Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 18, 2024

Don't fall for conservative attacks on higher education

By MAX HSU | February 8, 2024



Hsu contends that the attacks on Harvard President Claudine Gay that led to her resignation were launched by conservative actors targeting diversity in higher education. 

The discourse following the ouster of Harvard University President Claudine Gay has been decidedly muddled by a variety of conflicting perspectives across the political spectrum. But the truth of the matter is not complicated at all — Gay was the target of a politically motivated attack launched by right-wing activists who openly proclaimed their goal to suppress diversity in higher education. It is concerning, however, that the people who launched this campaign were able to successfully disguise their intentions under a liberal framework.

Meet Chris Rufo, a conservative activist and white nationalist who has made it his life’s work to fight critical race theory (CRT) and discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools. He is largely considered to be one of the architects of the mounting conservative hysteria around CRT. Parallel to the CRT panic, his ilk also attacks diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, programs designed to encourage diversity in the workplace, which white nationalists (incorrectly) claim are responsible for everything from indoctrination in schools to airplane failures. Rufo called Gay a “DEI totem,” implying that she was only hired because of DEI programs and was therefore unqualified.

This is false on several levels. First, while she certainly had much to overcome due to her race and gender, Claudine Gay’s background is the picture of elite education. She comes from a wealthy family that owns Haiti’s largest concrete plant, she attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious private school known for high Ivy League acceptance rates, and she studied at Princeton University, Stanford University and Harvard. The claim that she is a “DEI hire” is pure unbridled racism. This is not necessarily to her credit — I think there should be more people from underprivileged backgrounds leading elite universities, but Gay is not one of them.

This is the second failure of this claim: There is no shame in being a “DEI hire,” and the evidence clearly contradicts claims that DEI programs, like quotas, result in underqualified candidates being hired. In fact, a majority of American workers believe that DEI improved their workplace, and billionaire Mark Cuban argues that DEI actually allows employers to hire more qualified candidates by eliminating exclusionary preferences and expanding the available talent pool. 

Additionally, as Harvard student Kyla Golding illustrated in the The Harvard Crimson, having diverse figures in positions of power is a worthwhile end in and of itself, irrespective of the question of merit. For students who are Black women, having a Black woman as Harvard president is empowering. The value of this should not be understated.

But — aside from some influential donors — conservatives hold little power in academia due to the simple fact that well-educated people are most likely to hold consistently liberal beliefs. So, to successfully oust Gay, it was necessary to frame the attack in terms that would be agreeable to liberal audiences. 

She gave an admittedly bad performance testifying before Congress, where she failed to outright condemn calls for the genocide of Jews. While this failure should not be overlooked, it is also important to note that the representative who posed this question to Gay was Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a close Trump ally who has previously espoused the racist and antisemitic “great replacement” theory. 

People who associate themselves with white Christian nationalists should not be taken seriously as arbiters against antisemitism, and their interest in combating antisemitism may have more to do with evangelical and neoconservative interests in the state of Israel than genuine opposition to bigotry. 

While the recent rise in antisemitism across the country is certainly concerning, we must also be skeptical of those who make claims of an epidemic of antisemitism on college campuses while ignoring the violent attacks that have occurred against Palestinian students and pro-Palestinian student protestors. That is to say, neither antisemitism nor Islamophobia should be ignored. But those who assert that one is a problem while ignoring the other should be swiftly cast aside.

The congressional hearing still was not enough to oust Gay, so another attack was launched, one less susceptible to varying perspectives: the accusation of plagiarism. For this, there was real, substantive — albeit overstated — evidence of academic malpractice, mainly minor citation errors. It’s reasonable to believe that this, or any sort of academic inadequacy, should be disqualifying for the leader of one of the world’s most prestigious universities. But this standard must be applied equally. 

Isaac Bailey, a Davidson College professor and writer covering race relations, wrote a piece in the Crimson in which he argued that all other universities must investigate their presidents for plagiarism and hold them to the exact same standard and that “[t]o commit to anything less would be to admit that Gay was singled out for being a Black woman.” I agree with him here. One could argue that these mistakes are unacceptable for a Harvard president, but it is also abundantly clear that she was treated unfairly on the basis of race. Bill Ackman, another of those who aggressively pushed for Gay’s resignation, has been defending his own wife against the extensive evidence that she is a plagiarist. It was never about plagiarism.

Chris Rufo himself posted this on Twitter: “We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right. The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze.” 

I think the word “legitimize” is key to understanding what’s going on here. The real reasons for the attacks on Gay — her race and the fact that she did not sufficiently suppress criticisms of the state of Israel on the Harvard campus — alone were not enough to force her resignation. So there followed secondary criticisms which served to “legitimize” the attacks to liberal audiences: the claims of academic misconduct and the worrying rise in antisemitism. But this is clearly not why the attacks were launched, and this is not the end for racist, bad-faith actors like Rufo who simply want to suppress Black voices and ideas in academia. 

Therefore, I urge you, as students and faculty of an elite university, not to fall for their tricks.

Max Hsu is a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. majoring in Writing Seminars and Political Science.

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