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  • Writer's pictureTaChelle Lawson

The Ugly Truth About Harvard and Dr. Claudine Gay: A Lesson in Leadership

In January, I shared a video of my interpretation of the former president of Havard University, Dr. Claudine Gay, where I examined the facts and thought we could learn valuable leadership lessons from her situation.

In late 2023, she and two other university presidents testified before Congress and were asked: “Do you support antisemitic behaviors and actions?” There was one answer to that question: NO

When she served as the President of Harvard, she had a responsibility to shut down antisemitic behavior and didn’t. Discrimination of any kind should not and can not be tolerated. Not only is this part of Harvard’s Non-discrimination and Anti-Bullying policy but it is also understood as a rule of participating in a community and a society. And since people go rogue and sometimes need reminders, we have policies. And we have leaders to enforce policies.  

Instead of enforcing the policy, she used free speech not to condone it but to ignore it. Free speech is undoubtedly an essential benefit of American society, but so are policies and procedures. When a student, employee, volunteer, or contractor is on Harvard’s campus (or engaged with), they should adhere to their code of conduct. Otherwise, we usher in chaos and become complicit in what happens because we do not step into our leadership role and handle it properly.

That is where she went wrong. I would expect any leader, regardless of race, gender, religion, vegetarian status, etc., to be held accountable for such a decision. Leadership is a responsibility and needs to be taken seriously. Hate speech and free speech are not the same. According to the American Library Association, Under current First Amendment jurisprudence, hate speech is not protected if it incites or promotes criminal activity, including specific threats of violence targeted against an individual or group. Based on that alone, it confirms that the public reaction had nothing to do with being Black or a woman but everything to do with her ability to lead.

The narrative that it’s all about race is BS because it isn’t. And the sooner we stop accepting (or creating) faults based on race, the better off we’ll all be. If you wonder what WOKE behavior looks like, it’s this. Thousands of comments stating this is all happening because shes’ Black. It’s not. It started because she failed to lead. Had she led from the beginning, there never would have been an investigation into her past.

So, was she fit to be the president? Hell, would any president be fit to lead if they couldn’t handle the situation swiftly and effectively?

Her lack of leadership was more than enough to address. However, instead of addressing her lack of leadership, the goal became to discredit her. And that…that I do wholeheartedly believe was about race. Going back nearly thirty years to question how she got her position and criticize what she has or hasn’t done regarding published books or papers is a witchhunt. Discrediting her life’s work because she refused to accept her failure and step down was weak, cheap and dirty. Holding her accountable for not acknowledging her failure would have been more than appropriate. 

You can fake being intelligent or friendly, But can you fake your way to Harvard President? As a Black woman? A few months ago, I would have said doubtful. I would have said that Harvard is the creme-de-la-creme with a NASA-level vetting system. I would have said that someone examined every inch of her life. That she was scrutinized and questioned–particularly about her academic qualifications. 

But today, I’d like to know what the individuals or committees that reviewed and approved her background check for employment have to say about this. Did they knowingly ignore plagiarism? Or did they fail to do their jobs and not properly vet her to hire a Black academic? Either way, where's Harvard’s accountability?

I’ve read comments that she was a diversity hire and an example of why affirmative action was America’s biggest problem. More BS. Affirmative action also isn’t the problem. Affirmative action becomes the scapegoat strategy for shifting focus unless her conduct and abilities were being questioned prior. Even if she was an affirmative action or diversity hire, that did not absolve Harvard from due diligence and verification of credentials. While I’m questioning her ability to lead, I’m also questioning Harvard’s ability to conduct a proper background check, knowing that Black is not a credential. Neither is being a woman.

As the nation was hell-bent on getting its pound of flesh from Dr. Gay, there should have been just as great a demand from Harvard about their policies and procedures. This president failed to do her job; had she done it, she would likely still be the president.

It should go without saying that plagiarism is unacceptable, and she 100% needed to step down and take ownership of her actions. We should not accept a leader who lies AND fails to take action when needed. But again, let’s not paint a picture of how she tricked her way into the role. If she applied, interviewed, consented to background checks and was hired, then the question remains: what about Harvard? With an average undergraduate tuition of $323k, it is fair to expect Harvard to have a military or gaming license style vetting process (no stone is left unturned).  Otherwise, we can only guess how many other professors or presidents are also “unqualified.”

Yes, what she did was wrong. Stealing another person's work and misrepresenting your credentials is wrong. But the entire situation could have been handled better. The fact is she went through a process and was not only welcomed into the fold but also promoted to the highest position. HOW? This refers to an ineffective system within Harvard that is bigger than Dr. Gay's. Now, it’s a question of credibility, reputation and value. 

Stop trying to rescue those who don’t need rescuing. 

Stop going on the attack before we have all the facts. 

Start demanding truth.

Start demanding accountability.

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