Powerful donors managed to oust Claudine Gay from Harvard. But at what cost?
asks Robert Reich in The Guardian.
The political cost is very high, in various respects and on various levels. But in the meantime, Claudine Gay, the African American president of the most important US university, has personally made clear the terms of the story in which she was the protagonist, and which ultimately overwhelmed her.
In an editorial in the New York Times she writes:
On Tuesday, I made the wrenching but necessary decision to resign as Harvard’s president. For weeks, both I and the institution to which I’ve devoted my professional life have been under attack. My character and intelligence have been impugned. My commitment to fighting antisemitism has been questioned. My inbox has been flooded with invective, including death threats. I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count.
…The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader. This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda. But such campaigns don’t end there. Trusted institutions of all types — from public health agencies to news organizations — will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility. For the opportunists driving cynicism about our institutions, no single victory or toppled leader exhausts their zeal.
Yes, I made mistakes. In my initial response to the atrocities of Oct. 7, I should have stated more forcefully what all people of good conscience know: Hamas is a terrorist organization that seeks to eradicate the Jewish state. And at a congressional hearing last month, I fell into a well-laid trap. I neglected to clearly articulate that calls for the genocide of Jewish people are abhorrent and unacceptable and that I would use every tool at my disposal to protect students from that kind of hate.
Most recently, the attacks have focused on my scholarship. My critics found instances in my academic writings where some material duplicated other scholars’ language, without proper attribution. I believe all scholars deserve full and appropriate credit for their work. When I learned of these errors, I promptly requested corrections from the journals in which the flagged articles were published, consistent with how I have seen similar faculty cases handled at Harvard.
…Despite the obsessive scrutiny of my peer-reviewed writings, few have commented on the substance of my scholarship, which focuses on the significance of minority office holding in American politics. My research marshaled concrete evidence to show that when historically marginalized communities gain a meaningful voice in the halls of power, it signals an open door where before many saw only barriers. And that, in turn, strengthens our democracy.
…Never did I imagine needing to defend decades-old and broadly respected research, but the past several weeks have laid waste to truth. Those who had relentlessly campaigned to oust me since the fall often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned argument. They recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament. They pushed a false narrative of indifference and incompetence.
It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution. Someone who views diversity as a source of institutional strength and dynamism. Someone who has advocated a modern curriculum that spans from the frontier of quantum science to the long-neglected history of Asian Americans. Someone who believes that a daughter of Haitian immigrants has something to offer to the nation’s oldest university.
…College campuses in our country must remain places where students can learn, share and grow together, not spaces where proxy battles and political grandstanding take root. Universities must remain independent venues where courage and reason unite to advance truth, no matter what forces set against them.
The terms of the operation aimed at her removal [and that of two other peers, Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, the first to resign, and Sally Kornbluth, the president of MIT, who is still in office] were already very clear in the Congressional hearing that prof. Arnaldo Testi reconstructs perfectly in his blog.
The consequences, they said.
Those who have wanted to dramatize the demonstrations on American campuses in support of the Palestinian cause played have the anti-Semitism card with great cynicism, and with a considerable deployment of means they have unscrupulously insisted on equating fringe attitudes – which undoubtedly can go far beyond slogans against Israel to the point of taking on openly antisemitic hues – and the behavior of the most demonstrators, which is certainly open to criticism but not cannot legitimately be labeled as “antisemitic” just because it is anti-Israel and in support of the Palestinians. In a similar equation, powerful donors, evidently linked to the Trump camp and Netanyahu, have had a decisive role with the blackmail of their millions in funding to universities. They have taken the opportunity to launch an offensive aimed at demolishing years and years of commitment to the inclusion of minorities, especially blacks, in places where until recently their presence was not even expected, except as rare showpieces. This includes universities that owe their initial fortune to slavery and the slave trade, and which today, more unwillingly than willingly, must reckon with their history of discrimination and racism, and with moral, political and economic reparations to Black Americans.
According to the Rev. Al Sharpton, a leader of the civil rights movement, Gay’s ouster is “an attack on the health, strength and future of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).” DEI is the acronym that summarizes the visible changes that are part of the transformation of campuses, and beyond, in accord with the need to welcome the new demands and rights of a society in profound and continuous evolution.
More generally, white supremacism sees academia as the context par excellence in which the new American demography is gradually but surely making the undisputed and indisputable, centuries-old power of the old white majority into a minority. The current ferment in universities, as previously happened during the Black Lives Matter movement, is seen as a very insidious symptom of this ongoing transformation, which is based on the growth of awareness about women, minorities and Blacks, as well as the increase in the power of Latino and Asian citizens, and of course LGTBQ communities. Now, a bit like what happened behind the flags of Vietnam, lined up behind the Palestinian flags in the US there is a vast, if confused, arc of social forces that are carrying forward another generational conflict over gender, culture and class. It is foolish to reduce all of these elements to renewed forms of the old and imperishable anti-Semitism (which, moreover, thrives above all on the right, even among those that support Israel only because they detest Muslims).
The rupture that is being caused by this very strong and very successful bloc of power also runs contrary to an old and strong alliance between the Black community and sectors of the Jewish community which dates back to the times of the civil rights marches. There were many Jewish activists and intellectuals among the whites who stood alongside Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, not forgetting the forms of discrimination, if not blatant anti-Semitism, they had been subject to – and which characterized life for Jews in America until the Sixties, as Philip Roth so remarkably recounts. And more recently, the activism of influential sectors of the Jewish community was important in the historic election of the first black president, the son of immigrants, Barack Obama, also working against the obtrusive role of the main Jewish lobby in the US, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which then actively lobbied against the Obama administration, now in harmony with the American and Israeli right.
Undermining this relationship (which is certainly not without significant contradictions) is a calculated gamble by those who want to tear apart the Big Tent that the Democratic Party has always been, under which the Black and Jewish communities have found themselves together for a long time, and of which these communities are some of its main pillars.
The attack against Claudine Gay is the synthesis and emblem of a vast political maneuver aimed at bringing Trump back to the White House and silencing the America that doesn’t agree.
Cover image: A photomontage, in which Barack Obama’s face overlaps with the image of Claudine Gay, is spread on X by @texan_maga, a militant of MAGA, the Trump support movement. The squalid operation has the merit of highlighting the objective of the attack launched against the university and its president.
Translation by Paul Rosenberg
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