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Harvard's first Black president is stepping down after 6 months in the job

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Harvard's first Black president is stepping down after six months in the job. Claudine Gay resigned in the wake of a congressional appearance with other university presidents that was sharply criticized for the response she gave to questions about antisemitism on campus. She had also been accused of plagiarism, although Harvard said the instances do not meet the bar for misconduct according to its own rules. Randall Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School and author of numerous books on race in America. Professor Kennedy, what do you make of the chain of events that has led to the resignation of Claudine Gay?

RANDALL KENNEDY: This is a very sad day for Harvard University and indeed for all of higher education in the United States. I'm appalled that Harvard, my employer, was unsuccessful in defending itself against an obvious but effective smear on a variety of dimensions. The university has been the victim of misleading allegations, and it has cost Claudine Gay her job.

MARTÍNEZ: What are the misleading allegations?

KENNEDY: There are many. No. 1 - the claim that Claudine Gay was indifferent to or even encouraging of antisemitism. She said over and over and over again that she finds any antisemitism to be abhorrent. Another claim was that Harvard University is awash, is suffused with antisemitism. That's ridiculous. The claim of - I guess most recently, Claudine Gay's enemies have been successful in making a mountain out of a molehill with regard to the claims of - the allegations of plagiarism.

MARTÍNEZ: So you...

KENNEDY: So this was a very effective cultural hit, but that's really all that it is.

MARTÍNEZ: So you say making a mountain out of a molehill. What...

KENNEDY: Yes.

MARTÍNEZ: What is the molehill, at least? I mean...

KENNEDY: The molehill would be instances - by the way, in the distant past - of a certain amount of sloppiness. I think that one could - one might make that claim with respect to the way in which she handled some of her writing. But it was altogether trivial. And her enemies have succeeded in elevating this triviality into the - in making it tantamount to some big academic felony.

MARTÍNEZ: Shouldn't the president of Harvard, though, Professor, not have these molehills? Or at least we should know about them, not find out about them the way we have.

KENNEDY: Well, it would certainly be better if one having a long career did everything perfectly. I'm not making the claim that there's nothing to complain about with respect to the long career of Claudine Gay, but nothing that has - nothing that she has done warranted her ouster. And what's really terrible about this situation is that demagogues - who, by the way, were very open in what they were attempting to do - have succeeded in smearing and in ousting this president. Why? Clearly, for ideological reasons. This other stuff is largely trumped up.

MARTÍNEZ: What could the university have done better, then, in your opinion, to fight back?

KENNEDY: Oh, I think that the university should have been much more decisive, much more open, much more aggressive in telling the public the truth about things. So, for one thing, again, going back to the antisemitism claim, Harvard University is not suffused with antisemitism. That is an absolutely ridiculous claim. Are you going to tell me that the former president of the university, himself Jewish, was presiding over an institution in which antisemitism was running amok? That's simply not true. And the leaders of the university should have been much louder in correcting that misimpression...

MARTÍNEZ: Could...

KENNEDY: ...Just like they should have been much louder in correcting the misimpression that Claudine Gay was somehow soft on antisemitism. She was not.

MARTÍNEZ: Is there anything Claudine Gay could have handled better in her congressional appearance?

KENNEDY: Yes. I think that Claudine Gay actually should have been much more forceful in her reaction to the demagogues that she was facing. I fault her, if I'm going to find fault, for being all too diffident and, you know, all too passive in response to what was an obvious attack.

MARTÍNEZ: Randall Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School. Professor, thank you.

KENNEDY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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