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Harvard fails another test

The hypocrisy of the elites continues

Harvard President Claudine Gay speaks during a House committee hearing on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein, file

Harvard fails another test
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Harvard College was founded in 1636, making it the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The school’s original purpose was to educate pastors who would serve Congregationalist churches in New England. Harvard long ago abandoned its Christian roots, helping blaze the well-worn path of secularization in American higher education that has been documented by scholars such as George Marsden and James Burtchaell.

Yet, even as Harvard distanced itself from its earlier Protestant identity and embraced a more pluralistic approach to education, for decades the school continued to profess a steadfast commitment to the centrality of truth. In fact, over the course of nearly four centuries, though Harvard’s official motto has gone through various iterations, one word has remained constant: the Latin word veritas, which means “truth.”

While “truth” might endure as Harvard’s motto, recent events verify that veritas is a motto increasingly devoid of meaning.

Earlier this fall, Harvard president Claudine Gay was credibly accused of plagiarism in her dissertation and at least three published academic papers. Despite calls for Gay’s termination for academic dishonesty, the university quickly circled the wagons in defense of their beleaguered president. Hundreds of faculty members signed a petition supporting Gay’s continued leadership. The Harvard Corporation, the institution’s primary governing body, subsequently released a statement claiming they “found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.” Curiously, the Corporation also noted “President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.” At Harvard, none dare call it plagiarism.

Even as Harvard’s leadership and faculty scrambled to redefine plagiarism as something other than a failure to properly attribute one’s sources in academic writing, Gay’s defenders insinuated that the accusations were rooted in something more sinister. Milder versions of this line of response claimed the accusers were politically motivated, yet another example of right-wing assaults against higher education. Many noted Gay’s irregularities in citing her sources were brought to light by Christopher Rufo, the prominent conservative critic of progressive trends in higher education. 

The less charitable deflections suggested Gay’s critics were racists who opposed the idea of an African American woman leading the most prominent university in America. Progressives often claim this sort of omniscience about the secret-yet-horrible motivations of conservatives or others who either do not share their worldview or question progressive hegemony of elite institutions. They weaponize intersectionality and other critical theories to discredit their critics morally, thereby diverting attention away from arguments. Or, in this particular case, evidence of plagiarism.

These two controversies are of a piece, but not because of some vast right-wing conspiracy against President Gay in particular or Harvard more generally.

Of course, this is not the only controversy President Gay has thus far weathered successfully in recent weeks. During congressional hearings on Dec. 5, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) equivocated when questioned by Rep. Elise Stefanik about antisemitism at their respective institutions. While the three presidents made clear their personal rejections of antisemitism, they refused to say unequivocally that they would discipline students who call for the genocide of Jews. They responded that the morality of advocating for genocide depends upon the context.

Penn president Elizabeth Magill resigned on Dec. 9 in response to public outcry from alumni, donors, and politicians. Notably, one prominent Penn supporter threatened to renege on a $100 million donation in response to Magill’s congressional testimony. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution on Dec. 13 calling for the resignations of the other two presidents, Sally Kornbluth of MIT and President Gay.

Most of Harvard’s faculty members vocally supported their embattled president. Other allies suggested the hearings were simply right-wing political theatre (Rep. Stefanik is a Republican), claimed that Gay and her presidential colleagues were defending academic freedom, and said that the real threat was not students calling for genocide but those who might try to harm those students for their opinions. In the same statement in which the Harvard Corporation downplayed Gay’s plagiarism, they rightly criticized her congressional testimony while also inexplicably declaring their “confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”

These two controversies are of a piece, but not because of some vast right-wing conspiracy against President Gay in particular or Harvard more generally. University of Florida President Ben Sasse has written eloquently about how quasi-religious ideologies rooted in postmodernism and Marxist thought are contributing to the moral decline of American universities. At Harvard, truth has long been severed from the biblical worldview that animated the university in its earliest decades. Recent days make clear that truth has now also been severed from the sort of ethical norms that at one time would have led to disciplining students for advocating genocide or terminating university presidents who plagiarize their work.

Parents and donors should pay close attention to the hypocrisy on display at Harvard. It is the bitter fruit of the secularization of higher education, a progressive commitment to critical social theory, the callous dismissal of concerns raised by countless Americans about campus antisemitism, and the elitist rejection of the standards of academic excellence that Harvard once epitomized.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.

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