Debate over plagiarism accusations increases pressure at Harvard


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

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

Professors who spoke at the meeting were largely positive and there were no questions about Dr. Gay's academic record after public accusations of plagiarism. The issue was not even raised, one professor said.

But on Thursday, new questions surrounding Dr. Gay's scholarship had come to the fore, after the university said Wednesday night that it had identified two more cases of what it called “duplicate language without proper attribution.” , in his 1997 doctoral thesis.

The examples were part of a wave of plagiarism accusations that had emerged against Dr. Gay over the past two weeks, fueled by conservative activists and the media, just as she was under fire for not taking a tougher stance against anti-Semitism. during a tense session in Congress. hearing called by House Republicans this month.

The latest round of accusations has strengthened Dr. Gay's critics and strained her supporters, while perplexing some students and faculty just as the campus empties for winter break.

“As a Harvard student, the entire scandal, from start to finish, has been quite embarrassing,” Daniel Vega, a Harvard senior, said Thursday. “I just think it's a bit of a difficult aspect for us.”

Vega, a classical literature and philosophy student who is writing his thesis, said he and his classmates had been closely watching the plagiarism accusations against Dr. Gay, as well as his handling of anti-Semitism. However, it is not lost on him that the accusations come from right-wing agitators.

The latest developments also raise questions about the Harvard Corporation, the isolated board of directors that hired Dr. Gay, a professor of government and African and African American studies, a former dean and the university's first black president, after a relatively quick search last year . . Just a few days ago, the board had cleared Dr. Gay of “research misconduct.”

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

Then on Wednesday, the university said the panel had also examined his 1997 dissertation, which had not been part of the original review, and found two additional cases of “duplicated language without proper attribution.” Those cases also did not constitute “research misconduct,” the university said, but would be corrected in an update to Dr. Gay's dissertation.

When asked Thursday whether the Harvard Corporation continued to support Dr. Gay, a university spokesperson referred to the Dec. 12 unanimous statement of support. Dr. Gay declined to be interviewed.

The plagiarism accusations against Dr. Gay, which cover her dissertation 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 quotes or direct citations. . In one example that drew ridicule, Dr. Gay appeared to borrow exact phrases from the acknowledgments section of another author's book to thank her mentor and her family in the acknowledgments section of her own dissertation.

She has not been accused of more egregious violations, such as falsifying data or stealing another academic's original research or ideas.

Still, the steady trickle of accusations has privately worried some faculty members who see a pattern of carelessness unbecoming of a Harvard leader. And some have begun to speak out more forcefully, questioning whether Dr. Gay can effectively carry out his presidential duties, including raising money from the widest possible pool of donors.

“You have to be practical, not ideological,” Avi Loeb, a science professor who criticized Dr. Gay's previous testimony before Congress, said Thursday. “If she can't achieve the goals she needs to as a university president, then it's obvious what needs to be done.”

Some major donors remain uneasy. Ukrainian-born billionaire tycoon Len Blavatnik, whose name adorns an institute at Harvard Medical School, decided in recent weeks to suspend donations because of his displeasure over the school's response to anti-Semitic incidents on campus, a report said. spokesman. Blavatnik's family, which has donated more than $200 million, will not donate again “until anti-Semitism at Harvard is addressed with real action,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

Blavatnik's decision was previously reported by Bloomberg.

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

“Claudine Gay is a huge liability to Harvard and, therefore, to higher education in the United States,” he wrote. “His presidency of her is a great Christmas present” on the right.

However, debate continued on campus as to whether the allegations against Dr. Gay were serious enough to warrant further action.

Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law expert, said Thursday that his support for Dr. Gay was “unwavering.”

The accusations against him, he said, had been brought to light by “professional vilifiers.” He urged the university to “clarify the idea of ​​plagiarism and distinguish between various levels of culpability.”

He also suggested that Harvard leaders could refuse to continue cooperating with a congressional investigation into the university, distinguishing between “good faith investigations” and “bad faith efforts to harass, embarrass and intimidate.”

To meet Harvard's standard for “research misconduct,” which can lead to harsh penalties, violations must be committed “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly,” according to College of Arts and Sciences regulations.

Daniel Swinton, former vice dean for academic integrity at Vanderbilt University and now a university consultant and expert witness, emphasized that intent matters. “I haven't read anything that says she stole someone's idea, passing it off as completely her own,” he said.

He found the accusation that Dr. Gay had copied phrases in the acknowledgments of her thesis from another author's acknowledgments “shameful.” But accolades, she said, are “the hallmark of the academy” and common language is standard.

While a university president can be held to a higher standard than a student, “as to whether we should expect perfection from them, the answer is no,” Swinton said.

The Harvard campus, the scene of noisy protests for weeks, was cold and quiet Thursday, as final exams ended and winter break began. Only a handful of tourists wandered the quiet grounds.

Rémy Furrer, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, said he thought Dr. Gay was “taking responsibility, to some extent, by requesting some modifications to her published research.” But, he said, “it is important that academic standards be applied equally among faculty, the president and students alike.”

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

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

Rob Copeland, kitty bennett, Anna BettsMatthew Eadie and Cici Yongshi Yu contributed reporting.

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