Claudine Gay Makes Us Ask, What Is an Education For?
Claudine Gay has resigned as president of Harvard. Her defenders are claiming that opposition to her continued leadership of that institution is grounded in racism or the threat to the historic prominence of European-descended persons in positions of power.
So she herself claims in a defiant op-ed in The New York Times. Although Gay will probably retain a $900,000 annual salary, she sees herself as a martyr in the battle to advance racial justice and “the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses.”
Yep. And I am the king of Romania.
Gay was fired because of her incoherence and moral cowardice when asked to simply repudiate anti-Semitism in a public forum, namely a committee of the U.S. Congress. Bear in mind she is the second college president who appeared before that panel who has now resigned. Liz Magill, who led the University of Pennsylvania, also resigned because of her failure to condemn anti-Semitism. Magill is white.
The second reason Gay was compelled to resign is that she plagiarized. A lot. A Harvard undergraduate student who has served “as a voting member of the Harvard College Honor Council” wrote in the school’s flagship newspaper, The Crimson, that “the allegations of plagiarism against President Gay is that the improprieties are routine and pervasive.” The student — who wrote anonymously out of (justifiable) fear of retaliation — noted that Gay “is accused of plagiarism in her dissertation and at least two of her 11 journal articles. Two sentences from the acknowledgement section of her dissertation even seem to have been copied from another work.”
These things strike a particular chord with me, as I teach at a university with a 13,000-member student body. It is a Christian institution, yet we still have to address issues of plagiarism. For example, a few years ago, I had a student who plagiarized another student’s writing — and the student she plagiarized had herself plagiarized her essay submission!
Finding plagiarism isn’t that hard. If a student submits an assignment that seems out-of-sync with his classroom performance on exams, participation in discussions, or previously submitted writings, it’s not too hard to guess that the document was written by someone else. Additionally, there are numerous tools available online to spot plagiarism. Most recently, the advent of ChatGPT-written essays has prompted a small cottage industry of “AI detectors” that enable academics to determine if an assignment is likely the product of electronic assemblage.
But more than this, student plagiarism saddens me because it so disadvantages those who participate in it. My university offers online writing assistance. We have an on-campus “writing lab” where we employ tutors to help students (at no cost to them) learn how to build good sentences and make strong arguments. We offer regular online tutorials on particular issues of writing, how to study, and so forth. All students have to take an English class in which they receive instruction in basic writing and grammar and how to conduct research. Yet with all this, a few students still decide to plagiarize.
One reason for intellectual academic theft is that some students don’t want an education. They simply want a degree for the sake of professional advancement. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve one’s marketability, if that’s the sole purpose of enrolling in a university, it shows disdain for the God Who gives us able and creative minds and for those — including oneself — who are paying for what should be a time of learning and preparation.
The fact that a scholar like Gay, a woman who clearly possesses a fine mind, would plagiarize only fosters the belief of many that higher education is corrupt: Get away with what you can in order to get what you can. Learning to think critically, developing curiosity, broadening one’s understanding of life and the world, and getting ready to make a contribution in one’s field of endeavor become casualties to the pursuit of profit, social standing, or professional attainment.
In her New York Times op-ed, Gay writes, “College campuses in our country must remain places where students can learn, share and grow together, not spaces where proxy battles and political grandstanding take root.” Amen! But, ironically, that is exactly what she and her fellow leftist university leaders and teachers have failed in doing. Conservatives are notoriously unwelcome in the professoriate. To be a conservative in today’s secular institutions of higher education is to be branded a half-wit, a reactionary, or that favorite catch-all of extreme liberalism, a fascist.
Characterizing principled disagreement as racist and manipulative is dishonest and damaging. Yet it is also unsurprising, as the narrative of the Left, informed by a commitment to stopping any dissent from liberal orthodoxy, prevents the ability to “learn, share, and grow together” Gay claims is her objective. I wish she would talk about this to the anti-Semites in Harvard’s student body and those in the faculty of that institution who have polluted the minds of their pupils with hatred of Israel and ignorance of that vulnerable nation’s history.
Self-righteousness and using race as an excuse to avoid the real issues are always unattractive, but perhaps most especially among those whose role in shaping young minds is so vital. We can hope that the next president of Harvard and so many academics throughout the country will recognize this.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.