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Harvard Defends Its Plagiarism Investigation of Its Former President

In a report to a congressional committee, released on Friday, Harvard gave its most detailed account yet of its handling of the plagiarism accusations against Claudine Gay, who resigned this month as the university’s president.

The basic outlines of the saga were known, but Harvard had not disclosed many details, which had led to questions about the impartiality and rigor of its investigation.

In its account, Harvard defended the thoroughness of its plagiarism review. It said an outside panel had found Dr. Gay’s papers to be “sophisticated and original,” with “virtually no evidence of intentional claiming of findings” that were not hers, even as it found a pattern of duplicative language in three papers.

But its account also shows a university governing board that was slow to do a full accounting of her work. Instead, over several weeks, Harvard scrambled to investigate a steady drip of plagiarism accusations, unable to give an immediate, authoritative response to questions about Dr. Gay’s scholarship.

The report is part of a broader submission of documents by Harvard, made in response to a Dec. 20 letter from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is investigating plagiarism and antisemitism accusations against universities. That committee held the now notorious hearing on campus antisemitism at which Dr. Gay and two other college presidents were criticized for their legalistic answers to questions about antisemitism.

The committee said it was currently reviewing Harvard’s submission. So far, only the plagiarism report has been publicly released.

Harvard’s account begins on Oct. 24, when it says a New York Post reporter approached the university about the plagiarism accusations.

The Post presented Harvard with a list of 25 excerpts that Dr. Gay, a political scientist, was accused of having plagiarized, from three articles that she had written. One article was dated 1993, when she was a graduate student, and the others 2012 and 2017, when she was on the faculty, the report says.

Harvard, according to the report, reached out to several of the authors she was accused of plagiarizing — “none of whom objected to then-President Gay’s language.”

The university formed a subcommittee to direct the review, with the help of lawyers. The members of the subcommittee were Biddy Martin, a former president of Amherst College; Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a former justice of the Supreme Court of California; Shirley Tilghman, a former president of Princeton University; and Theodore V. Wells Jr., partner at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison.

The subcommittee then appointed a three-member outside panel. The summary describes the panel members as tenured faculty members at prominent research institutions and two are former presidents of the American Political Science Association.

They have asked for their identities to be kept confidential, Harvard said. But the House committee, which has the power to subpoena witnesses, could still demand their names.

The independent panel did not do a full review of Dr. Gay’s work. It considered only the accusations shared by The Post and compared Dr. Gay’s three articles to 11 papers by other scholars, the report says.

The panel found that there was “virtually no evidence of intentional claiming of findings that are not President Gay’s,” the report says.

But it expressed concern about a pattern of repeated language. And Dr. Gay, who stood by her scholarship, had to submit some corrections in quotation and citation.

The review appeared, briefly, to have disposed of the accusations, and the university’s governing board, the Harvard Corporation, endorsed her continued presidency.

But by then, new accusations had surfaced on social media, this time concerning Dr. Gay’s dissertation. Harvard’s account says the subcommittee “promptly” reviewed her dissertation, and Dr. Gay had to submit some corrections to that, too.

On Dec. 19, an additional complaint was filed with Harvard’s research integrity office, but no additional corrections were needed, the account says.

Two weeks later, she was out.

Harvard’s account acknowledges that the university did not handle the review perfectly, suggesting that the university was in crisis as it faced an uproar over its handling of antisemitism on campus.

“These allegations arose in a time of unprecedented events and tension on campus and globally,” the report said. “We understand and acknowledge that many viewed our efforts as insufficiently transparent, raising questions regarding our process and standard of review.”

On Friday, Harvard also announced new rules to rein in student protests.

In a message just before the start of college classes on Monday, Harvard said that demonstrations would not be permitted in classrooms, libraries, dormitories or dining halls without permission. Instead, protests are limited to “courtyards, quadrangles and other such spaces” and cannot block students from walking to class.

The clarification did not directly address the question raised at the congressional hearing that contributed to Dr. Gay’s resignation: whether protesters chanting slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — which many supporters of Israel interpret as a call for wiping out Israel — would be against Harvard’s code of conduct.

Annie Karni contributed reporting.

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