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Liz Magill Was Practice. The Right Really Wants to Get Claudine Gay.

These mostly bogus plagiarism charges are the latest blunt weapon in the right’s war on universities as poisoners of young people’s minds.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University
Haiyun Jiang/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, during a House committee hearing last week

“One down. Two to go.” So read the triumphant tweet sent by GOP Representative Elise Stefanik after University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill announced her resignation in the wake of the P.R. disaster that was the recent House hearing on campus antisemitism in which Stefanik laid and sprung a trap for Magill, MIT president Sally Kornbluth, and Harvard president Claudine Gay.

But Gay’s is the scalp the right’s newly self-appointed protectors of America’s Jews would really love to get. In part that’s because Gay is Black and can therefore be tagged as an unqualified affirmative action hire, but mostly because it’s Harvard, America’s oldest, richest, and most prestigious university. If you want to thrust a dagger into the heart of the academy, Cambridge is where you aim.

And now the warriors of the right’s battle against academia believe they’ve found an explosive piece of ammunition: They’re accusing Gay of plagiarism. At the head of this charge is none other than Christopher Rufo, the activist culture warrior who almost single-handedly created the right’s panic over critical race theory, and who has of late been helping Florida Governor Ron DeSantis design and implement what a recent report from the American Association of University Professors called “a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history, which, if sustained, threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state.”

There’s no question that the accusations against Gay are being offered in utter bad faith, and the charges are inseparable from the political context in which they’re being made. Nevertheless, the right-wing critics could have a case regardless of their motives. A fair reading of the passages they’ve presented suggests that while some of their claims are bogus, others do show problematic issues in a few of Gay’s writings. But they amount to academic misdemeanors—real, but evidence of occasional sloppiness rather than malicious theft.

It all revolves around the question of how Gay, a political scientist, cited and described works she drew from in her dissertation and a number of articles. This is something every academic, particularly social scientists, spends a great deal of time doing—a healthy portion of any dissertation and most journal articles will be taken up with a literature review, in which the author lays out in often numbing detail all the previous scholarship relating to the questions their own research addresses.

That gives us passages like this these, which Rufo presents as some kind of smoking gun:

In these cases, Gay cites an author and then describes what they found, often with similar language to the original. There is no hard-and-fast rule about when a paraphrase uses enough of the same words as the original to require a quote; in some of these cases she might have been safer to include quotation marks. But Gay was not sneakily claiming anyone else’s ideas as her own; the whole point of these passages is to describe and explain what the authors she is citing found in their research.

A stronger case was assembled by the conservative Free Beacon, which went into more detail than Rufo, citing articles in which passages Gay wrote contain language nearly identical to other works. The Free Beacon obtained comments from a number of academics from groups such as the National Association of Scholars (a conservative organization that publishes articles with titles like “Transgender Madness is the Hill Wokeism Will Die On”), who dutifully excoriated Gay with the most overheated language they could muster. That demonstrates that this issue is part of a long-running ideological conflict over what universities ought to teach, one that features combatants both inside and outside the academy.

On Tuesday, Harvard released a statement reiterating its support for Gay; it said that the allegations of plagiarism had been brought to it in October and it conducted a review that “revealed a few instances of inadequate citation.” As a result, “President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.”

You can decide whether you think that’s an adequate response; my own conclusion is that Gay is clearly not some kind of fraud but rather just someone who got sloppy a few times. There are certainly some issues that Gay should address, even if none of them amount to an academic felony (the Harvard Crimson did the most complete examination of the charges, finding a number of cases in which Gay failed to use quotes as she paraphrased others’ conclusions echoing their language or didn’t properly cite her descriptions of prior research). So the appropriate answer is to correct the problems in each publication.

But you can’t separate this controversy from its context, which is that nobody proclaiming their outrage actually cares about the proper application of academic citation protocols any more than your average Republican members of Congress sincerely worry about antisemitism as something other than a bludgeon they can use against those they perceive as their enemies.

You will not be surprised to learn that this topic is in heavy rotation in conservative media (“Stefanik shreds Harvard over ‘complete moral failure’ after allowing Claudine Gay to remain president,” screams the headline on Just like the hearing at which Stefanik put on such a passionately convincing performance of umbrage, the “plagiarism” issue is really about reinforcing the right-wing contempt for universities, one of the key institutions Republicans use as a foil and a target. To Republicans, Gay is just one more professor who should be held up as evidence that the left hates you and everything you believe in.

Some years ago, Rush Limbaugh laid out what he called “The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media.” Nothing that comes from any of those institutions, he told his audience many times over the years, should be believed. They should be attacked and discredited whenever possible. Keeping up those attacks helps conservatives construct an alternate reality, allows them to claim to be noble underdogs fighting against powerful and sinister institutions, and propagates the fiction that the “elite” whom ordinary people ought to despise is not those who hold economic power but a bunch of pointy-headed professors poisoning the minds of the country’s youth.

And that’s really the point of all this. In ordinary circumstances, questions about citations in a university president’s decades-old articles would be of interest only to fellow academics, not front-page news and fodder for cable network bloviating. The average citizen would neither know nor care who the president of Harvard is, let alone have an opinion on whether she should still be the president a month from now.

Though Gay has the support of the Harvard leadership (for now), Rufo, Stefanik, and the rest will keep looking for more targets in academia they can attack, whether their sins are real or imagined. The right is committed to this battle, and they won’t be giving up.