Several long decades ago, when I was applying for grad school, my senior professor at the University of Michigan, the redoubtable Frank Livingstone Huntley (“Livingstone” in honor of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”) gave me advice about where to direct my pleas. I brought up Harvard. “Harvard!” he snorted. “They’ve been playing on their reputation for years.”
I’m happy to say that Mr. Huntley (he always thought that “Doctor” was a pretentious thing for a professor to be called) has been fully vindicated. Claudine Gay, “Doctor,” if you please, has resigned as president of Harvard, in response to complaints of plagiarism, lack of seriousness about anti-Semitism, and general stupidity.
The significance of the episode goes far beyond the unhappy Gay.
Here’s what Harvard did.
It hired as its president a person whose academic record — a paltry set of articles, no book, a trivial and methodologically silly research program — would not have gotten her tenure in a B-list university. Her qualification, unrelated to scholarship, was being a black modern liberal.
“Harvard!” he snorted. “They’ve been playing on their reputation for years.”
To prep her for congressional testimony about anti-Semitism in the university, it hired an expensive law firm that evidently advised her to be as truculently laconic as possible and to address the question of anti-Semitic activism on campus with vague words about freedom of speech. She was dumb enough to take this advice — she whose own record on freedom of speech was as undistinguished as her research, and which was bound to come to light as soon as she invoked the idea. As you see, I hesitate to speculate that she was allowed to be her own advisor; Harvard apparently thought she couldn’t be that stupid.
It (Harvard) found itself flummoxed by the stunning, inconceivable, literally incredible failure of its intellectual leader, who tried to wash her hands of the matter by strenuously insisting that she herself was anti-anti-Semitic, as if that, rather than her inability to make any identifiably intellectual response to a series of obvious questions, had been the issue.
Before that happened, however, the New York Post received evidence that the sage’s academic career, slight as it had been, was pockmarked by plagiarism. To this it (Harvard, again) had its lawyers emit a violent denial of the accusations (which it suggested were the creations of artificial intelligence), together with an unveiled threat to sue the Post if it published any of that stuff.
That’s freedom of speech for you.
In academic circles, doing such a thing is almost universally considered a confession of guilt.
But the Post, and others, worked up their nerve and began the arduous and unpleasant process of comparing what academic leader Gay had written with what others had written. The results were clear (though incomplete, because who knows where she might have gone for words?). Harvard revealed that it had carried on its own exacting investigation — something impossible to do in anything like the time available — and had pronounced her innocent. It did, however, rejoice to say that she was “proactively” making a few “corrections” in her work, inserting quotation marks “that were omitted [note the passive voice] from the original publications.” How she would “correct” her dissertation remains mysterious, as well as whether she ever made the “corrections.”
Harvard then clammed up. The case was settled.
Now, however, it was found that when asked by colleagues in her field for the database of her research, she had declined to furnish it. In academic circles, doing such a thing is almost universally considered a confession of guilt.
Harvard stayed mum.
But not all of Harvard. Calls for Gay to be treated like any other plagiarist or failed administrator were met with outraged petitions signed by hundreds of Harvard faculty members, all of them, as we know, the best and brightest people in America. Some indulged the childish fallacy that the charges should be ignored because they were being pressed by “right-wingers.”
This is how the world’s premier intellectual institution conducts the search for truth.
These phrases, which appear to have been chosen at random, show what words are really worth at Harvard.
Then — inexplicably, considering the high respect and solidarity expressed for her by “the Harvard community” — Gay resigned! And her resignation was immediately accepted!
Deploying the acute analysis and exacting vocabulary that are characteristic of the nation’s philosopher kings, the Fellows of Harvard College, unearthly beings who govern the place in secret conclaves, eulogized the exiting Gay, the woman whom they had clearly fired, for her “deep and unwavering commitment to Harvard and to the pursuit of academic excellence,” “the insight, decisiveness, and empathy that are her hallmark,” “the extraordinary contributions she has made — and will continue to make — as a leader, a teacher, a scholar, a mentor, and an inspiration to many,” and her “commitment to the institution and its mission,” a commitment that “is deep and selfless.” They rested not with this, but lauded Harvard itself for its “core values of excellence, inclusiveness, and free inquiry and expression.”
These phrases, which appear to have been chosen at random, show what words are really worth at Harvard. Much more valuable are the nine hundred thousand dollars that Harvard will continue to pay its former president when she resumes — or, perhaps, begins — her role as teacher.
During my many years as a professor at a large research university, I survived innumerable institutional reviews of my publications. I participated in reviewing the work of hundreds of colleagues and would-be colleagues. I served on my share of academic hiring committees, from the lowest to the highest offices of the university.
Thus equipped by experience, I can say that next to the pleasure of rewarding academic merit, there is no pleasure like that of seeing academic emptiness revealed for what it is.