Harvard defends its plagiarism investigation into its former president

In a report to a congressional committee released Friday, Harvard provided the most detailed account yet of how the university handled plagiarism allegations against Claudine Gay, who resigned as university president this month.

The basic gist of the story was out, but Harvard had not released many details, leading to questions about the impartiality and accuracy of the investigation.

In its report, Harvard defended the thoroughness of its plagiarism investigation. It said an outside panel had found Dr. Gay’s papers to be “sophisticated and original,” with “virtually no evidence of deliberate assertion of findings” that were not hers, even though it found a pattern of duplicative language in three papers.

But the report also shows that the university’s administration was slow to fully account for its work. Instead, Harvard attempted to investigate a steady stream of plagiarism allegations for several weeks, but was unable to provide an immediate, authoritative response to questions about Dr.’s scholarship. Gay.

The report is part of a broader submission of documents by Harvard, in response to a Letter of December 20 of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which investigates allegations of plagiarism and anti-Semitism against universities. That committee held the now infamous hearing on anti-Semitism on campus, at which Dr. Gay and two other college presidents were criticized for their legalistic responses to questions about anti-Semitism.

The committee said it was currently reviewing Harvard’s submission. So far, only the plagiarism report has been made public.

Harvard’s report begins on October 24, when it says a reporter from the New York Post approached the university about the plagiarism allegations.

The Post presented Harvard with a list of 25 excerpts from which Dr. Gay, a political scientist, was accused of plagiarism from three articles she had written. One article dates from 1993, when she was a student, and the others from 2012 and 2017, when she was on the faculty, the report said.

According to the report, Harvard contacted several authors whom it accused of plagiarism. “None of them objected to the language of then-President Gay.”

The university formed a subcommittee to lead the review, with the help of attorneys. The subcommittee members were Biddy Martin, a former president of Amherst College; Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a former California Supreme Court justice; Shirley Tilghman, a former president of Princeton University; and Theodore V. Wells Jr., partner at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison.

The subcommittee then appointed a three-person external panel. The summary describes the panelists as tenured faculty members at leading research institutions and two are past presidents of the American Political Science Association.

They have asked to keep their identities confidential, Harvard said. But the House committee, which has the power to subpoena witnesses, could still demand their names.

The independent panel reviewed the work of Dr. Gay not fully rated. It only investigated The Post’s allegations and compared Dr. Gay with eleven articles by other scientists, the report said.

The panel found that there was “virtually no evidence of intentional claims to findings other than those of President Gay,” the report said.

But it raised concerns about a pattern of repetitive language. And Dr. Gay, who stood by her scholarship, had to submit some corrections to quotes and citations.

The review appeared to dismiss the allegations in short, and the university’s governing board, the Harvard Corporation, supported her continuation as president.

But by then, new allegations had surfaced on social media, this time about Dr. Gay’s dissertation. The Harvard report states that the subcommittee reviewed her dissertation “promptly,” and that Dr. Gay was also required to submit some corrections.

On December 19, a supplemental complaint was filed with Harvard’s Research Integrity Office, but no additional corrections were required, the report said.

Two weeks later she was out.

Harvard acknowledges in its report that the university did not conduct the assessment perfectly. This suggests that the university was in crisis due to the commotion over the approach to anti-Semitism on campus.

“These allegations arose during a time of unprecedented events and tensions on campus and globally,” the report said. “We understand and acknowledge that many viewed our efforts as lacking transparency, raising questions about our process and standards of review.”

On Friday, Harvard also announced new rules to curb student protests.

In a message just before the start of classes on Monday, Harvard said demonstrations would not be allowed in classrooms, libraries, dormitories or dining halls without permission. Instead, protests are limited to “courtyards, squares and other such spaces” and cannot prevent students from walking to class.

The clarification did not directly address the question posed during the Congressional hearing that contributed to Dr. Gay: Whether protesters chanting slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — which many Israel advocates interpret as a call to eradicate Israel — would violate Harvard’s code of conduct.

Annie Karni reporting contributed.

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