The battle over the fate of Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, took an unexpected turn this week, as questions surfaced not just about her handling of antisemitism on campus but about her academic work as well.
In a statement Tuesday announcing that Dr. Gay would stay in office, Harvard’s governing board said that after receiving accusations in October about three articles written by the president, it had initiated an independent review and determined that she had not violated the university’s standards for “research misconduct.”
But the Harvard Corporation said its investigation “revealed a few instances of inadequate citation,” adding that Dr. Gay would request “four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.”
In a statement on Monday morning, Dr. Gay strongly defended her work. “I stand by the integrity of my scholarship,” she said. “Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards.”
Harvard’s support is unlikely to end the turmoil around Dr. Gay’s tenure. Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican who sharply questioned Dr. Gay last week during congressional hearings on antisemitism, criticized the decision to allow her to keep her job.
“The only update to the code of conduct is to allow a plagiarist as the president of Harvard,” she said during a news conference on Tuesday.
Even though Harvard apparently became aware of the concerns in October, the plagiarism charges were first widely publicized on Dec. 10 by the conservative activist Christopher Rufo. In his Substack newsletter, he wrote that he had learned of “problematic patterns of usage and citation” in Dr. Gay’s 1997 doctoral dissertation, “Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics.”
On Dec. 11, an article in The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, identified what it said were additional instances of plagiarism in Dr. Gay’s dissertation and three other papers she published between 1993 and 2017, which the article said paraphrased or quoted nearly 20 authors without proper attribution.
In its Tuesday statement, Harvard Corporation said that after it had become aware of the accusations in late October, it had ordered — at Dr. Gay’s request — a review by an independent group of “distinguished political scientists.”
It is unclear what instances the group investigated.
Dr. Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, has been a professor of government and of African and African American studies at the university since 2006. Her scholarship has explored how the election of minority officeholders affects citizens’ perception of government, cooperation between minority groups, and how housing mobility programs affect political participation for the poor, according to the university.
Before joining Harvard’s faculty, Dr. Gay was an assistant professor and associate professor of political science at Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. She earned her doctorate from Harvard in 1998.
Some prominent university administrators have resigned in recent years following accusations of plagiarism. Plagiarism charges have also become a potent political weapon, as some inside and outside the academy have seized on accusations against their ideological opponents.
The Harvard Corporation’s statement on Dr. Gay does not use the word “plagiarism,” which a Harvard guide for students defines broadly.
“When you fail to cite your sources, or when you cite them inadequately, you are plagiarizing, which is taken extremely seriously at Harvard,” it says. “Plagiarism is defined as the act of intentionally OR unintentionally submitting work that was written by somebody else.”
In practice, not all instances of potential plagiarism are equal, particularly when they do not reflect any intention to deceive, scholars say.
Dr. Gay’s dissertation, The Free Beacon said, “borrowed” two paragraphs from a 1996 conference paper by Bradley Palmquist, who was then a political science professor at Harvard, and Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky who was in Dr. Gay’s doctoral program at Harvard.
In an interview, Dr. Voss called Dr. Gay’s use of his work, which involved changing only a few words, “technically plagiarism” but said he did not consider it a serious case. He said the paragraphs in question involved a technical description, not core to Dr. Voss or Dr. Gay’s work, that was based off a research methodology developed by their adviser.
“To borrow the approach of your teacher on research methodology is fairly benign,” Dr. Voss said in an interview. At the same time, he added, “If a student gave me a paper that did what she did, I would bounce it back to them.”
Most of the instances highlighted by Mr. Rufo involved passages in which Dr. Gay cited scholars by name, but then only lightly paraphrased passages from their work.
But Mr. Rufo also said that Dr. Gay “composes an entire appendix” from a book by Gary King, without acknowledging that it is “entirely grounded in King’s concepts.”
Dr. King was Dr. Gay’s adviser and is a Harvard professor.
Dr. King, who also advised Dr. Voss, rejected Mr. Rufo’s accusation, calling it “false and absurd” and said the dissertation “met the highest levels of academic integrity.”
“If you were going to commit plagiarism, would you plagiarize your faculty adviser’s work (the person whose job it is to evaluate your dissertation) and expect to get away with it?” Dr. King wrote in an email.