PBS Stages Phony Debate Over Claudine Gay: Both Sides Agree Her Critics Are Racist

Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour dealt with the resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay, a shocking move fueled by her botched performance at a congressional hearing on recent pro-Hamas protests on progressive college campuses. Gay was further doomed by myriad examples of plagiarism within her incredibly modest collection (for a Harvard president) of published research.

But tax-funded PBS continued to protect a fellow elite, even though Gay, who will continue to draw her $900,000 annual salary as a member of the Harvard faculty, has hardly suffered a fatal blow.

After a notably terse introduction by host Geoff Bennett, reporter William Brangham’s interviewed Boston Globe reporter Hilary Burns, who sympathized with Gay’s phony defense that suggested scrutiny of her work was based in racism, as if the definition of plagiarism hinges on who is making the accusations against whom. (Many academics have disgraced themselves by downplaying plagiarism when done by one of their own under attack by conservatives.)

Brangham went along with Gay lashing out at “racial animus” from the right.

Burns of the Globe assented, to the point of using the same phrase.

Brangham set up a ludicrous debate from “two perspectives” — in which both participants agreed the pressure on Gay was rooted in racism? After Brangham reluctantly admitted “The evidence was there” about Gay’s plagiarism despite it having been brought to light by conservatives, Khalil Gibran Muhammad of (surprise!) the Harvard Kennedy School unleashed a full-throated excoriation of Gay’s right-wing critics.

Tom Nichols of The Atlantic provided the softest possible counterpoint in this pseudo-debate.

Nichols eventually admitted Gay committed “academic misconduct” that would make it impossible for her to lead “one of America’s greatest universities.”

Brangham played stenographer for Gay and her self-serving New York Times op-ed in which she cast herself as a victim of racism.

PBS NewsHour

1/4/24

7:33:09 p.m. (ET)

Geoff Bennett: The resignation of former Harvard President Claudine Gay has hardly settled any of the debate surrounding her short tenure or how the university handled a number of issues. In fact, many, including Gay herself, are raising concerns about the potential impact the Harvard case may have on higher education more widely.

William Brangham has our conversation.

William Brangham: Gay’s departure came after conservative activists unearthed multiple examples of alleged plagiarism in her work. While Gay did admit to several mistakes, she argues she’s been unfairly targeted because of her race, her ideology, and her push for diversity in academia.

Her resignation also followed her widely panned congressional testimony about antisemitism on university campuses.

So, for two perspectives, we turn to Khalil Gibran Muhammad. he’s a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. And to Tom Nichols, who’s a staff writer for “The Atlantic” and a professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval War College.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for being here.

Khalil Gibran, to you first.

The conventional wisdom is that Claudine Gay resigned because of this rolling series of plagiarism revelations. Those were brought to light by conservative activists and fanned into flames by those same people. But the evidence is there. I know you believe that there is much more afoot here. And I wonder if you could just explain that a little bit.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Harvard Kennedy School: Sure. They have been involved in a concerted movement beginning in the fall of 2020 to censor knowledge in this country, to prohibit the teaching of race and racism, of gender discrimination in the K-12 arena. And in Florida and Texas, as of just this past fall, they began to extend that reach into the public universities and colleges of that state.

And so I see what they are telling us is happening is that they are attacking everything that has to do with racial equity and gender equity in this country. And the person who convened the December 5 hearing opened her remarks by naming the problem as anti-racism, intersectionality and Critical Race Theory that is causing antisemitism on Harvard’s campus.

She just so happened to mention my class that I taught last fall as a prime example. And, finally, she promised, as of two days ago, after the resignation to continue to go after Harvard and presumably other universities that are harboring woke faculty and partisan administrators.

They are telling us that that is the primary focus right now for private colleges and universities, as has been the case for public ones.

William Brangham: Tom Nichols, what do you make of this? Do you believe that because these revelations came from people who are admittedly, as Khalil is saying, Claudine Gay’s ideological enemies, that that obviates any of this evidence about her plagiarism?

Tom Nichols, “The Atlantic”: Yes, I mean, we’re having a strange conversation here because I actually — I agree with Professor Muhammad.

I mean, I think that the American right and the activists in the American right are intentionally attacking American higher education as an institution, for various reasons, some of them ideological and some of them out of pure resentment, that they simply want to displace the current elites who run universities and be the new elites who run American universities.

But none of that has anything to do with whether or not this — what Professor Gay did is misconduct. There’s — as I wrote, there’s a term for misconduct that’s discovered by bad faith actors and bad people. It’s called misconduct. And that’s not relevant.

I agree completely she was targeted because of her race, because of her gender, because of her position at an exalted university, because of things she said during a congressional hearing. But, in the end, as strange as it sounds to say this, the source of that charge doesn’t matter.

All that matters is whether or not the charge is true. And if she committed academic misconduct, that’s — that just makes it impossible for her to lead America’s greatest — one of America’s greatest universities. I should add that I have nothing but affection for Harvard. I taught in their continuing education programs for 18 years.

And so I find this heartbreaking. But on the other hand, trying to conflate the attack — all of these attacks together, I think, does no good, because, in effect, what these right-wing activists are doing are trying to bait people in the academy into defending double standards, into appearing like hypocrites.

And I think no one should take that bait. The only question should be whether or not this was actual misconduct.

William Brangham: Professor Muhammad, what do you make of that?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad: It’s a compelling argument, but, unfortunately, it misses, to me, a bigger truth.

There are two things here that I think matter. One, the nature of the plagiarism, let’s call it on a three-point scale, was a one. And Mr. Nichols may not agree with me. That’s fine. But it is debatable the degree to which the allegations of plagiarism rise to be the most severe kind.

I call this a situation of a death by 1,000 paper cuts. And what is interesting to me in this instance is — this is my second point — that, if it’s a death by 1,000 paper cuts, Harvard still should retain the right to judge for itself whether or not the instances of poor citation or generous use of language by others rises to the point of expulsion, or, in this case, to be fired from Harvard University.

I think those two reasons are very strong reasons for why this issue is actually more about political pressure. And I don’t believe that any university at this time should allow governors or congressional representatives or any federal official to determine how it uses discretion and ultimately makes decisions about its own faculty.

William Brangham: Tom Nichols, I want to ask you about this issue of race very directly.

In her resignation letter and in her op-ed that she published in The Times today, Gay noted that she had been subjected to a torrent of racist abuse, been called the N-word, received death threats. Additionally, she talked about something broader.

And I want to read this quote here — quote — “It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses, a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution, someone who views diversity as a source of institutional strength and dynamism.”

How much of a factor do you believe — given everything you have already said, how much do you believe race did play in this?

Tom Nichols: I suspect that people on the right have been looking for a reason to attack Claudine Gay from the moment she became the president of Harvard. I have no doubt about that.

But I think that Professor Muhammad just made a better defense of her than she makes herself in that letter, because I think that letter plays right into the idea that: You can’t look at my academic work. Everything is about race. This is because of a racist attack.

There’s no doubt that the people that attacked her and that have been harassing her are coming from a place of racism and racial animus. But that doesn’t obviate the bigger problem. And I take Professor Muhammad’s point. It may have been — and this was my reaction initially — that the first few revelations about this, I said, you know, I wrote a dissertation. I probably have some bad footnotes and some wifty paraphrases in there, like all of us who have done academic work.

We’re not perfect and we will all have mistakes in our written work. But I think, when then the second and third round of these came out, and I suspect that her critics played a bit of rope-a-dope here, where they dripped this out, trying to kind of draw the foul, trying to get people to keep defending this.

I don’t think that those errors then lead to the conclusion that, well, this now has to all be about race. I think, in the university setting, the only question is, are the errors real errors? I take Professor Muhammad’s point. Maybe these were not an offense.

And I think, actually, his point about Harvard simply kind of caving here, that’s a reasonable point. But on the other hand, when you have this much stuff that piles up, university presidents are different. This is not the closed deliberations of a department. This is someone leading the university and being the public face of the university.

And to come out and to fire back and to say, it’s all about racism, I think, just plays into exactly the kind of dialogue, and not even dialogue — it plays exactly into the kind of trap that a lot of her opponents wanted to set. And I think that’s unfortunate. There’s a lot of truth in it, but that’s obviously not the whole story. There is a “there” there in all of it.

William Brangham: All right, Professor Khalil Muhammad and author Tom Nichols, thank you both so much. Really appreciate you being here.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Thanks for having us.

Tom Nichols: Thank you.

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