A high-profile conservative activist who almost single-handedly turned critical race theory into a national flashpoint has now accused embattled Harvard President Claudine Gay of plagiarizing “multiple sections” of her 1997 PhD thesis—a claim which Gay’s own thesis adviser called “absurd” in an interview with The Daily Beast on Monday.
“There’s not a conceivable case that this is plagiarism,” said Prof. Gary King, who explained that Gay’s work underwent extensive review and never provoked even a suggestion of paragraph-pinching in more than a quarter-century. “Her dissertation and every draft I read of it met the highest academic standards.”
On Sunday evening, Christopher Rufo of the right-wing Manhattan Institute took to social media with what he termed “bombshell” evidence that Gay had lifted others’ work as her own while a doctoral student at Harvard. Rufo posted a long thread of side-by-side screenshots on X, formerly Twitter, of the alleged copycat passages, flagging language he deemed problematic.
Rufo called this “a direct violation of Harvard’s policy,” which reads: “When you paraphrase, your task is to distill the source’s ideas in your own words. It’s not enough to change a few words here and there and leave the rest; instead, you must completely restate the ideas in the passage in your own words. If your own language is too close to the original, then you are plagiarizing, even if you do provide a citation.”
Harvard officials and Gay did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on Monday.
Gay’s dissertation, Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics, contains three instances of plagiarism, according to Rufo.
Among them, Rufo claims Gay swiped the entire appendix in her dissertation “directly… from Gary King’s book, A Solution to the Ecological Inference Problem.” He argued that Gay “does not explicitly acknowledge that Appendix B is entirely grounded in King’s concepts, instead passing it off as her own original work,” and points to “entire phrases and sentences directly from King’s book, without any citations or quotation marks.”
“In total, Gay borrows material from King in at least half a dozen paragraphs—all in violation of Harvard’s standard on academic integrity,” Rufo wrote.
But King, who served as Gay’s dissertation advisor and runs Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, argued that the similarities between his work and his former student’s reflect Gay’s use of a unique and highly specific analytical approach King laid out in his book, A Solution to the Ecological Inference Problem.
“The book that she cites develops a complicated new statistical method, and it describes things in certain ways,” King told The Daily Beast. “It encourages scholars that use the method to describe things in those ways. That’s exactly the point of the book.”
King called Rufo’s claims Gay ripped off material from his book right under his nose in the dissertation “false,” “ridiculous,” and “absurd.”
Gay fell under fire following her Dec. 5 congressional testimony, during which she failed to clearly state that if Harvard students were to call for a genocide of the Jewish people, it would violate the university’s code of conduct. Amid widespread calls for her to step down, Gay later apologized in an interview with The Harvard Crimson, saying, “I am sorry. Words matter.”
In his Sunday-night tweet thread, Rufo highlighted two other examples of alleged plagiarism by Gay, claiming she swiped “an entire paragraph nearly verbatim from Lawrence Bobo and Franklin Gilliam’s paper, Race, Sociopolitical Participation, and Black Empowerment, while passing it off as her own paraphrase and language.”
Gay’s paragraph contains some similarities to the 1990 original by Bobo, who is now the dean of the Social Science Department at Harvard, and Gilliam, who is now the chancellor of the University of North Carolina Greensboro. In hers, Gay begins by citing Bobo and Gilliam by name, before going on to describe their research into “high-black-empowerment areas.”
Along the way, certain verbatim phrases that also appear in Bobo and Gilliam’s paper—”white counterparts of comparable socioeconomic status,” “contributing to a more trusting and efficacious orientation,” “greatly increasing black attentiveness to political affairs”—which Rufo argues should have been in quotation marks. (Bobo and Gilliam did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on Monday.)
Gay “repeats this violation throughout” her dissertation, further plagiarizing Bobo and Gilliam, along with three others, Rufo and co-author Christopher Brunet allege in a companion article published on the Manhattan Institute website. The two further say Gay lifted material verbatim from political scientist Carol Swain, an author, professor and Donald Trump superfan, all of which Rufo and Brunet say contravened Harvard’s standards on academic integrity.
Swain bashed Gay on Twitter, while suggesting uncredited use of her work is hardly uncommon.
“She would not be the first one,” Swain complained in a quote tweet of Rufo. “The practice among some academics white and black has been to use my work and never cite me.”
However, the snippet of Gay’s dissertation Rufo featured in his tweet in fact includes an in-text citation of Swain’s work.
But Darren Hick, a philosophy professor at Furman University, isn’t quite ready to give Gay a pass, he told The Daily Beast.
“Plagiarism is an institutional offense, and if Harvard’s policies in 1997 were the same as they are now, then yes, this looks like plagiarism,” said Hick, who recently gained a degree of fame after warning about students using AI to cheat without getting caught.
Rufo and Brunet say Harvard “should conduct a full investigation into Claudine Gay’s academic integrity,” and argue that any student caught doing the same thing would be punished “up to and including” expulsion.
“The same standard should apply to the university president,” they write.
But, according to Tilman Roschinski, an international risk analyst and open-source researcher who has investigated bogus and inflated credentials across various industries including academia, Rufo and Brunet are “clearly exaggerating” their findings.
Roschinski reviewed Gay’s thesis and said he spotted missed citations that “definitely need correcting,” but that what’s there “doesn’t look like a deliberate effort to deceive anyone,” and is therefore “far from needing any formal investigation.”
“There are bound to be such errors in many dissertations,” Roschinski told The Daily Beast. “A proper investigation here would need to look at all of the other PoliSci dissertations around 1997-1998. What do they look like? One would need a much more thorough review to judge this properly, but what’s in her thesis doesn’t really strike me as worthy of that effort.”
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