Debate over plagiarism charges against Claudine Gay increases pressure at Harvard

After weeks of turmoil at Harvard over the university’s response to the Israel-Hamas war and the leadership of its president, Claudine Gay, there was no shortage of interest in a faculty forum with Dr. Gay this week.

In a town hall held on Zoom Tuesday with several hundred members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Gay focused on how to bridge the deep divisions that have emerged on campus because of the war, according to two people who attended. and he requested confidentiality due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Faculty members who spoke at the meeting were largely positive, and there were no questions about Dr. Gay’s academic record following the public accusations of plagiarism. The issue wasn’t even raised, one professor said.

But by Thursday, new questions regarding Dr. Gay’s scholarship had come to the fore, after the university said last Wednesday that it had identified two more cases of what it called “duplicative language without appropriate attribution,” from her thesis doctorate in 1997.

The examples were part of a wave of plagiarism allegations that have emerged against Dr Gay over the past two weeks, led by conservative activists and media outlets, even as she came under fire for failing to take a tougher stance against anti-Semitism during a tense congressional session. hearing agreed to by House Republicans this month.

The latest wave of allegations has given strength to Dr. Gay’s critics and strained his supporters, leaving some students and faculty perplexed just as the campus empties for winter break.

“As a Harvard student, this whole scandal from start to finish was pretty embarrassing,” Daniel Vega, a senior Harvard student, said Thursday. “I just think it’s a little rough around the edges for us.”

Mr. Vega, a classics and philosophy major in the midst of writing his thesis, said he and his classmates had carefully watched the plagiarism allegations against Dr. Gay, as well as his handling of anti-Semitism. However, he said, it was not lost on him that the accusations came from right-wing agitators.

The latest developments also raise questions about the Harvard Corporation, the insular board of trustees that hired Dr. Gay — professor of government and African and African-American studies, former dean and the university’s first black president — after a relatively quick search last year . . The board had just cleared Dr. Gay of “research misconduct.”

Harvard’s board first addressed the allegations against Dr. Gay on December 12. At the time, the board said that an investigation by independent scholars, launched in response to anonymous allegations received in late October, had found “some instances of inadequate citation” in his published work. Such cases, the committee said, did not rise to the level of “research misconduct.” Dr Gay would require four corrections in two articles, the committee said.

Then on Wednesday, the university said the committee had also examined his 1997 thesis, which was not part of the original review, and found two additional instances of “duplicated language without appropriate attribution.” These cases also do not amount to “research misconduct,” the university said, but will be corrected in an update to Dr. Gay’s thesis.

Asked Thursday whether the Harvard Corporation still stood by Dr. Gay, a university spokesperson said the December 12 statement of unanimous support. Dr. Gay declined to be interviewed.

The plagiarism charges against Dr. Gay, which span her thesis and about half of the 11 journal articles listed on her resume, range from brief snippets of technical definitions to lightly paraphrased summaries of other scholars’ work without quotation marks or direct quotations. In an example that drew ridicule, Dr. Gay appeared to borrow exact phrases from the acknowledgments section of another author’s book to thank his mentor and her family in the acknowledgments section of her thesis.

She has not been accused of more serious violations, such as falsifying data or stealing another scholar’s original research or ideas.

Still, the continuing stream of allegations has privately worried some faculty members who see a pattern of negligence unbecoming of a Harvard leader. And some have begun to speak out more forcefully, questioning whether Dr. Gay can actually carry out presidential duties, including raising money from as broad a pool of donors as possible.

“You have to be practical, not ideological,” Avi Loeb, a science professor who criticized Dr. Gay’s previous testimony to Congress, said Thursday. “If he fails to achieve the goals that he must pursue as a university president, then it is obvious what must be done.”

Some major donors remain agitated. Ukrainian-born billionaire tycoon Len Blavatnik, whose name adorns an institute at Harvard Medical School, decided in recent weeks to suspend donations due to his dissatisfaction with the school’s response to anti-Semitic incidents on campus, a senior official said. spokesman. Mr. Blavatnik’s family, which has donated more than $200 million, will not resume donating “until anti-Semitism at Harvard is addressed with concrete action,” the official said in a statement.

Mr. Blavatnik’s decision was reported previously by Bloomberg.

In a note to colleagues shared with The New York Times, Eugene I. Shakhnovich, professor of chemistry and chemical biology, wrote that Dr. Gay’s continued tenure as president was “untenable for Harvard.”

“Claudine Gay represents a huge obstacle to Harvard and, by extension, to higher education in the United States,” he wrote. “Her presidency is a huge Christmas present” on the right.

Yet debate remained on campus over whether the allegations against Dr. Gay were serious enough to warrant further action.

Randall Kennedy, a Harvard legal scholar, said Thursday that his support for Dr. Gay was “unchangeable.”

The allegations against her, she said, had been brought to light by “professional detractors”. She urged the university to “clarify the concept of plagiarism and distinguish between various levels of culpability.”

He also suggested that Harvard leadership could further cooperate with a congressional investigation of the university, distinguishing between “good faith investigations” and “bad faith rejection of efforts to harass, embarrass, and intimidate.”

To meet Harvard’s standard of “research misconduct,” which can lead to harsh sanctions, infractions must be committed “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly,” according to Faculty of Arts and Science regulations.

Daniel Swinton, former assistant dean for academic integrity at Vanderbilt University and now a university counselor and expert witness, emphasized that intent matters. “I didn’t read anything that said he stole someone’s idea and passed it off as completely his own,” he said.

The accusation that Dr. Gay copied sentences in his thesis acknowledgments from another author’s acknowledgments struck him as “embarrassing.” But awards, he said, are “the hallmark of academia” and the common language is standard.

While a university president might be considered of a higher standard than a student, “as far as what perfection to expect from him, the answer is no,” Swinton said.

The Harvard campus, the site of bitter protests for weeks, was cold and quiet Thursday as final exams concluded and winter break began. Only a handful of tourists wandered the still grounds.

Rémy Furrer, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, said he believed Dr. Gay was “taking responsibility, to some extent, by requiring some changes to her published research.” But, he said, “it is important that academic standards are applied equally among faculty, deans and students.”

Spencer Glassman, a senior at Harvard, said he couldn’t say whether Dr. Gay had crossed a line. But he understood the need to look closely at allegations of plagiarism.

“It sets a standard of seriousness for the university,” he said. “The president should be somewhat above reproach.”

Rob Copeland, Kitty Bennett, Anna BettsMatthew Eadie and Cici Yongshi Yu contributed reporting.