When Claudine Gay resigned as Harvard University president in early January, pundits credited her departure to a successful removal campaign led by conservative activists.

The strategy behind Gay’s ousting wasn’t new, and has been used to advance conservative agendas, influence school curriculum and demonize Black people throughout history. What was different this time was the quick efficacy of the takedown, which, according to some political scientists, historians and lawyers, emboldened conservative activists and could have dangerous implications for the future of education.

Sustained and coordinated pressure

The campaign to drive Gay out was waged by vocal opponents of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies, who accused her of being an unqualified diversity hire. “She got her job not through merit, but because she checked a box,” the Republican Ohio senator JD Vance wrote on X (formerly Twitter) after her resignation.

His post, according to Leah Watson, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, serves as an invitation for conservatives to use DEI as a dog whistle in the future, to invalidate anything from the progress of historically marginalized communities to medical research. On X, Vance went on to question the validity of credentials from universities with DEI programs, an unsubstantiated claim and a significant escalation in the attacks on higher education.

Sustained and coordinated pressure through media coverage helped kick off the campaign against Gay. Critics, mainly conservative activists, used social media and news outlets to claim that she responded inadequately to congressional questioning about antisemitism on campus. Soon thereafter, they levied allegations that she plagiarized some of her work.

Weeks prior to Gay’s resignation, the rightwing activist Christopher Rufo publicized the plan to remove her from office: “We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right. The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze.” In an interview with Politico after Gay vacated her post, Rufo described his successful strategy as a three-pronged approach of “narrative, financial and political pressure”.

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, noted the effectiveness of the plan, and warned of what it could portend considering that these actors have “seen the impact that they can have when they are able to marshal pressure from the media, donors and others”.

He pointed to similar strategies employed in the conservative movement to reshape state legislatures, where activists and lobbyists leverage understaffed and under-resourced statehouses by providing them with research and advice for bills in order to sway them. In his book State Capture, Hertel-Fernandez wrote about how the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council drafts and disseminates bills to apply political pressure. “They can have an outsized impact by diagnosing the weak spot in the institution and going after that,” said Hertel-Fernandez. “Just as they did in the case with Harvard.”

Relying on allies within government was a key approach in Gay’s case as well, one that has also been used to further conservative agendas in the past. In the Politico interview, Rufo said that he used Republican congresswoman and Harvard alum Elise Stefanik as “political leverage”, calling her aggressive questioning of Gay during the congressional hearing a “masterful performance”.

“They use the actors and allies that they have inside of government to amplify those claims and turn them into a bigger narrative,” Hertel-Fernandez said. Previously, Rufo worked with lawmakers in Florida to craft conservative policies. He collaborated with Governor Ron DeSantis to draft the “Stop Woke Act”, which banned schools and workplaces from teaching critical race theory, an academic and legal framework that examines structural racism in policies and institutions. Rufo also helped dismantle the New College of Florida’s gender studies department and DEI office as a DeSantis-appointed board of trustee for the school.

Language as a weapon

The specific language used to characterize Gay was one of the most important tools in the conservative plan, according to John Tilghman, an associate professor and interim department chair of history and political science at Tuskegee University. Rufo’s allegations that Gay plagiarized throughout her career gave the impression “that she practiced academic dishonesty over a period of time”, Tilghman said. (In December, Gay added several new citations to articles that didn’t have proper attribution, and a Harvard review found no violation of the university’s standards.)

Tilghman sees parallels in Rufo’s strategy with those used by the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who helped George HW Bush win the 1988 presidential election against then Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis had supported a prison weekend release program during which Willie Horton, a Black man, raped a white woman and stabbed her boyfriend.

Atwater used rhetoric to sow fear and racial animus among white voters by creating a campaign that focused on Horton and portrayed Dukakis as being lenient on crime. “It was all part of Bush’s campaign of tough on crime, by using racial code words and dog whistling language to do that,” Tilghman said. “Christopher Rufo is mostly using that same playbook, but he’s applied it to higher education and high school education.”

In the Harvard case, activists tapped into existing fears in the center-left coalition about diversity and the ascension of people of color to power, said Hertel-Fernandez. Some of them latched on to the “great replacement theory” – a racist ideology that asserts people of color will replace white people. (Notably, the theory was the motivation behind the 2022 murder of 10 Black people at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket.)

“We’re seeing a more emboldened and expressed approach to eradicating spaces for Bipoc people,” the ACLU’s Watson said. “Racist ideology isn’t new; extreme rightwing conservatives are using the same tools repeatedly, and publicizing their playbook so it can be used to attack anything from evidence-based public health advice to election results, and equal opportunity and access.”

Conservative activists have signaled that the Harvard case is only the beginning of their quest to take down institutions with opposing agendas. According to Watson, the courts may serve as the only protection against the further erosion of educational and racial justice advancements in the future.

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