I offer a few small comments on the Claudine Gay affair, and try to say a few things that haven’t been said many times before.
From the New York Times Jan 7
… on Dec. 12, the board members privately asked Dr. Gay to help come up with a plan to turn things around…Over the next week or so, Dr. Gay and her staff created a plan they called a “spring reset,”…. Come the new year, she would appear all over campus, hold office hours and express her empathy. There would be task forces to address antisemitism and Islamophobia.
You have in a nutshell what is wrong at major universities. Faced with an existential challenge, a fork in the road between science and meritocracy vs. politics and activism, faced with plummeting support and public trust, the board and president think the way to “turn things around” is for the president “and her staff,” presumably abundant, to create a detailed “spring reset” plan, including “appear all over campus, hold office hours” and above all to “express her empathy,” and of course to appoint “task forces” to address “phobias.”
I quote twice just so you’ll stop and notice. It’s entirely focused inward. It’s marketing, spin, HR, with no fundamental institutional change.
Stanford has lots of these sort of events, “task forces” that sit around and gab and write memos, “community building” events. It also apparently has a lot of people with time on their hands to go to them. Noticeably absent: research-active faculty, assistant professors who want tenure, and grad students who want jobs.
This sort of “plan” reinforces my analysis last time: She was good at her job, running Harvard exactly as the board and Harvard wanted her to do. Neither she nor the board has the vaguest inking of the fundamental change that needs to happen. The board should resign as well.
I read Gay’s New York Times Oped on her resignation with interest. My first reaction was, memo to self: Never write an oped when you’re angry and upset. I now note from the above article
Ms. Pritzker gave her the weekend to sort out her exit… In subsequent phone calls, the two began to hammer out the terms of Dr. Gay’s departure, including what the Harvard Corporation’s and her statements should say
so I think we can read it as an institutional and board response as well.
It too is a bit flabbergasting.
My hope is that by stepping down I will deny demagogues the opportunity to further weaponize my presidency in their campaign to undermine the ideals animating Harvard since its founding: excellence, openness, independence, truth.
…a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society.
One of the lowest forms of rhetoric is to attack your opponent’s motivations, at least without evidence. Harvard’s critics do not self-identify as a campaign to “undermine” the search for “excellence, openness, independence, truth.” Indeed, if we listen to them at all, they say precisely the opposite — that their campaign is to rescue Harvard for “excellence, openness, independence, truth,” and to rescue the pillars of American society from the self-loathing cult that has taken over Harvard. They would say that Gay and company are the ones ho have undermined those ideals. Maybe not, but “inclusive” rhetoric demands that we at least listen, focus on the facts of the matter at hand, and if we must insult people (“demagogue”) or attack their motivations, provide a shred of evidence to the world that does listen.
I found it amusing then that later she goes on to
Those who had relentlessly campaigned to oust me since the fall often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned argument.
In the vast-conspiracy department, she continues
Trusted institutions of all types — from public health agencies to news organizations — will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility.
Talk about blowing up the foundations of your own argument, or at best preaching to your narrow sections of the choir. Outside the ivied walls of Harvard yard, a lot of people think that public health agencies and news organizations are crashing in credibility precisely because of their own evident politicized incompetence.
This is the level of knowledge of American politics and culture that one of the, supposedly, best minds of political science in a generation produces?
Despite the obsessive scrutiny of my peer-reviewed writings, few have commented on the substance of my scholarship,… I asked questions that had not been asked, used then-cutting-edge quantitative research methods…
She has a point. But be careful what you wish for. The latest brew from her critics is actually reading the papers, asking questions about generated regressors, causal interpretations of correlations, standard errors, and trying to replicate the numbers. “Then-cutting-edge” seems like a quiet admission of trouble. (For example, here, here, and here.)
We’ll see if anyone cares now that she has resigned. I don’t. If she really had superb research, she shouldn’t have been in administration. But it will further undermine the credibility of institutions that covered the research with glowing praise. They didn’t read it either, or they chose to puff it up, leading one to question their other judgements.
She ended with
At tense moments, every one of us must be more skeptical than ever of the loudest and most extreme voices in our culture, however well organized or well connected they might be. Too often they are pursuing self-serving agendas that should be met with more questions and less credulity.
Look in the mirror.
All said, however, I have sympathy for Gay. Yes, she will likely go on to a lucrative teaching, consulting, speaking and perhaps political future, but this must have been an awful time for her.
My inbox has been flooded with invective, including death threats. I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count.
Dr. Gay had moved into the Harvard president’s official residence only the month before, after renovations. The phone kept ringing, and when she picked it up she’d hear racial slurs before callers hung up. The police were monitoring the house 24 hours a day.
This behavior is deplorable, and one can sympathize a bit that she conflates motivations of people who press hard to bring back a classical liberal tradition to Harvard with the base motivations of people who scream racial epithets into a telephone. (Though I am surprised to learn that the President of Harvard picks up her own phone from unrecognized numbers. I don’t. )
I was at the ASSA economics and finance meetings in San Antonio, and of course this affair is one of the first topics of gossip all around.
I was surprised to learn of widespread admiration for Gay among many Harvard people, and not just those who support left-wing politics. They report that Gay was in fact a good administrator. She showed up to meetings prepared, read the briefings (university internal reports have magic sleep-inducing powers to me), listened, and made what they regarded as good decisions. I heard of surprising support even for her decisions in some controversial cases. That admiration for her administrative skill was said in the reports of her appointment (for example) but usually also with so much self-evident balderdash that I had ignored it. (Writing memo 2: If you exaggerate point 1, then people discount point 2.)
A lot of a dean, provost, and president’s job is minding the store. Of course this still supports my earlier view, that she was very good at the job Harvard faculty and board wanted her to do, but now a totally new job is needed.
One of my fellow gossipers reports that she had, at one point, come to the view that research academia was not the best fit and decided to go to the private sector, but was wooed back to academia by faculty who, obviously, wanted to make a special effort for a vastly under-represented minority. This sparks an observation which only economists seem to make: Like everything else in life, “diversity” efforts face a budget constraint. There are only so many good smart candidates. (Yes, we need to fix the pipeline, but affirmative action promoters don’t say wait to fix the pipeline.) Had academia not really pulled hard to recruit her, she would have provided equally needed racial diversity in business. With her evident smarts, quantitative skills, hard work and administrative ability, she would now surely be a top executive at a major company. Where nobody cares about your research, even including a little plagiarism lite. Is the world really better off with one additional minority middling political scientist turned successful dean, and one less additional minority super-successful top executive at a major company? That’s a real cost, which we don’t often talk about.
The general view seems to be that many faculty at Harvard continue deep in the political cause. For example, most thought that her New York Times essay was splendid, not an embarrassingly hypocritical defensive piece written in anger as I see it. But a large number see the need for fundamental change, to return to meritocracy, science, and the classical values. Like, oh. “excellence, openness, independence, truth.”
That is hopeful.