Weaponizing Trivialities: The Engineered Ouster of Claudine Gay and its Link to Eugenics

Biopolitical Times
Claudine Gay at her Inauguration as Harvard President

Claudine Gay at her Inauguration as Harvard President
Charlotte Hysen/Governor's Press Office (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On January 2, Claudine Gay, the first black President of Harvard (and only the second woman), resigned under pressure, barely six months after her appointment. Like the Presidents of Penn and MIT, she had been heavily criticized for not doing enough to combat antisemitism on campus, though that was not what forced her out. The New York Times headlined the story:

Harvard President Resigns After Mounting Plagiarism Accusations

But the Times, and almost everyone else, missed the real story. The whole kerfuffle was deliberately concocted by political activists who object to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) policies and what they call “wokeness.” On December 19, Christopher F. Rufo, dubbed “the right’s leading culture warrior” by Vox, and credited by The New Republic with popularizing the use of “critical race theory” as an epithet, had posted on what most people still seem to call Twitter:

We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right. The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze.

He appeared to be quite proud of it. In an essay he and Christopher Brunet published on Substack on December 10, they claimed to have found “troubling questions” in Gay’s 1997 dissertation. On closer examination, however, it was pretty weak sauce at best. Their first example begins:

“Using 1987 national sample survey data . . . the results show that blacks in high-black-empowerment areas …” 

This became, in Gay’s version: 

“Using 1987 survey data, Bobo and Gilliam found that African-Americans in “high black-empowerment” areas …”

Gosh! It’s almost the same, except she mentions the original authors. Rufo and Brunet quoted a couple more paraphrases, one of which fails to put quotation marks around an almost-exact quote. They objected that an appendix relied too closely on prior work by her dissertation advisor. And they called for a full investigation. Which Harvard had actually begun in late October, well before the Substack piece. The result was published on December 12. It did not come to the conclusion for which Rufo et al. had hoped:

… On December 9, the Fellows reviewed the results, which revealed a few instances of inadequate citation. While the analysis found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct, President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications. …

Rufo and his cohort generally deny being racist, let alone eugenicist. (No, she’s the racist; in their telling Gay oversaw a racist admissions program.) Then on January 14, The Guardian published an interesting follow-up:

Scientist cited in push to oust Harvard’s Claudine Gay has links to eugenicists

Christopher Rufo, credited with helping oust school’s first Black president, touted critic associated with ‘scientific racists’

The cited scientist was Jonatan Pallesen, who on Twitter (December 22) had written that in Gay’s 2001 paper “there are some numbers that raises questions” [sic]. Pallesen himself has form when it comes to numbers that raise questions: He and others published a paper in 2019 that drew startling conclusions about intelligence from comparing the genomic data of 53 Ashkanzi Jews with 2,603 Catholics and 2,027 Lutherans.

That paper was demolished by Jeremy Freese et al. as showing (again) “clear evidence of the problems with comparing polygenic scores across ethnic groups.” Myths about Jewish intelligence and therefore conspiracy theories about  social control have long fueled white-supremacist and eugenicist fantasies. Nevertheless, the Daily Mail ran with Pallesen’s tweets on December 26 and Rufo published an interview with him after Gay had resigned.

Adam Rutherford, a British academic who does know about eugenics, dismissed Pallesen and Rufo (not by name) as “fringe wallies, scientific racist[s] who are rather more interested in the racism than the science.” He is not wrong, but he is missing the point. These “wallies” forced a prominent intellectual to resign from one of the top posts in American academia.

Rufo appears not to have complained about The Guardian linking him to a supporter of eugenics. Where others might see guilt by association, he may think of Pallesen as having provided welcome assistance. And Rufo was doubtless also reassured by John McWhorter’s insistence, in his New York Times newsletter, that “Claudine Gay Was Not Driven Out Because She Is Black.” Which is nonsense on stilts.

But that’s the game. Aaron Panofsky, Kushan Dasgupta and Nicole Iturriaga explained this in great detail as long ago as May, 2020:

How White nationalists mobilize genetics: From genetic ancestry and human biodiversity to counterscience and metapolitics 

Gay herself is fully aware of the issues:

The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader. This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. … For the opportunists driving cynicism about our institutions, no single victory or toppled leader exhausts their zeal.

The struggle against eugenics is far from over.

Update, January 31:  The Guardian has published a deeper investigation of Rufo’s extensive and close links with proponents of scientific racism and eugenics.