By Jennifer Schuessler and Vimal Patel
The battle over the fate of Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, took an unexpected turn this week, as accusations of plagiarism in her scholarly work surfaced, along with questions about how the university had handled them.
On Tuesday, the Harvard Corp., the university’s governing body, announced that Gay would keep her job, despite the uproar over her statements on campus antisemitism at a congressional hearing. But the corporation also revealed that it had conducted a review of her published work after receiving accusations in October about three of her articles.
The Harvard Corp. said that while the review found that she had not violated the university’s standards for “research misconduct,” it did discover “a few instances of inadequate citation.” Gay would request “four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications,” the statement said.
The accusations were first widely publicized Sunday, in a newsletter by conservative education activist Christopher Rufo. On Monday, The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative media outlet, published its own investigation, identifying what it said were issues with four papers published between 1993 and 2017. The article said the papers had paraphrased or quoted nearly 20 authors without proper attribution.
By Tuesday evening, there was growing concern about Gay’s work and Harvard’s actions, after The New York Post reported that it had approached Harvard in October about similar accusations.
According to the Post, it had contacted Harvard on Oct. 24, seeking comment on what it said were more than two dozen passages in which Gay’s words seemed to closely parallel the words, phrases or sentences in published works by other scholars.
A few days later, the Post said, it received a 15-page response from a lawyer who identified himself as a defamation counsel for Harvard and Gay.
Jonathan Swain, a spokesperson for the university, said Tuesday evening that the Harvard Corp. stood by its statement from earlier in the day. He declined to comment further. The Post did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gay has strongly defended her work. “I stand by the integrity of my scholarship,” she said in a statement Monday. “Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards.”
The accusations could deepen the turmoil around Gay, who was inaugurated as president in September. After the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, she was harshly criticized by some students, faculty members, alumni and university donors for what they saw as a series of tepid responses to events in Israel and Gaza and to rising antisemitism on campus.
That seemed to reach a climax last week, when Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., sharply questioned Gay and two other college presidents about what she characterized as tolerance for calls for genocide against Jews.
On Tuesday, Stefanik criticized Harvard’s decision to stand behind Gay. “The only update to the code of conduct is to allow a plagiarist as the president of Harvard,” she said during a news conference.
Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, has been a professor of government and of African and African American studies at the university since 2006. Her scholarship has explored subjects like how the election of minority officeholders affects citizens’ perception of government, and how housing mobility programs affect political participation for the poor.
At Harvard, where she received her doctorate in 1998, she has been both a barrier-breaker and savvy insider, steadily climbing the administrative ranks since joining the faculty.
The Harvard Corp.’s statement on Gay does not use the word “plagiarism.” But some members of Harvard’s faculty said they were disturbed by the passages highlighted in news coverage, saying students who committed similar infractions were often disciplined, sometimes harshly.
“It’s troubling to see the standards we apply to undergrads seem to differ from the standards we apply to faculty,” said Theda Skocpol, a professor of government.
A Harvard guide for students defines “plagiarism” broadly. “When you fail to cite your sources, or when you cite them inadequately, you are plagiarizing, which is taken extremely seriously at Harvard,” it says. “Plagiarism is defined as the act of intentionally OR unintentionally submitting work that was written by somebody else.”
But not all instances of potential plagiarism are equal, particularly when they do not reflect any intention to deceive, some scholars said.
Gay’s 1997 dissertation, The Free Beacon said, “borrowed” two paragraphs from a 1996 conference paper by Bradley Palmquist, who was then a political science professor at Harvard, and Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky who was in Gay’s doctoral program at Harvard.
In an interview, Voss called Gay’s use of his work, which involved changing only a few words, “technically plagiarism.” But said he considered it “fairly benign,” particularly since the paragraphs in question involved a technical description.
“If a student gave me a paper that did what she did, I would bounce it back to them,” he said.