Opinion | What happens when Harvard supporters act like Trump supporters

There is no longer any area of American life that is above blind partisanship, no principle so fundamental it will not be sacrificed on the altar of political expedience.

Did you think we had all basically agreed that the president of the United States should not claim to have won an election he actually lost? Republicans thought so, too, until Donald Trump’s lies rendered that consensus inconvenient.

Did you think we all understood that copying someone else’s words is plagiarism? Yes, that’s what everyone thought, until the president of Harvard University turned out to have lifted the work of others.

The comparison might make you uneasy. You might already be wheeling toward the comments to demand how I could possibly compare Trump’s outrage to Claudine Gay’s comparatively minor transgression. Well, I am not arguing that these things are morally equivalent: No one died because Gay lifted some sentences from the work of other scholars, nor do her peccadilloes risk eroding the foundations of our democracy.

But “not as bad as Trump” leaves plenty of room for “still quite bad.” What Gay did was unequivocally plagiarism, and a violation of Harvard’s own rules on the subject. This doesn’t mean she necessarily should have been forced to resign, as she did on Tuesday. But it does merit some acknowledgment, some contrition and some sort of censure to indicate that, yes, this behavior is unworthy of a university scholar.

Had these responses come promptly, Harvard could have offered justice tempered with mercy, condemning the behavior while saving Gay’s job — possibly with a semester’s leave to contemplate her sins and to let the media furor die down. Instead, the trustees decided protecting Gay took precedent over protecting the school’s integrity. And here are the clear parallels to Republicans who have sheltered Trump: Gay’s supporters seem to have become so focused on denying her conservative critics a victory, so intent on proving that outsiders can’t boss them around, they failed to count the institutional and reputational costs of making that point.

The Post’s View: The resignation of Harvard’s president is a chance for schools to learn

In both cases, the costs were considerable — less so in Harvard’s case, because the behavior was less bad, and because Harvard eventually corrected course. Nevertheless, the damage to the school’s credibility will take the next president years to repair.

What’s worse is that many academics and journalists joined them in this folly.

Suddenly, people who make their living writing articles and books were struggling with the basic definition of a common English word. Was copying someone else’s words plagiarism, or was it just “citation errors,” “occasional sloppiness,” or “duplicative language without appropriate attribution”? After all, Gay hadn’t stolen ideas — just whole paragraphs of someone else’s writing.

And fine, even if it was plagiarism, how much did that matter? Shouldn’t we focus on questions more important than whether the president of one of the world’s leading universities failed to hew to standards the school sets for its undergraduates? Why weren’t we talking about the real issue here: the conservative attacks on American universities?

“The right wing is out to destroy US higher education The chattering class’s response? ‘But her footnotes’” tweeted a professor I follow; it was representative of dozens, maybe hundreds, of similar sentiments I saw expressed over the past few weeks.

This is not wrong so much as irrelevant. Conservatives aren’t trying to destroy higher ed, but they certainly are intent on dismantling the left’s control of academia or, failing that, reducing academia’s influence on the rest of society. Understandably, this raises academic hackles. But none of it turns plagiarism into not-plagiarism, or diminishes the importance of modeling the standards that academia sets for students. A bad thing does not become less bad because Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who surfaced the first allegations against Gay, has pointed it out. Nor can Rufo be thwarted by pretending the bad things aren’t real.

The would-be warriors trying to fend off Rufo instead provided evidence for his core critique: that academia now cares more about progressive politics than about scholarly rigor. In the process, they handed him a victory greater than it would have been if they’d simply said, “That’s plagiarism, and we don’t do that here.”

What’s frustrating is that everyone involved knows how dangerous, shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive it is to throw your institutional norms out the window to protect an insider who has violated them. I have no doubt that the folks I saw exhorting their fellows to circle the wagons, move along, nothing to see here can explain quite clearly how Republicans have destroyed their party, their reputation and their own moral character by embracing wrongdoing rather than let those people be right.

Thankfully for Harvard, enough people retained their commitment to the institution, and its mission, to pull the trustees back from the brink. Not fast enough to prevent massive damage to the university’s credibility, but better late than never. It would be nice if Republicans would learn from this example — and, of course, also nice if academia had profited more from the bad example set by the GOP. Unfortunately, we seem to have reached the point where everyone’s first instinct is to ape their enemies rather than learn from them.


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