that Gay, as the top academic at the pinnacle of U.S. higher education, is unfit to serve. Her defenders say it isn't so clear-cut.

In highly specialized fields, scholars often use similar language to describe the same concepts, said Davarian Baldwin, a historian at Trinity College who writes about race and higher education. Gay clearly made mistakes, he said, but with the spread of software designed to detect plagiarism, it wouldn't be hard to find similar overlap in works by other presidents and professors.

The tool becomes dangerous, he added, when it "falls into the hands of those who argue that academia in general is a cesspool of incompetence and bad actors."

John Pelissero, a former interim college president who now works for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said instances of plagiarism deserve to be evaluated individually and that it's not always so cut and dried.

"You're looking for whether there was intentionality to mislead or inappropriately borrow other people's ideas in your work," Pelissero said. "Or was there an honest mistake?"

Without commenting on the merits of the allegations against Gay, President Irene Mulvey of the American Association of University Professors said she fears plagiarism investigations could be "weaponized" to pursue a political agenda.

"There is a right-wing political attack on higher education right now, which feels like an existential threat to the academic freedom that has made American higher education the envy of the world," Mulvey said.

She worries Gay's departure will put a new strain on college presidents. In addition to their work courting donors, policymakers and alumni, presidents are supposed to protect faculty from interference so they can research unimpeded.

"For presidents to be taken down like this, it does not bode well for academic freedom," she said. "I think it'll chill the climate for academic freedom. And it may make university presidents less likely to speak out against this inappropriate interference for fear of losing their jobs or being targeted."

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Balingit reported from Sacramento.

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