I haven't written too much about current events, mostly because it takes me too long to think about what is happening. By the time I have given myself enough time to think through what I believe is close enough to the truth to express my thoughts publicly, the event in question has passed.

But as it happens, recent events at Harvard, with President Claudine Gay being forced to resign from her post, mirror some thoughts in a recent essay about Harvard.

I originally wrote a 4-5000 word essay... but who wants to read all that?! So I am breaking this down into two essays based on what I think are the most important things we should take away from this debacle.

Part I - The easy part

It seems very clear that Dr. Gay engaged in significant levels of plagiarism. I am sure that the rules are not identical to what counts as plagiarism in high school but the examples I saw would definitely get her a zero in my class!

To avoid hypocrisy I will leave a link to the NY Post where I got this GIF

This doesn't appear to be a one time thing. There are at least eight charges of plagiarism cited.

Link to avoid hypocrisy

It seems clear that these examples are some level of plagiarism. My guess is that if a Harvard student had committed this level of plagiarism there would be significant consequences. It seems fair to hold professors to a similar level of expectation.

All the rest is more complicated - and more interesting

Some people see this event as a watershed moment where DEI activism has shown its hypocritical colors. If the school is willing to make strong political statements to defend Black lives then the school should be willing to make strong political statements to defend Jewish lives. The fact that the university presidents found room for nuance in 2023 but could not find nuance in 2020 suggests a level of hypocrisy that could not be defended after it was caught on camera at a congressional hearing.

Three years ago, according to all the Ivy League institutions, there was no room for nuance or debate when it came to issues of vaccination, lockdowns and masking, George Floyd or the riots that occurred in the wake of his death. The moral clarity that Harvard had in its statements condemning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine were nowhere to be found since October 7th. There was no statement that read as strongly as "Today the Ukrainian flag flies over Harvard Yard.  Harvard University stands with the people of Ukraine."

Some people see a professor with a mediocre scholarship record being elevated to lead the most prestigious higher education institution in America as proof that the universities have betrayed its original mission of scholarship. The fact that Dr. Gay rose to the top makes one wonder how can a university take a strong stance on knowledge production and ethical considerations of plagiarism when the person they hired to represent the institution was guilty of these scholarly lapses?

Some people see an institution that values the perception of being committed to social justice but only support those values up to the point where its money is at risk. So long as you don't upset the billionaire donors and the wealthiest alumni you are more or less safe to support any causes that you care about. Once you lose their support you are persona non grata. This appears to be the takeaway that Dr. Gay has internalized given the last words she wrote in her Op-Ed for the NY Times.

"At tense moments, every one of us must be more skeptical than ever of the loudest and most extreme voices in our culture, however well organized or well connected they might be. Too often they are pursuing self-serving agendas that should be met with more questions and less credulity."

All of these angles to explore this issue are interesting but what has taken up my attention is the mechanism by which Dr. Gay was forced to resign and the implications for the rest of us.

Investigation as a tool for punishment

In many white collar institutions, the purpose of an investigation seems to be to punish someone with a conclusion that is already determined. In essence the crime that they are being punished for is the crime that the bureaucracy allows you to punish.

I want examine two recent examples of professors being punished for expressing unpopular opinions. These examples are very different from Dr. Gay but what they both have in common, in my opinion, is that all three are examples of using university bureaucracy to punish expressing opinions that upset a motivated group within the university ecosystem.

I can't go into the level of detail necessary to do these cases justice. I will link to the stories if you want more context but each one of these cases deserve a deep dive essay of their own.

Dr. Joshua Katz - Classicist at Princeton

In 2018, after a lengthy investigation, Princeton University forced Dr. Joshua Katz to go on a year long sabbatical as the consequence for a consensual but inappropriate relationship with an undergraduate in 2006-2007. Dr. Katz returned to the university in 2019 ready to resume teaching.

In July 2020, Dr. Katz wrote an essay in Quillette that was critical of the BLM movement and Princeton's actions in the wake of the social activism that was occurring throughout universities across the United States. In the essay, Dr. Katz called a student group, the Black Justice League, a terrorist group.

Very soon after writing that essay Princeton reopened their investigation from 2018 and determined that Dr. Katz had not fully cooperated. The university title IX investigation did not find that Dr. Katz was guilty of sexual harassment as the relationship was consensual, but the Princeton Faculty dean recommended that Dr. Katz’s be terminated. As a result the university stripped Dr. Katz of tenure and fired him.

This is highly unusual - professors are rarely fired. By all accounts Dr. Katz was a highly regarded super star in the Classics department. To be fired for a consensual relationship that happened 15 years prior ,that had already been adjudicated three years prior, was unheard of.

Dr. Roland Fryer - Economist at Harvard

Roland Fryer is a prominent economist at Harvard. As an economist, Dr. Fryer was both a MacArthur Fellow and a John Bates Clark Medalist—the honor conferred by the American Economic Association on the best American economist under forty.

One of the youngest Harvard professors to earn tenure and a superstar economist, Dr. Fryer's star was on the rise. In a field where only 5% of PhD graduates are black , Dr. Fryer is considered an incredibly important voice within the community.

But Dr. Fryer's work is controversial and goes against the accepted grain of the racial narrative of the United States. Dr. Fryer's work "An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force", suggests that, contrary to the media narrative about police shootings, police are more likely to use excessive force with black suspects but are less likely to shoot a black suspect than a white suspect.

The Harvard Office for Dispute Resolution (which I can only assume is a sub bureau of the Ministry of Truth) recommended that Dr. Fryer attend "sensitivity training" at the end of its investigation. This recommendation was ignored by the Dr. Gay, who was then Dean of Faculty at Harvard. Instead Dr. Fryer was suspended and shut out of his lab.

I have not read the reports written by the Harvard Office of Dispute Resolution. But descriptions of the investigations, which dismissed 26 of the 32 allegations as "fraudulent", decided to act upon the remaining six allegations, suggest that the conclusion was foregone once the educational bureaucracy got involved. If you are interested in following the story in greater detail there is a well made YouTube video that is worth watching Titled "How Claudine Gay canceled Harvard's best black professor".

The purpose of punishment

All three of these professors are guilty of the things for which they were charged; Dr. Katz did have an inappropriate relationship with a former student. Dr. Fryer did make joking remarks that could have contributed to a hostile workplace. Dr. Gay did plagiarize some of her writing.

But their guilt is not the point - they were punished for these things not because of their guilt but because they couldn't be punished for expressing controversial opinions. Dr. Katz couldn't be punished for criticizing BLM. Dr. Fryer couldn't be punished for publishing scientific articles that go against the popular anti racist narrative about police brutality. Dr. Gay couldn't be punished for insufficiently condemning remarks that some people interpret as anti-Semitic in front of Congress. Since none of them could be punished for expressing their opinions they were punished for other crimes instead.

We all have done something wrong in professional our lives. We all have made an off color joke, copied and pasted something and acted inappropriately at a work function. The rules of the work place make it nearly impossible for someone to have followed 100% of the rules perfectly 100% of the time with no shortcuts or missteps. The question of whether we get in trouble for these things is a matter of many factors. But one of the factors is whether we have offended the powers that be. In the first two cases the offended powers were the university administration and in the case of Dr. Gay the offended powers were the wealthy alumni donors, particular Bill Ackman, a multibillionaire Harvard alum.

Hopefully none of us will get on the bad side of a university dean or a billionaire donor. But we can still extract some important lessons from this event that can hopefully help us navigate the turbulent waters of white collar employment.

Never expect loyalty from an institution

People can be loyal to each other but an institution can't be loyal to anything other than what is in its best interest. In order for an institution to continue to run indefinitely there has to be a sense that every single person is a cog in its collective machine. No cog is irreplaceable and it is always cheaper to get a brand new cog than it is to try and clean and polish a tarnished cog. You can love an institution and you can offer it loyalty but it will never offer loyalty back to you. Harvard has been around for 400 something years and will exist for as long as human civilization continues - that means the institution can't worry about whether an employee who has loyally worked there for a decade or more is unjustly fired. It will always be easier to get rid of you than to "reform" you in the eyes of an institution so it will almost always do so.

Mind your paymasters - they will find a way to get you

There are a lot of interested parties in a university. They don't all have equal voices. The voices that bring in or can sway the most money get to have the loudest voices. This means that billionaire alumni donors and pharmaceutical companies get to have a larger say in how a university runs and what it can say than anyone else.

Dr. Katz and Dr. Fryer made comments that offended colleagues at their university. Dr. Gay made comments that offended donors. In all three cases the bureaucracy found ways to punish for something other than the actual crime.

Universities can be devoted to scholarship or to advocacy - pick a lane.

  • There are people who feel that Israel's actions are appropriate and are what any nation would do in order to defend itself. There are people who feel that Israel is an occupying apartheid nation and Palestinians have the right to resist illegal occupation by any means necessary.
  • There are people who think that George Floyd's murder was proof of the unresolved racist undertones of our police state nation and that the social unrest that occurred in the wake of his death was America coming to a reckoning with our racist history. There are people who think that George Floyd was a junkie who died of an overdose and that the BLM organization took advantage of the legitimate issues brought up by the BLM movement to rake in tends of millions of dollars and buy large mansions.
  • There are people that think there is no price too high to pay for health and safety and that we should shut everything down and mandate vaccinations so that everyone can be safe. There are going to be people who think that the state has no right to enforce vaccinations on adults and the lockdowns cause far more harm than good.

And all these people have a right to express their opinion and coexist in a society. As an institution if you go and say "these kinds of expressions are acceptable and these aren't acceptable" then you need to be logically consistent. For Harvard to pick sides on some battles and then say "we need to stay neutral and allow for free speech" on other issues right comes off as intensely hypocritical.

I think elite institutions will continue to be in the spotlight as they have moved away from the mission of teaching students and decided that they are ultimately king makers and world changers. There is a reason that these events seem to happen less frequently at smaller state schools where the mission still remains to offer the best education they can to students.

Punish people for what they did not for what you can convict

Al Capone was guilty of all kinds of crimes. But the government couldn't prove his involvement in the sale of liquor, or the murders or the embezzlement. Finally they got him for tax evasion.

I understand why the government ultimately managed to get him for tax evasion - the records Capone kept made the crime clear and beyond a shadow of a doubt.
But university professors and administrators are not hard boiled bootleggers. The fact that these investigations used to arrest a gangster are being used to punish thoughtcrime at universities is chilling.

Rules that were meant to protect employees from being sexually harassed were used to get rid of people who expressed unpopular opinions. Rules that were meant to protect the integrity of academic research were used to justify forcing someone to resign for not expressing a desired opinion. These rules that were meant to protect individuals in the academic community have been turned into weapons. A part of me wonders if maybe these rules were always meant to be used as weapons in an administrative arsenal.

Why we should care

If tenured professors can be fired for expressing offensive opinions, then anyone who doesn't have the rules of tenure to protect their careers can be fired. If the president of Harvard can be forced to resign because she said something that a group of motivated individuals find reprehensible then anyone can be forced to resign for expressing any opinion.

It doesn't matter whether Dr. Gay was a mediocre scholar. It doesn't matter if she plagiarized. The Harvard corporation, which spent a year vetting Dr. Gay before offering her the job, most likely knew that she had "duplicative language" in her scant academic record. Those issues were like bullets in the the chamber of a gun that would only be fired if she became a danger to the institution.

That means that unless you are perfect you have a loaded gun pointed at you that might only be fired if you publicly express the wrong sentiment. Everyone should be concerned about that reality even if they would never publicly voice their opinion on an issue.

In part II I will discuss what we should do as individuals to protect ourselves from weaponized bureaucracy.

If you find these essays interesting I would encourage you to share them with anyone who might find it of value.

Significant thanks to Chris for reading prior drafts and helping me strengthen my arguments. His essays are extremely engaging and if you like my work I think you would enjoy his thinking process also!

First sketch of 2024