• Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Travails of Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University

Claudine Gay, former President of Harvard University

The ongoing war in Gaza has claimed casualties beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine.

The four walls of a university were once revered as among the few places in the world where one could hold and air even the most unpopular ideas without any fear of repercussion. In the modern day, especially in America and Europe, it is no longer so. ‘Woke’ youth, who form the majority of students, rally and riot to prevent anyone identified with ‘reactionary’ thought or publication—the ‘misogynistic’, the ‘racist’, the anti-LGBTQ—from getting to speak on any university campus. At the other end, right-wing ‘republicans’ do everything in their power to run ‘liberal’, ‘equal opportunity’ faculty members out of town. ‘The Gown’, in America, has become as polarised as ‘The Town.’ Ideological contenders are locked in no-holds-barred mortal combat, and all the characteristic viciousness, mendacity, and bigotry that are the bane of a neo-Trumpian era can be observed at play as the mob is whipped into a frenzy, ready to lynch.

Claudine Gay, until the beginning of this year, was widely celebrated as the first African American to be appointed president of Harvard University. Harvard regularly tops the list in the World University Rankings. Like other universities in the country, it relies on funding from private donors for a substantial part of its income and is very sensitive to their sentiments.

When, in July 2023, Gay was announced as the 30th President of Harvard, there was celebration in the African American community that another glass ceiling holding down black achievement had been shattered. In the 53-year-old Professor of Political Science, several aspiring black academics saw themselves. If she could do it and go through the reasoning, so could they, too.

When, in July 2023, Gay was announced as the 30th President of Harvard, there was celebration in the African American community that another glass ceiling holding down black achievement had been shattered.”

Claudine Gay was born in 1970 in New York City, the daughter of Haitian immigrants who came into the USA as students. She attended a private boarding school in New Hampshire and graduated in 1988. She was admitted to Princeton University, from which she transferred to Stanford University after one year. She studied Economics and received the Anna Laura Myers Prize for an outstanding thesis at her graduation.

She went for further studies at Harvard, earning her PhD in 1998 for a thesis titled ‘Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics’. She earned the university’s Toppan Prize for the best dissertation in Political Science.

There followed a period of work as an assistant professor and later as an Associate professor at the department of Political Science at Stanford University. Her research areas included American political behaviour, voter turnout, housing, and the politics of race and identity.

Read also: Harvard University president, Claudine Gay resigns, shortest tenure ever

Gay became a professor of government at Harvard in 2006. In 2007, she was appointed professor of African American studies. In 2015, she was named Dean of Social Sciences at the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Wilbur Cowett Professor of Government and African and African American Studies. Three years later, she was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

It is necessary to go into details about Gay’s academic qualifications and the prizes she won at every level in order to put into context the allegations that would later be thrown at her when the lynch mob descended, intent not only on removing her from the post of President but also on erasing her as an academic. It was nothing personal. She had crossed the line with the people who owned America.

Back to the war in Gaza, which has claimed the lives of thirty thousand Palestinians and arose after a horrendous, ill-conceived attack on Israel by Hamas. As the bodies piled up in their tens of thousands, a widespread revulsion arose across the world, and a groundswell of opinion began to call for an immediate ceasefire. This popular sentiment was in contradistinction with the posture of American and other Western governments, which vetoed UN Security Council ceasefire resolutions and committed themselves to giving the Israeli government leeway to carry out its ‘Final Solution’ on Hamas, irrespective of the ‘collateral damage.’

The Universities of America, Harvard included, became centres of protest against what was happening in Gaza.

The backlash, when it came, took the form of a high-decibel scream, widely amplified in the press. It spoke of a rising tide of ‘Antisemitism’ on campuses. Leaders of the university community were accused of not taking appropriate action to stem this ‘Antisemitism’. Gay and her peers from top universities were summoned before a congressional committee.

That Congressional hearing would prove the undoing of Claudine Gay. The committee concluded she was not aggressively deterring the anti-Israel protests and, by implication, not doing enough to stem ‘Antisemitism’.

Other developments followed in quick succession. A famous right-wing voice accused her of having insufficiently attributed her sources in a previous publication, in effect labelling her a plagiarist, an accusation that is the equivalent of a capital offence in academia. Other accusations flew in, underpinned by the insinuation that she had achieved academic eminence, not on merit but on an ‘equal opportunity’ quota basis. The hounds had smelled blood, and they pursued her with vengeance. Some sponsors of the university threatened to withdraw their funding. One or two did.

Her position very quickly became untenable.

Read also: More than a fifth of remaining hostages in Gaza are dead according to internal Israeli document

Claudine Gay retreated from the heat by doing the only thing she could do: resign and return to an anonymous life as an ordinary academic. Her adventure at the pinnacle is over, at least for now.

Gay’s fall from grace is emblematic of the realities of power in America and how far the country still has to travel to achieve real equality. Part of the oddities of the complex psychology at play is that the same right-wing racist demographic that crucifies people for ‘Anti-semitism’ contains some of the most virulent ‘anti-semites’ of all, the ones that bomb synagogues and attack rabbis.

To the people in that lived reality, all of this is not odd at all. It is just politics.