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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Crimson stain

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In a stunning reversal, Dr. Claudine Gay abruptly abdicated the presidency at Harvard. Having done so, the first Black president of America’s most prestigious university has spared it from some ignominious fate. There is no telling how much irreparable harm might have been visited upon the Crimson had Dr. Gay remained in her post. At least that is the impression one gets from the noisome cavalcade of her detractors.

Of course, it should have surprised no one that Dr. Gay bowed to the unrelenting pressure for her to step aside. Among those who publicly called for her ouster is Dr. John McWhorter, a respected political and social observer. Recently, McWhorter wrote the following in his column for The New York Times:

“As a matter of scholarly ethics, academic honor and, perhaps most of all, leadership that sets an example for students, Dr. Gay would be denigrating the values of ‘veritas’ that she and Harvard aspire to uphold. Staying on would not only be a terrible sign of hollowed-out leadership, but also risks conveying the impression of a double standard at a progressive institution for a Black woman, which serves no one well, least of all Dr. Gay.”

McWhorter, who is African American, is difficult to pigeonhole politically – which is something that I admire. He has described himself as “a cranky liberal Democrat”, but vocally opposes much of the orthodoxy of the left. For example, he criticizes the notion of “microaggressions”, believes that affirmative action should be based on class rather than race, and has downplayed the role of racism in forestalling Black achievement. In any case, while his words were not determinative, they added a patina of gravitas to the debate about Dr. Gay.

McWhorter also criticized Gay’s lack of scholarly output – as defined by academic articles and books written – in comparison to some of her predecessors. He believes that Gay’s relative dearth of academic bona fides, in combination with allegations of plagiarism, suggest that she was selected for her role due to her race rather than her qualifications. While there is some merit in McWhorter’s assessment, I strongly disagree with his (prescient) conclusion.

First, if it is true that Dr. Gay was appointed to lead Harvard largely due to her race, it wouldn’t have mattered which African American the university chose; any Black appointee would be equally criticized. (Of course, merely making an allegation doesn’t prove its verity.) Second, at what point in Harvard’s history were race and gender not the primary considerations in selecting its president?

Harvard was founded in 1636. Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust was appointed the school’s first female president in 2007. All of Harvard’s presidents were white men for 371 years. This raises two immediate questions. First, were no women or people of color qualified to lead that institution for nearly four centuries? Second, were all the white men who were chosen qualified? There is such handwringing when people of color are selected for senior roles that have long been dominated by whites. When was the last time whites (or Dr. McWhorter) questioned the “qualifications” of whites – especially men – who are appointed to such roles?

In the view of too many white Americans, it is axiomatic that people of color – especially African Americans – are inherently unqualified for elite positions. We have never ceased being judged primarily by our race rather than by our intelligence, abilities, and achievements. We need look no further than Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Harvard alumna, who is the most recent appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her bona fides are unassailable in comparison to the other justices on the high court. This is particularly true of the other Black justice.

Notwithstanding this fact, Brown has constantly been attacked for allegedly not being appointed based on “merit”. Yet, former president Donald Trump openly stated that he would only consider pro-life candidates for SCOTUS. Not surprisingly, those who criticize President Biden’s selection of Brown were silent about Trump’s sole criterion.

To be fair, the charges of plagiarism against Dr. Gay are a serious matter. Yet, that fact does not prevent them being a convenient mantel upon which most of her detractors can hang their hats. And, yes, I will add that the people who are squealing the loudest about Dr. Gay still support Trump, who is mentally, morally, temperamentally, and intellectually unqualified to hold our nation’s highest office. Indeed, not only is he unqualified; he is astoundingly unfit. Thus, while McWhorter does not support Trump, casting his lot with those who do is supremely disappointing.

If it sounds like my complaint with McWhorter is largely based on the fact that his arguments empower people who are diametrically opposed to racial equity, it is because that is precisely the case. One has to wonder why he hasn’t felt compelled to criticize white leaders in the same way. Did he have such opprobrium regarding Jerry Falwell, Jr. after his shenanigans got him ousted from Liberty University? Obviously, Liberty is no Harvard, but the point remains. By the way, given the outsized “concern” about Dr. Gay’s alleged plagiarism, all university presidents should be similarly examined.

If America had a different history than it does, I would likely support the view that Dr. Gay’s resignation was appropriate. However, I cannot countenance the rank hypocrisy that attaches to this situation. When Liz Magill resigned under duress from the University of Pennsylvania, white people – including white women – did not have to worry about whether other white people would be negatively affected. No intellectually honest person would make the same claim regarding Gay’s departure. Unless or until that fact changes, no similarly placed African American should feel secure in his or her role.

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