Debacle Two by a Board: Harvard’s Board and Pauline Gay

In studying the Harvard Board’s actions when it comes to hiring and not firing presidents of their institution, the old adage of warning comes to mind, “Would you buy a used car from this person?”

Let’s run down the checklist of the Board’s missteps:

  1.  Claudine Gay did not have the depth of experience in management or leadership that is necessary to be an effective university president. Lawyers prepped her for her testimony.  You can’t toss out legal mumbo jumbo when your students are chanting “From the River to the sea” stuff about eliminating Jews. Genocide cannot be washed away by claiming the  cleansing of the “First Amendment.”   Harvard ranked dead last in a survey on campus freedom of expression. Harvard has spent years banishing speakers and rescinding admission offers for what it deemed offensive speech. Dr. Gay spent weeks trying to clarify her testimony and only made more mumbo jumbo. Rookie mistakes.
  2. The Board did a lousy job of vetting Dr. Gay.  The background check did not pick up the plagiarism (and just an online search could have done that, which is why Christopher Rufo wrote about the issue just five days after Dr. Gay’s testimony before Congress). Even without that issue, there was the sheer unremarkable and pedestrian qualities of her dissertation and other work.  Her scholarship did not move the needle in her field. To quote Carol M. Swain, whose work Dr. Gay plagiarized, “Ms. Gay was able to parlay mediocre research into tenure and administrative advancement at what was once considered a world-class university.”  Carol M. Swain, “Claudine Gay and My Scholarship,” Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2023, p. A15.
  3. The Board did not spend enough time investigating or offering  transparency for previous complaints about Dr. Gay’s plagiarism (in October 2023 –two months prior to her testimony).  The Board was quick to sniff at those charges as well as the post-testimony disclosures. The arrogance is stunning.  But boards that dismiss allegations too quickly pay the price.  See Barclay’s board and Jes Staley. See McDonald’s board and Steve Easterbrook. Neither CEOs nor boards can ride out misconduct. More just keeps a’comin’.
  4. The Board was more focused on DEI than credentials.  First woman to be a Harvard president (pardon the use of the term “woman”). Harvard’s first black leader. Now firing her would be an embarrassing admission of a lesser standard for the pedigrees required of minority candidates.
  5. The inconsistency of the Board in upholding stated Harvard standards is stunning.  Imagine what students are thinking, “All I have to do is put quotes around my whole assignment and I am in the clear for lifting it.” There’s an arrogance in the inconsistency too, “We are Harvard.  We don’t care.  We don’t have to because we are Harvard.”  Until the boycotts come.  From potential employers. From bright students choosing to go elsewhere. As one Harvard faculty member noted, this is an inflection point.  One wonders if the Board understands that.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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