Claudine Gay faced backlash as a result of the university’s response to antisemitism on campus, which increased scrutiny of her academic record.
Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, announced her resignation on Tuesday after her presidency had become embroiled in controversy over plagiarism allegations and what some saw as her insufficient response to antisemitism on campus following the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.
Dr. Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, and the university’s second female president, announced her resignation immediately, capping off a turbulent tenure that began last July. She will serve the shortest tenure of any Harvard president since the university’s founding in 1636.
Harvard’s provost and chief academic officer, Alan M. Garber, an economist and physician, will serve as interim president. Dr. Gay will continue to teach government and African and African American studies as a tenured professor.
Dr. Claudine Gay is the second university president to resign in recent weeks, following her appearance in a congressional hearing on Dec. 5 in which she and the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and M.I.T. appeared to evade the question of whether students who called for the genocide of Jews should be punished.
M. Elizabeth Magill, Penn’s president, resigned four days after the hearing. M.I.T. President Sally Kornbluth has also faced calls to resign.
Dr. Claudine Gay stated in a letter announcing her decision that after consulting with members of the Harvard Corporation, “it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.”
Simultaneously, Dr. Claudine Gay, 53, defended her academic record and claimed she was the victim of highly personal and racist attacks.
“Amidst all of this, it has been troubling to have doubt cast on my dedication to confronting dislike and to upholding scholarly strictness — two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am — and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus,” she said in a statement.
Dr. Claudine Gay’s appointment was widely regarded as a watershed moment for the university last year. She took office just as the Supreme Court rejected the use of race-conscious enrollment at Harvard and other universities. She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants and an expert on minority representation and political participation in government.
She also became a major target for some powerful graduates, including billionaire investor William A. Ackman, who was concerned about antisemitism and suggested last month on social media that Harvard had only considered candidates for the presidency who met “the D.E.I. office’s criteria,” referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Dr. Gay resigned after the latest plagiarism allegations against her were published in an unsigned complaint in The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online journal that has led a campaign against Dr. Gay in recent weeks.
The complaint was filed in addition to about 40 other plagiarism allegations that had already been published in the journal. The allegations called into question whether Harvard held its president to the same academic standards as its students.
Former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, who resigned as Harvard president under pressure in 2006, suggested that Dr. Gay had made the right decision. “I admire Claudine Gay for putting Harvard’s interests first at what I know must be an agonizingly difficult moment,” he wrote in a letter to the editor.
Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina who chairs the House committee investigating Harvard and other universities, said the investigation would continue despite Dr. Gay’s resignation.
“There has been a hostile acquisition of higher education by political activists, woke instructors, and partisan administrators,” Ms. Foxx said in a statement. She added, “The problems at Harvard are much larger than one leader.”
Some on Harvard’s campus were outraged by what they saw as a politically motivated campaign against Dr. Gay and higher education in general. Hundreds of faculty members had signed public letters urging Harvard’s governing board not to remove Dr. Gay.
“This is a terrible moment,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a Harvard Kennedy School professor of history, race, and public policy. “Republican congressional leaders, like Florida Governor DeSantis, have declared war on college and university independence.” Gay’s resignation will only embolden them.”
Some faculty members chastised the Harvard Corporation for its handling of the political storm and plagiarism allegations.
History professor Alison Frank Johnson said she “couldn’t be more dismayed.”
“Instead of making a decision based on established scholarly principles, we had here a public hounding,” she was quoted as saying. “Instead of hearing from scholars in her field who could speak to the significance and uniqueness of her research, we heard voices of derision and spite on social media.” Rather than following established university procedure, we had a corporation that granted access to self-appointed advisers and conducted reviews using mysterious and undisclosed methods.”
For months, rumors about problems with Dr. Gay’s work had circulated on anonymous message boards. However, the first widely publicized report came on December 10, just before Harvard’s board of trustees met to discuss Dr. Gay’s future after her disastrous congressional testimony.
That evening, conservative activist Christopher Rufo published an essay in his Substack newsletter about “problematic patterns of usage and citation” in Dr. Gay’s 1997 doctoral dissertation.
The Washington Free Beacon followed up with several articles detailing allegations about her published scholarly articles, as well as two formal complaints filed with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Research Integrity Office.
The board acknowledged the allegations and said it was made aware of them in late October in a statement announcing Dr. Gay’s retention on Dec. 12. The board said it investigated and discovered “a few instances of inadequate citation” in two articles, which it said would be corrected. However, the board determined that the violations did not constitute “research misconduct.”
Dr. Gay was already under fire for what some saw as the university’s inadequate response to the Oct. 7 Israeli attacks.
Following student groups’ open letter accusing Israel of being “entirely responsible” for the violence, Dr. Gay and other university officials issued a letter to the university community acknowledging “feelings of fear, sadness, anger, and more.” Following a backlash over what some saw as tepid language, Dr. Gay issued a more forceful statement condemning Hamas for “terrorist atrocities” and urging people to use words that “illuminate rather than inflame.”
Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, peppered Dr. Gay and the other university presidents with hypothetical questions during the congressional hearing.
“At Harvard,” Ms. Stefanik inquired of Dr. Gay, “does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s bullying and harassment policies?” “Do you agree or disagree?”
“It can be, depending on the context,” Dr. Gay responded.
That exchange, as well as another between Ms. Stefanik and Ms. Magill, went viral on social media, infuriating many people with connections to the universities.
Dr. Gay attempted to contain the fallout by apologizing in an interview published in The Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper. “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” she went on to say.
After meeting late into the night, the Harvard Corporation issued a unanimous statement of support one week after her testimony, saying that it stood firmly behind her.
However, there were indications that the controversy had harmed Harvard’s reputation. According to the university, the number of students who applied this fall through the university’s early action program, which allows them to receive an admissions decision in December rather than March, fell by about 17 percent.