Top US Universities Grapple with Uncontrollable Political Crisis
Harvard University’s President, Claudine Gay, is embroiled in a plagiarism scandal that has provoked questions about the academic integrity of higher education and perceived elitism within such institutions. The plagiarism allegations are drawing attention from Republicans, including ex-President Donald Trump’s supporters who view universities as elite institutions that can be used for political gain. The scandal coincides with a wider scrutiny of elite universities, buffeted by claims they are increasingly becoming incubators of radical left-wing ideology.
Harvard President’s Plagiarism Controversy Highlights Tensions in Elite Academia
The plagiarism controversy surrounding Harvard’s president is the latest instance of elite academia playing directly into the hands of the populist Republicans, such as ex-President Donald Trump source.
First, the presidents of three top universities equivocated on a seemingly obvious question on genocide against Jews and their universities’ conduct codes source. Now, Harvard’s Claudine Gay is embroiled in a controversy over plagiarism source. A GOP-led House committee is widening an existing investigation into Harvard to include the plagiarism allegations.
Republicans, including Trump, view universities, courts, Washington’s professional bureaucracy, and the media as elite institutions that they can denigrate for political gain. This narrative is an essential part of the GOP’s populist anti-establishment messaging as Trump considers a return to the White House after 2024.
Elite universities face claims that they have been tainted by leftist political doctrines and are becoming less a place of learning and more a breeding ground for radical ideology. Amidst this, Harvard’s highest-governing body, the Harvard Corporation, recently rejected demands for Gay’s firing over the antisemitism controversy source.
Gay, and her counterparts at University of Pennsylvania and MIT, struggled to condemn antisemitism, an issue most Americans outside academia easily identify. A Harvard spokesperson informed CNN on Thursday Gay would correct additional instances of “inadequate citation” in her 1997 dissertationsource
A CNN review found Gay’s previous corrections did not address even clearer examples of plagiarism from her earlier academic work source. Plagiarism charges against Gay were first circulated by conservative activists and later reported by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication.
The new Trump populist right frequently targets Ivy League institutions. Gay’s latest troubles have become a new opening for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican, has widened an existing investigation into campus antisemitism to include plagiarism allegations. She asserts that a university willing to overlook dishonest behavior from faculty depreciates its mission and the value of its education.
Civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill questioned why members of Congress are investing their time in probing Harvard rather than passing a border bill or providing aid to Ukraine, and warned against meddling with private institutions.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Yale and Harvard graduate, has waged a fight against elite institutions, claiming to have found more wisdom in working-class communities than he encountered at both schools.
DeSantis taps into a powerful seam in the Trump-era GOP, evident in the demonizing of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases specialist during the Covid-19 emergency.
The issues with plagiarism and Harvard’s handling of them pose questions about whether the university meets its own academic standards and evaluates students and faculty fairly.
The appearance of Gay and two other university presidents at a House Education Committee hearing earlier this month revealed how elite institutions and their leaders can quickly seem detached from American society.
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Harvard graduate and a champion for Trumpism, gained significant political capital by questioning Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth, and then-University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill about whether calls for genocide against Jews violated their institutions’ conduct codes.
Gay found such speech personally abhorrent and offensive to Harvard’s values, but said that action would only be taken if speech turned into conduct that violated policies, including policies against bullying, harassment, or intimidation. This response appeared academic and overly technical given the shocking rise of antisemitism following the Hamas terror attacks on Israel.
Magill’s answers appeared even more evasive, crossing into apparent academic disdain for Stefanik’s politicized line of questioning. Magill later clarified her remarks, did not apologize, and resigned amid a political firestorm and under pressure from University of Pennsylvania graduates and donors.
These encounters highlight the public crisis facing top American universities and accusations that they isolate themselves from the rest of society and threaten their own intellectual mission with political equivocation.
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