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Harvard's Plagiarism Policies: A Call for Equitable Change

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On 12, Dec 2023, Harvard University chose to “dismiss” allegations of plagiarism against its President, Claudine Gay, opting for a corrective approach rather than the strict consequences students often face for similar infractions. Harvard’s representatives sent out a mass email stating: 

“we today reaffirm our support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard University.[…] the university became aware in late October of allegations regarding three articles.[…] December 9, the Fellows reviewed the results, which revealed a few instances of inadequate citation. While the analysis found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct, President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.-- we unanimously stand in support of President Gay.[…]President Gay will lead Harvard forward toward accomplishing this vital work.”

This decision sparked a crucial conversation about the equity and ethics of Harvard's plagiarism policies, and the need for a more compassionate and fair approach for all members of the academic community.

globe article of claudine gay

According to the Globe (1), Gay said: “I stand by the integrity of my scholarship. Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure my scholarship adheres to the highest academic standards.” 

Paragraph 3, lines 5 through 7 of Harvard’s representative’s statement says: "the analysis found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct" (2) which can be confusing for anyone familiar with Harvard University's (as a whole) very strict policy of what they consider to be plagiarism when compared to them (Harvard) admitting there were, in fact, " a few instances of inadequate citation"((3) P3, lines 5 and 6) there being evidence of a form of plagiarism as displayed in exposé (4), by Christopher Rufo and Christopher Brunet, of President Gay’s dissertation (5).

For reference, in the previous article written on this matter (6), I disclosed the exact words from one of Harvard’s representatives where she firmly stated:

It is important that you understand that the Board does not consider intentionality--It does not matter whether the plagiarism was intentional or unintentional. ”

-Susan S. Donnelly

Secretary of the Administrative Board

Assistant Dean of Student Policy & Governance

DCE | Harvard University

A similar rhetoric is avidly displayed across Harvard’s websites:

Harvard's policy on plagiarism

Per Harvard’s representative’s statements in another email, Harvard views plagiarism as the following: 

“Plagiarism is the theft of someone else’s ideas and work.  It is the incorporation of facts, ideas, or specific language that are not common knowledge, are taken from another source, and are not properly cited. Whether a student copies verbatim or simply rephrases the ideas of another without properly acknowledging the source, the theft is the same. […] Language that is copied word-for-word from another source is plagiarizing verbatim unless proper credit is given to the author of the source material by either 1) placing the language in quotation marks and providing a clear citation or 2) paraphrasing the source material and providing a clear citation.  […] When you paraphrase, 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.”

Tyler Weed

Student Services Coordinator

Office of Student Policy and Governance

If the evidence in the exposé, by Christopher Rufo and Christopher Brunet, is accurate, then Harvard’s statement “analysis found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct” is either extremely carefully chosen words or flat-out incorrect…a lie. 

(9,10) (11)

twitter, X, expose about claudine gay
expose on harvard president and harvard's statement about the expose

" When my peers are found responsible for multiple instances of inadequate citation, they are often suspended for an academic year. When the president of their university is found responsible for the same types of infractions, the fellows of the Corporation “unanimously stand in support of” her."

According to Aaron Sibarium, a writer for The Washington Free Beacon,  “Harvard University president Claudine Gay was hit with six additional allegations of plagiarism on Monday in a complaint (13) filed with the university, breathing fresh life into a scandal that has embroiled her nascent presidency and pushing the total number of allegations near 50” (14). Harvard's decision to allow President Gay to correct her mistakes stood in stark contrast to the harsh penalties students endure for unintentional plagiarism. Students facing similar allegations often find themselves suspended or expelled, with the stain of academic misconduct following them on their permanent records. This disparity raises questions about the fairness and integrity of the university's approach to handling plagiarism cases.

 I felt quite passionate about the realities of Harvard’s latest scandal. I’ve never been one to just complain about something. I strongly believe in being willing to take productive actions, so I decided to write to several in leadership like Harvard Corporation, the Academic Board, the Provost, Disability Directors, Deans, etc.

“ I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to express my deep concerns regarding the recent decision to dismiss allegations of plagiarism against President Claudine Gay. While I understand the complexities surrounding such matters, the stark contrast in the treatment of high-ranking officials versus students calls for a reconsideration of Harvard's plagiarism policies.[…] The revelation of President Gay's evidential plagiarism in her dissertation underscores the universal truth that anyone, regardless of their academic stage, can fall short of perfection. Even at a level of academia where extensive experience with citations is expected (like President Gay’s dissertation stage), shortcomings can occur. To hold undergraduates, especially those arising from extreme poverty, which often comes with learning challenges (often never being taught the nuances), to an exceptionally higher standard, without the comprehensive education provided at the president's level at the time of her committing plagiarism, is dismissive of one’s remarkable journey to academic excellence and undermines the resilience and determination it takes for one to thrive in a prestigious environment like Harvard.[…] I am not advocating for similar punitive actions against President Gay, but rather for a broader reevaluation of Harvard's plagiarism policies.[…] Plagiarism policies should aim to correct mistakes, provide education on proper citation practices, and foster a supportive learning environment.[…] to advocate for the establishment of a course of sorts (as E15 and E25 do not place an emphasis on this very important topic within the course work) on citations for all undergraduates and graduates who have not taken a similar course previously. Such a course (even if only 2 credits)  would provide essential guidance and ensure that every student has the knowledge and tools to navigate proper citation practices; clear guidance that often isn’t possible with the writing center. I believe this proactive approach will contribute to a more supportive and inclusive learning environment at Harvard."

The only one that responded was Susan S. Donnelly. Unfortunately, proposed solutions and statements specifically outlining the disparities in the treatment of leadership vs students were not responded to. In Susan’s response, she merely stated,

“ Students may request reconsideration of an Administrative Board decision provided one of the following conditions are met: (1) new materially relevant information becomes available that could not reasonably have been discovered and/or presented by the student at the time of the review; or (2) there is reasonable evidence of a procedural error by the Board that may change the outcome of the decision. […] Please note that these conditions are strictly applied: the reconsideration process is not a vehicle for rearguing a case before the Board on the same evidence, or for submitting evidence that the requester could have provided in the earlier case.”

She went on to state that if students felt they had grounds for reconsideration after a discipline had been enforced, that they should send the request to her (the Secretary of the Administrative Board), and further stated, “I will review it and determine whether it is appropriate to refer to the Board.  Your request should be no more than one or two pages and you may also attach any new relevant information or materials you want the Board to consider.” Apparently, there are no other options for appeals.

Harvard and it's former president statements announcing resignation

google search results about harvard former president claudine gay resigning

From there, things were quiet due to the December holidays, but on 02, Jan 2024, the educational forms and media went into a frenzy with the announcement of (then) President Gay’s resignation. An email was sent from the office of President Gay echoing a deep love for Harvard and a hope for a brighter future. She cites the need to navigate challenges with a focus on the institution rather than any individual. The letter acknowledges the painful divisions within the community and emphasizes the commitment to combat bias, hate, and uphold scholarly rigor. An almost immediate, follow-up email was sent out to the Harvard community, from the Harvard Corporation, outlining the significant challenges faced by higher education in recent months. President Gay's departure has been framed as a sacrifice for the institution's greater good, emphasizing her deep commitment to Harvard's mission of education and research. However, the letter also acknowledges missteps on her part and condemns the personal attacks, including racist vitriol, directed at her.


The heart of the matter was not in advocating for the suspension of President Gay but in urging a reconsideration of the regulations surrounding unintentional plagiarism. The current policies, seemingly lenient for high-ranking officials, revealed a stark imbalance when compared to the unforgiving consequences imposed on students. This discrepancy can be perceived as a form of predatory abuse, perpetuating an unequal power dynamic within the academic institution.

The call for change goes beyond a singular case and prompts a reevaluation of Harvard's commitment to treating all members of its community with the same level of compassion and fairness. Students, the lifeblood of the institution, deserve an academic environment where mistakes are corrected, not punished with lifelong consequences.

As the aftermath of this controversy continues to unfold, the spotlight is not solely on President Claudine Gay, but on the need for Harvard to revisit its plagiarism policies. President Gay (or anyone else) should not be attacked with racist rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean the issues revolving around leadership should be ignored. The demand for equitable treatment, irrespective of one's position within the university hierarchy, is a call for fairness, integrity, and a commitment to fostering a learning environment that values correction over condemnation. The story of President Gay's plagiarism allegations becomes a catalyst for change, advocating for policies that reflect the true principles of fairness and equality within the esteemed halls of Harvard University. The focus shifts from individual culpability to institutional introspection, urging Harvard to lead by example and create a supportive and inclusive environment for all its members.

In dissecting Harvard's recent decisions, it becomes evident why many are feeling like it is evident that the institution has chosen to evade accountability while cloaking itself in the lofty principles of "veritas" (18) and "integrity." The glaring contradiction arises when Harvard enforces policies that are often detrimental to students without holding its leaders accountable for their actions. The institution's integrity is further called into question as it resorts to gaslighting students rather than providing the necessary education and support. The initial steadfast support for President Gay, followed by leaving her to bear the brunt of the consequences, highlights Harvard's failure in thorough verification, a lack of healthy policies fostering student growth, and the implementation of restrictive tactics like 2-page limits, hindering students from effectively presenting their evidence. This issue extends beyond President Gay, underscoring a systemic flaw in the entire educational system. If such lapses can occur at a prestigious institution like Harvard, it prompts crucial reflections on the state of education in public schools, too. 

It’s true that these events have taken a profound emotional toll on students, leaving many grappling with a sense of betrayal and uncertainty about the path forward. As someone who found hope and empowerment through the choice to pursue education, I, too, feel the weight of these developments. It's disheartening to confront the reality that those in authoritative positions may not always prioritize the best interests of the students. Regardless of this uncertainty, it's crucial to recognize that not all professors and instructors subscribe to abusive practices. My advice to fellow students is to seek solace in supportive peers and instructors, fostering a sense of community. Despite the challenges, it's essential to remain focused on personal goals and aspirations, drawing strength from the positive aspects of the educational journey.

The existing policies at Harvard create ethical concerns, particularly when students face challenges in accessing resources to improve their citation skills. Instructors often fall short in providing adequate support, leaving students with limited options such as a highly booked writing center or self-guided learning. Some argue that students can utilize citation generators, but according to a Harvard Advisor, this is considered cheating, and there's also a policy against the use of AI tools for assistance. Harvard's expectation that students arrive with mastery of citation formats is dismissive of the diverse educational journeys of non-traditional students across Harvard’s various schools. The recent revelation involving President Gay, who holds a Ph.D. and presumably had prior knowledge of citation formats, underscores the potential pitfalls for all students, particularly undergraduates and first-year grads. Let’s be very clear: plagiarism is wrong. However, addressing unintentional plagiarism requires a more nuanced approach, distinguishing it from deliberate actions. The call for equitable and healthy policies aims to ensure clarity, accessibility, and the availability of tools for all students.

While President Gay's resignation may be framed as a personal choice, Harvard's response, thus far, has neglected to address one of the fundamental issues at hand—the university's culpability and the urgent need for policy reform. Gay's case serves as a stark reminder that no one is infallible. However, instead of acknowledging shortcomings, expressing remorse, and committing to improvements, the Harvard brand appears to have turned its back on its students. This stance undermines the trust students place in leadership, fostering a sentiment that they are viewed merely as "cash cows" (19) rather than valued members of an academic community. The abandonment of key principles, such as "integrity," raises concerns about the university's commitment to its core values, with the revered motto "veritas" seemingly taking a backseat in the face of reputational concerns.

Would it be ”fair” to request a comprehensive audit of all leadership to address past plagiarism? If someone, essentially, combed through all their, entire, bodies of work, would we find “perfection”, or, would we find that there is (and has been a long-time) need for innovative tools to help students master citations and avoid unintentional plagiarism?

Amid the unfolding events at Harvard, a myriad of questions arises, leaving the public and students in a state of uncertainty and reflection:

1. Leadership Accountability: How can Harvard reconcile its initial steadfast support for President Claudine Gay with the subsequent decision to let her bear the brunt of the consequences? What measures will be taken to ensure accountability and transparency in future leadership matters?

2. Institutional Integrity: Given the revelation of President Gay's plagiarism and the subsequent fallout, how does Harvard plan to address the apparent failure in thorough verification during the hiring process and maintain its commitment to "Veritas" and institutional integrity?

3. Policy Reforms: In light of the controversy surrounding plagiarism policies, what steps will Harvard take to reform its policies, particularly concerning the disparity in treatment between high-ranking officials and students? How will the university foster a more supportive and inclusive learning environment?

4. Student Trust: As students grapple with the emotional toll of recent events, how does Harvard plan to rebuild trust among its student body? What actions will be taken to dispel the perception that students are seen as "cash cows" rather than individuals with genuine educational aspirations?

5. Educational Equity: How will Harvard address the ethical concerns regarding the accessibility of resources for students, particularly in developing citation skills? What measures will be implemented to support non-traditional students on diverse educational journeys, recognizing the varying levels of exposure to academic formats?

6. Future Impact: Given the unprecedented challenges faced by Harvard in recent months, what impact will this have on the university's reputation, both nationally and internationally? How will the institution navigate these challenges and emerge stronger in the eyes of the public and prospective students?

These lingering questions reflect a broader concern for accountability, transparency, and the long-term impact on the educational experience at Harvard. Addressing these inquiries will be crucial in shaping the future narrative of the university and rebuilding trust among its stakeholders.

After all,

" Integrity: Without It, Nothing Works" (16)

-Michael C. Jensen
























About the Author:

Paradise Rodriguez-Bordeaux

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