Black Female Privilege: The Foreseeable Tragedy of Former Harvard President Claudine Gay

Former Harvard President Dr. Claudine Gay during congressional hearing, Dec. 7, 2023. Photo by Miles J. Herszenhorn of The Harvard Crimson

On Jan. 2, Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned following a controversial testimony she gave at a congressional hearing on antisemitism on campus. Less than a month before, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gathered before the House Committee on Education and Labor. Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik asked them how they would respond to calls for the genocide of Jews.

Stefanik looked directly at the Harvard President. “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s Code of Conduct?”

Claudine Gay answered, “It depends on the context.”

Israel’s war in Gaza, in response to Hamas-led attacks on Israelis, has brought enmity to college campuses across the United States. Students have held hundreds of protests and counter-protests in support of Palestine or Israel. At Tulane University, a fight broke out between opposing student groups after someone tried to burn an Israeli flag. Three Palestinian college students were shot in Vermont while wearing keffiyehs—a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Death threats against Jewish students at Cornell University were posted on an online discussion board, which prompted the cancellation of classes.

The Department of Education has launched an investigation into Harvard University, among other schools, over complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobic discrimination on its campus. Following her resignation, Claudine Gay addressed in a letter to the Harvard Community:

“My deep sense of connection to Harvard and its people has made it all the more painful to witness the tensions and divisions that have riven our community in recent months, weakening the bonds of trust and reciprocity that should be our sources of strength and support in times of crisis. Amidst all of this, it has been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor—two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am—and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.”

Harvard’s first Black president had the shortest term—of just six months and two days— in the school’s history. Accusations of plagiarism in her academic work were published on a conservative website prior to her resignation. The political dogfight that brought down her presidency was fueled by the “racial animus,” she noted.

The Harvard Corporation, one of the university’s governing boards, addressed the onslaught of bigotry Gay experienced.

“While President Gay has acknowledged missteps and has taken responsibility for them, it is also true that she has shown remarkable resilience in the face of deeply personal and sustained attacks [...] While some of this has played out in the public domain, much of it has taken the form of repugnant, and in some cases, racist vitriol directed at her through disgraceful emails and phone calls.”

The Harvard Corporation is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere. Furthermore, Harvard University is older than America itself. It is the oldest college in the United States and one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. That said, Harvard has historically been tied to slavery, eugenics, and discrimination. Enslaved men and women served both faculty members and students alike. Harvard scholars developed racist ideas that justified the denigration and enslavement of African-Americans. For a long time, Ivy League schools prospered under the dictum “keep the damned women out.” Female students were not admitted until the twentieth century.

Being Black at Harvard is much like being Black in America. Both institutions were founded on the exploitation of Black and indigenous people for the benefit of affluent White men. Only 7 percent of Ivy League undergraduate students are black. They often find themselves in a perpetual state of hypervisibility and invisibility. Black students at elite universities are constantly being undermined and pushed to work harder to prove themselves. There’s an ongoing myth fueled by white supremacist rhetoric and legislation that opportunities that are given to minorities are solely based on race, rather than earned through merit. It’s an experience black women know all too well.

Misogynoir is defined as the intersection of race and gender oppression. It’s a unique form of discrimination that affects the lives of Black women. It also follows Black women into the workplace. A recent Harvard Study found that Black women who got hired onto whiter teams were more likely to be perceived as “low performers.” They saw lower promotion and retention rates than other minority groups in similar environments. Black women often experience feeling undervalued and overlooked in professional settings. The intersection of being both black and female means that there’s an expectation to work the hardest for the least acknowledgement. It means former Harvard President Claudine Gay was never supposed to be in a position of power.

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo led the campaign against Gay. He published nearly fifty accusations of plagiarism against her and worked with billionaire Bill Ackman to topple her presidency. On X, Rufo wrote: “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.”

Rufo accused Claudine Gay of plagiarizing her thesis advisor, Prof. Gary King. King has dismissed the allegations. He told The Daily Beast in an interview: “There’s not a conceivable case that this is plagiarism… Her dissertation and every draft I read of it met the highest academic standards.”

Following Gay’s resignation, Rufo posted: “Today, we celebrate victory. Tomorrow, we get back to the fight. We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America.”

The movement against diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education hasn’t reached its apotheosis. Republican lawmakers are attempting to “seize the means” of education. Unfurling in several states is legislation that will limit classroom material, end faculty tenure, and ban DEI programs.

The Ivy League institution, which she led, ultimately failed to protect Gay from racist attacks.

However, it can be argued that her Black womanhood brought Gay closer to an ineluctable fate. Christopher Rufo, along with other conservatives, capitalized on the ignorance and lies that spread. He announced that he will be starting a “plagiarism hunting” fund.

Gay will remain on the Harvard faculty as a professor of Government and African and African-American studies. Someone might ask, “Why did she only last six months as president?”

The answer smells a lot like misogynoir.