The Claudine Gay Affair The stigma of lower standards and the Black American scholar.

(Manu Ross via Unsplash)

They made their mistakes, those who planted Fisk and Howard and Atlanta [University] before the smoke of battle had lifted; they made their mistakes, but those mistakes were not the things at which we lately laughed somewhat uproariously….


But these builders did make a mistake in minimizing the gravity of the problem before them; in thinking it a matter of years and decades; in therefore building quickly and laying their foundation carelessly, and lowering the standard of knowing, until they had scattered haphazard through the South some dozen poorly equipped high schools and miscalled them universities.


—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, italics mine)1


1. The sacrificial lamb goes home

Claudine Gay probably did herself a big favor by resigning as president of Harvard University last week. She surely does not think so at the moment. It has been an ordeal: publicly humiliated, threatened by racists, and not even able to enjoy the renovations that were made to the president’s residence that she just recently moved into. Having the support of the Harvard Corporation, then losing it in about three weeks. How effective could she have been if she had stayed on the job?

It is a sign of racial progress that Blacks can survive scandals much better than we used to.

On the other hand, she is still a full-tenured professor of political science making about $900,000 a year. She was a successful dean of the faculty of arts and sciences there and so she will remain “a wheel,” as the kids used to say in the 1950s, a person of influence. She should almost certainly be able to get a nice book contract and collect healthy speaking fees on the lecture circuit for a few years. Some segments of the public will want her version of what happened in the hallowed halls of Harvard. Further, she is bound to go down in some versions of Harvard’s history not simply as their first Black and second woman president but as a martyr, sacrificed on the altar of the right-wing. This is not a trade that she wanted—the presidency of one of the most prestigious schools in the country to a wounded duck with a grievance—but it is not such a bad one, all things considered. It is a sign of racial progress that Blacks can survive scandals much better than we used to.



2. Standards, Volume 1

No one is likely to mistake White conservative Christopher F. Rufo for W. E. B. Du Bois, probably the most important Black scholar/intellectual/activist of the twentieth century. Du Bois, even in 1903, was a self-identified Black radical, one of those who vehemently opposed the educational and political aims of Booker T. Washington. While Washington, the institution builder, might have been Pan Africanist Marcus Garvey’s hero, he was for the Black radicals the HNIC (Head Nr in Charge) for those Whites who happened to be in control at that particular moment, an errand boy for segregation.

In other words, whatever criticism Du Bois may have sustained in his life, Uncle Tomism was not one of them, as it was, fairly or unfairly, for Washington. And no one is likely to dismiss The Souls of Black Folk, considered by most who know about these things the single most important Black book of the twentieth century. But, alas, in speaking of Black education even he used a variant of the dreaded phrase, “lowering standards.” Du Bois was talking about the start of formal Black schooling at the end of the Civil War; yet some 160 years later, and 120 years since Du Bois’s book was published, we are still talking about Blacks and the lowering of educational standards, especially when speaking of higher education, as it is so grandly called. Why is that?

The trap was this: many Black scholars felt obligated to study themselves in order to correct the academy’s own racial scholarship, such as it was, and the academy’s response was to institutionalize the idea that this is all we wanted to do or all we could do. The downfall of Claudine Gay is tied to this complex and at times unsettling story.

The answer is simple. For 160 years, Blacks have been American education’s parvenus and gatecrashers. That is a long time to be an upstart, to be playing catchup, like a dog chasing the bus. The problem lies in the fact that our country has had such uncertainty about, first, educating Blacks at all, and second, what sort of education we should have. For a couple of centuries, under slavery, it was a crime in most places, to educate Blacks. After enslavement, Blacks had to endure special education, racially segregated. This was not altogether a tragedy as some Black schools were quite good, but it was a standing insult and worse, an act of cultural and social impoverishment, meant to steer Blacks into certain segments of American life and the labor market. In this regard, Blacks were inextricably bound to the concept of lowering standards because lowered standards were meant to remind us of our inferiority, not only to remind us of it but to entrap us in it. This led to the belief that we needed special allowances to overcome our intellectual, well, leprosy, if you will.

The dilemma for earlier Black scholars (the few there were before diversity made us fashionable collector’s items) like John Hope Franklin, J. Saunders Redding, and Darwin Turner was always testing the tenets of a liberal education which are that anyone can be trained to study anything, if you wish to put in the work to learn the subject, against the need to defend the race against the charge of being one huge learning disability. In order to get into the academy, you had to show that you were exceptional, different from what Whites thought of the group, while representing the humanity of your group. As Franklin wrote in his 1963 essay, “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar,” “There were the Negro press, the Negro church, Negro business, Negro education, and now Negro scholarship.”2 And all these categories still exist today prefixed by the word “Black” instead of “Negro.” And the Black scholar became all the more a fixed entity with the arrival of Black Studies as a sort of Marxist-nationalist uprising at the White university in the late 1960s. This changed the political stakes. The trap was this: many Black scholars felt obligated to study themselves in order to correct the academy’s own racial scholarship, such as it was, and the academy’s response was to institutionalize the idea that this is all we wanted to do or all we could do. The downfall of Claudine Gay is tied to this complex and at times unsettling story.

Claudine Gay was doubtless a target for the right, but so were Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of MIT, both of whom are White. The issue of what these presidents said about whether a call for genocide of Jews was a violation of their codes of conduct at a December 5, 2023, congressional hearing on antisemitism on their campuses was what set off a firestorm. All three gave the same answer that it was not necessarily a violation of their codes. “It depends on the context,” is how Gay put it and the others echoed what was probably language given to them by their general counsels. In fact, the presidents had been coached in their answers as they all realized that their encounter with Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and her colleagues was a trap. The presidents fell into the trap by making a free speech defense of anti-Jewish sentiment on their campuses which flew in the face of what conservatives felt was the lack of free speech accorded conservative sentiment at theirs or similar schools. Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which defended the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, was a member of a panel at Yale to discuss free speech when the panel was shouted down by LGBTQ+ students because of her presence and, in part, because the panel was organized by the conservative Federalist Society. The event was able to proceed but this is only one of many such disruptions that conservatives can recite about the lack of free speech at some of the nation’s most highly-ranked colleges. The left has frequently used “the heckler’s veto” to prevent conservatives from speaking on many college campuses. The right wanted the free-speech defense answer that the presidents gave. It gave the conservatives their opening to attack the schools for being hypocritical, haughty, Marxist-oriented, incubators for radicalizing students, and anti-American. As matters turned out with Gay, they were also able to make the charge that the schools are race-obsessed and favor any color as long as it is not White. Because the current Israeli-Palestinian war has captured the American news cycle, this conservative dust-up with elite universities got more public attention than it might have.

Magill was the first to resign and there was no indication that the pursuit of Gay was racial. Magill bit the dust for being weak-kneed about campus antisemitism and Gay at first was targeted on the same charge. It seemed more that her enemies wanted to bring her down because she was the president of Harvard. To bring her down was to bring Harvard down, the biggest prize of the three schools. It was only when allegations surfaced and intensified about plagiarism that the right was able to turn to race in a way they felt favored their cause and that legitimated their hatred of the DEI movement (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion).

At first, the Harvard Corporation unanimously supported Gay despite the fact that Magill resigned and despite the allegations of plagiarism, which Gay was told to correct in her dissertation and other writings. The defense against plagiarism was that it was either unintentional, minor, careless, or common. All of this hairsplitting only showed that Gay’s defenders were in a weak position. Hairsplitting always reveals argumentative weakness. It might be said that the right hid behind an aggrieved Carol Swain, a Black woman academic, who attacked Gay. Swain may have been motivated, in part, by jealousy over what she felt was Gay’s undeserved prominence and success. Swain is a right-winger and a Trumpist. But as she was one of the scholars Gay plagiarized she had a right to be annoyed. She had a right to feel that Gay was a thief for not citing her. Her work also had much greater salience in Black political science circles than Gay’s, and Swain was within her rights to point that out as well. Academic criticism and competitiveness are no more for the faint of heart than criticism and competitiveness in other fields. There are sharp elbows in this business. And Swain felt she owed Gay nothing, and certainly not on the basis of some misplaced sense of race or gender loyalty. She was perfectly within her rights to feel that way too.

The defense against plagiarism was that it was either unintentional, minor, careless, or common. All of this hairsplitting only showed that Gay’s defenders were in a weak position. Hairsplitting always reveals argumentative weakness.

The plagiarism led to the charge that Gay was not qualified to be an academic, let alone the president of Harvard, and that she was tenured and promoted through the ranks to the presidency only because of her race. For the right, this was the poison, “the rot” (a word nearly all rightwing commentators used in discussing the current state of the American university), that was hollowing out American higher education. And one of the main causes of it was the presence of Blacks. We, with our White leftist enablers, were responsible for the lowering of standards. We were responsible for replacing academic rigor with anti-intellectual DEI. And after all, Gay was not nearly as academically accomplished as Harvard’s first woman president, Drew Faust, a leading American historian, who wrote seminal scholarship on antebellum pro-slavery ideology. In the end, Gay was given her cardboard box, told to gather her things, and left the premises. I am speaking figuratively here. I am sure Gay got a nice settlement to go somewhat quietly into that good night. It should be noted that a college is not required to hire a top-notch scholar to be its president and there have been many instances where people who were not academics at all were hired as college presidents. Also, the first Black woman to serve as a president of an Ivy League was Ruth J. Simmons, a Romance languages scholar, who was president of Brown University from 2001 to 2012. She was also president of Smith College. She received an honorary degree from Washington University in 2002. I was her faculty guide while she was here; an absolutely delightful woman who had no aspersions cast against her scholarship.

“There goes the neighborhood,” as we are used to hearing. The right has been on this push about Blacks lowering the standards of higher education since the early days of affirmative action in college admissions back in the early 1970s. Many Black commentators and activists have chosen to circle the wagons to defend Gay and cry racism. This is understandable. But there is a larger issue here about exactly how our race is supposed to function within the American university. Should it function in the way that it currently does, which is such an outgrowth of and reaction to the racism and racist categorization of the past? Are we best being served and best serving the university by the way things are now? And will we always be stigmatized as parvenus, gatecrashers, and second-raters?

1 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Signet Edition, 1982, originally published 1903), 116.

2 John Hope Franklin, “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar” in Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988, (Baton Rouge Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 301.