Harvard president’s resignation ‘disappointing moment’ for some Black women

Black women in metro Atlanta, particularly on college campuses, expressed dismay at this week’s resignation of Harvard University President Claudine Gay.

In July, Gay reached the pinnacle of academia when she became the Ivy League school’s first Black president. But her time helming arguably the nation’s most prestigious university abruptly ended amid two circling storms.

She sparked outrage with her hedging answer during last month’s congressional hearing to a question about whether calls for the genocide of Jews violates the school’s code of conduct. She later apologized, but pressure mounted after conservative activists examined her academic writings and accused her of plagiarism.

The decision to step down made Gay’s presidential tenure — six months — the shortest in Harvard’s history. She’s also the second Ivy League president to resign in weeks. Liz Magill left the University of Pennsylvania’s top job after her responses at the same hearing on campus antisemitism drew sharp condemnation.

The impact of Gay’s resignation rippled through academic and leadership circles in Atlanta, the city that’s cultivated a reputation as a global center of Black influence and success and is home to several historically Black colleges.

”I think it is indicative of how divisive we have become in our inability to get past difficult moments and see the bigger picture,” said Spelman College President Dr. Helene Gayle, who attended Gay’s inauguration.

Gay has been “an exemplary leader,” educator and researcher, whose historic presidential appointment was met with “jubilation,” said Gayle, in a phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That excitement has chilled into a “disappointing moment,” Gayle said.

231211 ATLANTA, GA — Spelman College president Helene Gayle participates in the HOPE Global Forums at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. 
(Bita Honarvar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Bita Honarvar

Gay made some mistakes, but the Spelman president said she knows from her own experience in front of congressional hearings “how easy it is when trying to pursue the specific issue sometimes the bigger picture gets lost.”

“I think she tried to respond to a very specific question where it was really the higher level values that probably needed to be emphasized, and I think she has admitted that,” Gayle said.

Gayle, who has led the private women’s historically Black college in Atlanta since 2022, said American institutions are becoming “so polarized” that the best people are no longer going to be the ones running them.

Gay’s resignation didn’t just resonate in the halls of academia. For many Black women, she represented the hope that if you are excellent at your job, you can ascend to the top ranks, said Lakeysha Hallmon, president and CEO of The Village Market, a business that develops Black entrepreneurs and has a storefront in Ponce City Market.

Hallmon literally stopped in her tracks when she saw the notification that Gay was stepping down from her post. “I felt my stomach drop,” she said.

“I can only imagine the many years of sacrifices. I can only imagine the level of attention to detail that she has put in her life to be a Black woman of excellence, to sit at the helm of one of the — supposedly — one of the greatest academic institutions in this country. I cannot imagine what she sacrificed to be there,” she added. “Why wasn’t she protected?”

112320 Atlanta: Owner Lakeysha Hallmon discusses the concept of her store The Village at Ponce City Market with a large tag line to the community prominently displayed on one of the main walls on Monday, Nov 23, 2020, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

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Gay, in a Wednesday essay in the New York Times, warned that “The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader.”

“This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda. But such campaigns don’t end there. Trusted institutions of all types — from public health agencies to news organizations — will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility,” Gay wrote.

Some say the focus should be about Gay’s academic record. Carol Swain, a retired Vanderbilt University professor whose work was allegedly plagiarized by Gay, has said Gay would have been fired if she was a white male.

“I must confess the entire #ClaudineGay affair, and Harvard’s incompetent handling of it has created enormous stress for me,” Swain, who is Black, wrote on X earlier this week. “I never expected #HarvardU and many scholars I once respected to attempt to redefine plagiarism because the ends justify the means in their sight. It is a sad day in America when Harvard can get faculty to compromise high academic standards so easily.”

Valerie Montgomery Rice, president and CEO of Morehouse School of Medicine, speaks to Jon (left) and Donna Croel (right), founders of the Croel Family Foundation, during the inaugural Dr. David Satcher Global Health Equity Summit in Atlanta on Thursday, September 14, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

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Morehouse School of Medicine President Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice said Black women have made great strides in shattering the glass ceiling for women and people of color.

“Looking beyond the unfortunate and highly complicated set of circumstances that led Dr. Gay to submit her resignation as president of Harvard University, I think it is incumbent of all of us, both in academia and outside of academia, to be mindful of the vital role that women, and especially Black women, continue to play in leadership positions across a wide range of professions,” she said in a statement to the AJC.

Black women, who make up about 6.5% of the U.S. population, are disproportionately represented in some of the nation’s top jobs. About 2% of employer firms in the U.S. are Black-owned, a 2023 Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of census data shows. About 5% of women college presidents identified as Black or African American, according to a 2023 report by the American Council on Education.

Ebony Gibson, an associate professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College who studies African American literature, closely watched the final few weeks of Gay’s presidency.

“The worry is, how hard is it going to be for the next Black women to get a position of power there?” Gibson said.

Gay’s critics knew not to attack a woman on “specific, race-based issues,” Gibson said, so instead they dissected her decades-old doctoral dissertation and other work.

“You can still find plenty of dog-whistle ways to attack,” Gibson said.

To Gibson, the Harvard saga could reinforce the feeling held by many Black women that they must be perfect. In academia, Black women often work long hours in thankless jobs, she said. And some people are threatened when women aren’t willing to be submissive or when they try to empower other marginalized people.

Camille Trotman, a senior Georgia Tech student, and Georgia Tech NAACP president, second from left, leads around 100 students in the U.R.G.E. March for Diversity on the Georgia Tech campus on Oct. 20, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

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Harvard is among the law schools that Camille Trotman, a 21-year-old Georgia Tech senior, is thinking of applying to. Trotman chartered Georgia Tech’s NAACP chapter and said she “was already discouraged” by the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling in June that rejected Harvard’s race-conscious admissions program.

Gay’s resignation is another blow. But Trotman said it won’t stop her from pursuing her own goals.

“It reminds me how I’m likely going to be viewed in the rooms I want to be in one day,” she said, and added: “It just reminds me no matter how high up I get, no matter how well I think I’m doing, it could be taken away.”

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.