A Chill in the air of academia: Dr. Thomas on the resignation of harvard university president dr. claudine gayJanuary 5, 2024
Originally published on Jan. 6, 2024 on AJC.com
By David A. Thomas, Ph.D.
I was deeply saddened to learn that Harvard President Claudine Gay had resigned. My sadness was first for her, a young, Black female scholar who has done everything one needs to do to qualify to lead Harvard.
From my seat as president of Morehouse College, an emeritus Harvard professor, current member of the Yale Corporation, I have watched events of the last year, including the U.S. Supreme Court affirmative action decision, unfold that I believe threaten both higher education and our society more broadly.
Dr. Gay made mistakes, admitted them and acted to correct them. And I am confident had she been a white, male president of Harvard, she would not have resigned. Justice Neil Gorsuch faced accusations of plagiarism that exceeded those faced by Dr. Gay. The result was a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While I was a faculty member at Harvard, Larry Summers, the president with the third shortest tenure in Harvard history, received a faculty vote of “no confidence” and was allowed to complete his term. His transgressions included questioning the aptitude of women to be successful in math- and science-driven fields. No one questioned whether he was qualified.
Dr. Gay is the victim of a moment when legitimate concerns about issues such as free expression, antisemitism and racism can be highjacked by those with an anti-diversity, equity and inclusion agenda. She was targeted because as a Black woman she physically, more than ideologically, embodied a reality that frightens those fearful of a country whose leadership reflects our multicultural reality and are committed to addressing our inequalities.
After the announcement of Dr. Gay’s resignation, politicians and right-wing ideologues were launching fundraisers and posting social media messages saying, “two down,” as if in a hunt. (Liz Magill left the University of Pennsylvania’s top job after her responses at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism drew sharp condemnation.) Conservative anti-affirmative action activist Christopher Rufo has explicitly stated Dr. Gay was targeted by a coordinated and triangulated effort that included manipulation of the media narrative, leveraging financial pressure on Harvard and organizing a political echo chamber against DEI and “wokeness,” while taking advantage of the legitimate issue of antisemitism.
Since Dr. Gay’s resignation, we have heard little about antisemitism. Just prior to her resignation, there was little discussion of the actual charges of plagiarism. Yet we have loudly heard the crowing of those dedicated to attacking efforts to create a more inclusive leadership of our nation’s most influential institutions.
For more than 40 years, I have devoted my professional life to higher education because of its commitment to learning and the pursuit of truth and my belief that it is one of the few places in our society that can impact inequality and inclusion by distributing opportunity based on merit and bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. The benefit to society being individuals prepared to lead the global and multicultural world in which we live.
The result of what has happened at Harvard is that a chill is now in the air of higher education, especially at selective, well-resourced, predominantly white institutions. Instead of this being seen as a moment that helps the noble goals of fighting bigotry or advancing free speech, senior leaders in these institutions, Black and white, feel fear.
Regardless of color or gender, presidents and deans are fearful of donors who have always had considerable influence as “partners.” Now, they are seen through the corporate lens as activist shareholders to be mollified.
Black deans and presidents express the additional fear that they, like Dr. Gay, will be painted with the brush of not being qualified when they advance an initiative or take a stance that powerful constituents are against.
I know that feeling. Thirty-seven years ago, when I got my first professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, a colleague who did not support my hiring told me that I had received my job because there had been a racial incident on campus the prior year. It was not because I had a Yale doctorate with honors. (Mind you, 12 years later, the university offered me a chaired professor to leave Harvard and rejoin.) Indeed, in every position of prestige I have found myself, my legitimacy and qualifications have been questioned because of my race. If a Black leader is too focused on being careful, you can lose touch with the uniqueness that can make you a consequential and transformative leader.
In this moment, I hope that college and university administrators of all identities will not become gun-shy. We cannot abandon our commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Diversity does not divide us; ignorance does. And the silence of college and university administrators, Black and white, has been deafening.
Today, as we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day in this country, I am left wondering what King, a Morehouse College alumnus, would tell us at this time. He might remind us that the arc of the moral university is long, but it bends toward justice. John Lewis would remind us that it does not bend by itself. Together, we must continue the hard work of creating a just society that upholds the founding principles of our democracy.