Claudine Gay Says She Faced Racist Attacks and Death Threats Amid Controversy That Led to Resignation as Harvard University’s President

Harvard University’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, said she stepped down Tuesday to stop critics from using her to taint the Ivy League school’s reputation as she faced racist and death threats.

Gay’s move marks the shortest presidential tenure in the institution’s history as she stepped down after six months. It comes after plagiarism allegations and pushback over her testimony at a congressional hearing on how anti-Semitism was handled on college campuses.

Harvard’s First Black President Resigns Amid Firestorm After Shortest Tenure In School’s History
Harvard President Claudine Gay (Photo: Harvard University)

“For weeks, both I and the institution to which I’ve devoted my professional life have been under attack. My character and intelligence have been impugned,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “My commitment to fighting antisemitism has been questioned. My inbox has been flooded with invective, including death threats. I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count.”

On Tuesday, Gay explained that after a meeting with the Harvard Corporation, it “is in the best interests” to resign from her position at the prestigious university. Gay also mentioned that she was subjected to racial attacks.  

At the congressional hearing, lawmakers pressed and accused Gay of not enforcing the student code of conduct amid demonstrations in support of Palestinians in Gaza in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. 

She also came under scrutiny from conservative watchdogs who alleged that she plagiarized her academic work, prompting an investigation from the school governing board. The probe concluded that there were no violations, only “a few instances of inadequate citation.” Despite this, the allegations continued to pile up.

“My hope is that by stepping down, I will deny demagogues the opportunity to further weaponize my presidency in their campaign to undermine the ideals animating Harvard since its founding,” Gay wrote on Wednesday.

Although she acknowledged that she made a mistake by not being more aggressive in her response to antisemitism on campus, Gay also defended her academic work and pointed out that she made corrections as soon as she learned about the errors. She clarified that she “never misrepresented” her research findings nor claimed credit for others’ work.

Black public figures responded to her resignation after Tuesday’s announcement with mixed reactions to Gay’s departure.

In a post on X, Jemele Hill responded to a user who claimed that the now-former president was an “affirmative action hire.” Similar to other critics who say the plagiarism allegations are proof that the university lowered the bar so that Gay could assume the historic role

“When white people are hired in any position, the automatic assumption is they were the best person. When Black people are hired, it’s assumed we got there because of affirmative action — which by the way doesn’t mean under-qualified.” Hill argued. “If affirmative action never existed, a lot of white people would still believe deeply in their own superiority because that is what they’ve been taught.”

Hill added: “Considering there have been 30 presidents at Harvard and Claudine Gay was the only Black one in history, she had to be extremely qualified to even be in that position. But don’t let me interfere with your racism. Go off.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton argued mounting accusations rooted in racism could hurt Black women trying to rise the ranks in their respective fields.

“To act like this president, Claudine Gay, was not qualified to be president, and that she was only given the job because she was a Black woman, is a threat to Black women in high positions all over the country,” Sharpton said in an interview with USA Today.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” political commentator Symone Sanders-Townsend acknowledged Gay’s “horrific” response at the hearing but noted how Black professionals could hear the news and think, “it looks like she was targeted.”

However, some had opposing views, including filmmaker Eli Steele, who slammed Gay in an op-ed for Newsweek. 

“How desperate were we for racial innocence? So desperate that we betrayed the American principles that enabled countless blacks to reach a place in life that was an improvement upon the world they were born into! It is a sad reflection of America that we elevate the Claudine Gays of this world and not the meritorious women and men I grew up admiring,” Steele penned. “But there is a silver-lining here: The trial of Gay in the public eye exposed the racial hypocrites and hypocrisies of our time unlike anything before.”

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