Mises Wire

Claudine Gay, DEI, and the War in the Middle East

A little over six months ago, Claudine Gay was appointed president of Harvard University, the first black president of that now embattled institution. She recently resigned her post, only to retain a $900,000 salary as a professor. No doubt her appointment had more to do with the imperatives of an engulfing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) agenda and less to do with the quality and volume of her scholarship, later found to be riddled with plagiarism.

Gay’s academic credentials are certainly not commensurate with the position of president at what was once one of the most venerated institutions of higher education in the United States and the world. With only one monograph and nine peer-reviewed single-author academic articles on her curriculum vitae, it would be a wonder how the fifty-three-year-old Gay rose through the academic ranks so swiftly if not for her race and the intersectional demands of DEI.

By comparison, I have authored four academic books and as many peer-reviewed, single-author academic articles as Gay and arguably contributed to more rigorous fields, including the history of science, philosophy, economics, etc. (sans plagiarism). Gay’s work focuses largely on the political representation of blacks, the voting patterns of blacks of different socioeconomic statuses, and affordable housing, among other related topics. After reading some of Gay’s papers, I concluded that she is not the total academic slouch that some critics have made her out to be. Yet her nova-like career has been fueled by affirmative action and turbo-charged by DEI.

Her ultimate undoing, however, did not stem from her academic performance, or lack thereof. She was, after all, promoted to the presidency by the Harvard Corporation, the top governing board of the university, with the self-same credentials. The plagiarism in her academic writing came to light only after her ill-fated appearance at a congressional hearing on antisemitism, following the events of October 7, 2023, and beyond. Israel’s immediate response to the Hamas attack sparked pro-Palestinian protests at Harvard and other universities, protests which supposedly featured calls for the “genocide” of Jews, although there does not seem to be any evidence for such claims.

It was not Gay’s plagiarism but her performance on Capitol Hill that triggered powerful opponents to scrutinize her presidency, although they should have done so much earlier. Her plagiarism served as a pretext for removing her from office. During that Congressional hearing, recapped by the Harvard Crimson, Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) repeatedly asked Gay whether calls for genocide on her campus violated Harvard’s code of conduct regarding bullying and harassment. Gay responded by saying that she found such speech “personally abhorrent,” but continued with the refrain, “We embrace a commitment to free expression and give a wide berth to free expression even to views that are objectionable, outrageous, and offensive.” This claim is certainly untrue, as my own academic history and that of dozens of academics makes clear. And many speakers scheduled to give talks on college campuses can attest to the fact that academia has become utterly intolerant of views that differ from the prevalent “social justice” orthodoxy, as can a bevy of students who have dared to voice views at variance with the official creed. Harvard ranks last among American colleges and universities for free speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

Stefanik’s relentless questioning continued: “At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” Gay answered, “It can be, depending on the context.” The badgering went on, and Gay’s answers were deemed scandalously insufficient by Stefanik and the rest of the committee, and, perhaps no less importantly, by prominent Harvard donors and alumni. Rather than allowing herself to be backed into a corner, Gay should have instead asked for evidence of calls for “genocide.” Stefanik ended the questioning by calling for Gay’s resignation.

Meanwhile, had universities remained altogether neutral on political issues, as they should, Gay would not have been caught in the position in which she found herself. But the more she kept digging, the deeper the hole she occupied. Gay later apologized on social media, saying, “Substantively, I failed to convey what is my truth,” referring to the subjectivist postmodernist notion that truth is a function of identity, a notion that Ludwig von Mises termed “polylogism.”

Gay issued a series of statements about the Hamas attack and its aftermath. Soon after, William A. Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager and an alumnus and donor, began a personal investigation of his alma mater. In a statement that has been called Ackman’s “Anti-DEI Manifesto,” published on X, Ackman stated, “I first became concerned about @Harvard when 34 Harvard student organizations, early on the morning of October 8 before Israel had taken any military actions in Gaza, came out publicly in support of Hamas, a globally recognized terrorist organization, holding Israel ‘solely responsible’ for Hamas’ barbaric and heinous acts.”

Ackman continued by stating that the student protests “began as pro-Palestine and then became anti-Israel” and further suggested that the anti-Israel sentiments expressed by students constituted “antisemitism.” Antisemitism, he averred, was rife on college campuses: “Sadly, antisemitism remains a simmering source of hate even at our best universities among a subset of students.”

Ackman then quickly pivoted by suggesting that antisemitism was not the root of the problem after all but rather a symptom: “I came to learn that the root cause of antisemitism at Harvard was an ideology that had been promulgated on campus, an oppressor/oppressed framework, that provided the intellectual bulwark behind the protests, helping to generate anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate speech and harassment.”

I have been writing about the oppressor/oppressed dyad for years. I’ve suggested that this configuration is what postmodernism has in common with Marxism. Postmodernism translates Marxist class categories into identity terms. Ackman’s point was that the oppressor/oppressed schemata ended up figuring Jews as oppressors, and thus, Palestinians (and Hamas) as oppressed. This ideology, he implied, explains the rationale for and the fervor of the protests and vilification of Israel, as well as Gay’s ineffectual responses.

Antisemitism, Ackman went on to suggest, is merely an instance of a broader problem—DEI, which operates under this binary.

The conflation of criticisms of the DEI paradigm and the politics of war in the Middle East is a tactic well suited to enlist critics of DEI into the ranks of pro-Israel supporters. This is, in fact, the same trick to which Jordan Peterson, Gad Saad, and other prominent critics of campus orthodoxy have also resorted. However, it is a sneaky maneuver that establishes a false equivalency. While student protesters may have been indoctrinated to see all issues through this oppressor/oppressed prism, it does not represent the sole rationale for opposing Israel’s execution of the war in the Gaza Strip.

Claudine Gay has fallen prey to her own ideology, one which values identity and supposed victimhood above the truth. She has learned that some identities trump her own. The same ideology and identity politics are being wielded to justify Israel’s massacre in the Gaza Strip and to bully and harass its critics.

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