Claudine Gay’s announcement on Tuesday that she was stepping down from her position as the president of Harvard University was, for many people, a gut punch.

“It’s discouraging for young students to see this because the world is saying that we’re the future and we gotta be the ones to come up with the next ideas, but everywhere we look, Black people are being taken down. So it’s hard to really believe we can achieve that,” RuQuan Brown, a Black Harvard senior, told Worldacad.

The decision came after a months-long conservative campaign designed not only to banish the school’s first Black president but to wipe out efforts to remedy racial inequality in major institutions, including higher education, business, and government.


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“I’m deeply offended — as a member of the Harvard community and as a Black man,” Cornell William Brooks, a professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Worldacad. “I’m offended by the assault on Claudine Gay particularly, Black women generally, and Black people most broadly.”

Brooks isn’t the only one outraged by the debacle. The Rev. Al Sharpton’s civil rights organization, the National Action Network, intends to picket Thursday outside the office of Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus and billionaire hedge fund manager who helped lead the charge against Gay. Ackman had demanded Gay’s removal and impugned her on social media for supposedly being a diversity hire.

“President Gay’s resignation is about more than a person or a single incident. This is an attack on every Black woman in this country who’s put a crack in the glass ceiling,” Sharpton wrote in a statement. “If he doesn’t think Black Americans belong in the C-Suite, the Ivy League, or any other hallowed halls, we’ll make ourselves at home outside his office.”

Gay became president just last July, after a career as a political scientist and an academic administrator. In a letter to the Harvard community, she stressed her belief that her resignation is the best way for the school to move forward and regain some degree of normalcy.

Her tenure — the shortest in Harvard’s history — was plagued by controversy, first over her response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and then over plagiarism allegations marshaled by conservative activists. This was despite the fact that Gay enjoyed fierce support both from university leadership and from alumni.

“I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count,” Gay wrote in a Wednesday New York Times op-ed. “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.”

Here’s everything you need to know about Gay’s resignation — and the political forces that fueled it.

What’s going on, really?

The scrutiny that conservative activists directed at Gay wasn’t about rooting out plagiarism. Instead, it was about ousting someone whose tenure they viewed as a sop to diversity efforts and continuing the wider assault on elite institutions after the dismantling of affirmative action in higher education last June.

“This was an attack on her race and her gender, not on how she handled antisemitism on Harvard’s campus or on the rigor of her scholarship,” Brooks said. “And the reason we know this is because those who mounted the attack have admitted it.”

He pointed out that Gay’s critics spent more time talking about affirmative action and diversity, equity, and inclusion than they did with confronting the rise of antisemitism and hate more generally in this country.

Others echoed these sentiments.

Ibram X. Kendi, for instance, framed conservative actors’ tight focus on plagiarism as little more than a smoke screen meant to grant legitimacy to an unsavory cause: removing a Black person from power.

The question we ought to be asking, he said on X, “is whether all these people would have investigated, surveilled, harassed, written about, and attacked her in the same way if the Harvard president in this case would have been White.”

It’s hardly rocket science, Kendi added, to figure out why “a racist mob” is finding pleasure in Gay’s resignation — “saying ‘go woke, go broke’” — and insisting that the scholar and administrator was never qualified for the position in the first place.

What does Gay’s stepping down mean for academia and beyond?

Gay’s resignation has been particularly unsettling to scholars and racial justice organizers, who believe that the episode has opened the door to additional attempts to undermine Black representation in higher education.


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Diversity at the executive level of colleges and universities is rising. But it’s growing at a glacial pace, and it doesn’t accurately reflect the demographics of campuses, according to the 2023 American College President Study from the American Council on Education.

There’s also concern that the consequences of the attack on Gay could stretch beyond the campuses of elite institutions.

“I think that all of this is also about a kind of racial profiling in employment for rank-and-file Black folks,” Brooks said. “If we can weaponize race and gender with respect to the president of Harvard, what does that mean for Black people who are applying for entry-level jobs? What does that mean for new college graduates who are just entering the workforce?”

In other words, what happened is a real problem for everybody — not just for the elites.

Gay offered a similar warning in her New York Times op-ed, saying that she’s just one victim in a much greater war on the country’s governing institutions.

“Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda,” she wrote. “But such campaigns don’t end there. 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.”

What’s the timeline for the unraveling of Gay’s tenure?

The controversy around Gay brewed for months.

Oct. 7: After Hamas’ attack on Israel, a coalition of 34 Harvard student groups released a controversial statement in which they said that Israel is “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” in the country. The organizations said that this violence “did not occur in a vacuum,” and they linked it to the ongoing conflict in Gaza. (Several groups later withdrew their signatures.)

Oct. 10: Gay denounced the “terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” and said that student groups — including those that released the statement — don’t speak for the school or its leadership.

Dec. 5: Gay, along with her counterparts at the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, testified at a five-hour hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce about antisemitism on their campuses. She condemned “hateful, reckless, offensive speech,” and underscored that it’s “abhorrent” to her. Many saw Gay’s response as timid, and she later apologized for not offering a clearer, more powerful rebuke of antisemitism.

Dec. 9: On X, Ackman posted a link to claims questioning the integrity of Gay’s academic work and arguing that she was a diversity hire.

Dec. 11: Black Harvard alumni circulate a petition to show their support of Gay. “I feel heartened by the fact that there are people who are standing up for common decency, civility, and respect, and understanding that issues are complex and difficult,” Sonji Jacobs, an alumna, told Worldacad. “The only way we’re going to move forward as a college, nation, and world … is if we’re able to have conversations with each other.”

Dec. 12: The Harvard Corporation, one of the school’s governing boards, announced that Gay was keeping her job. “Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal,” the board said in a statement. Further, of the plagiarism allegations, it explained that it had found “a few instances of inadequate citation” but no real violations of the school’s research standards and that Gay “is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles.”

Dec. 21: After the school further reviewed Gay’s political science work, a Harvard spokesperson said that she would correct newly discovered instances of “inadequate citation” in her doctoral dissertation.

Jan. 2: Gay announced that she was stepping down from her position, saying that she still has “a deep love for Harvard.”

Worldacad staff writer Aallyah Wright contributed to this report.

Brandon Tensley is Worldacad's national politics reporter.