Harvard president Claudine Gay resigned after a firestorm of criticism. Why it matters.

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Harvard University's first Black president has resigned following a weekslong firestorm of criticism including backlash for how she has handled antisemitism on campus and accusations of plagiarism in her academic work.

When Claudine Gay announced her resignation Tuesday, her critics celebrated a major victory — another university president had left their job following a fateful congressional hearing on antisemitism.

Harvard had initially stood beside Gay. Her ouster shows that public outrage can help affect change even at the highest levels of the nation's most prestigious institutions.

"This is not a decision I came to easily," Gay wrote in a statement. "But, after consultation with members of the (Harvard) Corporation, it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual."

Meanwhile, Gay's defenders say public outrage can be fickle and racist — and that people of color are particularly vulnerable. Here's what to know about the extended controversy and why it matters.

Who is Claudine Gay?

Gay was the first Black person and the second woman to serve as Harvard's president. Her resignation Tuesday makes her six-month term as president the shortest of any in Harvard's history.

Gay was named Harvard's 30th president after serving as a dean for Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She first came to the university in 2006 as a government professor, according to her biography on the school's website.

"Gay is a leading scholar of political behavior, considering issues of race and politics in America," her biography reads.

Gay, 53, received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1998, and her dissertation won the Toppan Prize for best dissertation in political science. She also previously taught at Stanford University.

How did we get here?

Gay began her term as president last July. After an influx of reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia on college campuses nationwide since Oct. 7, university leaders including Gay and University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill faced growing pressure to respond to concerns about Jewish students' safety.

Gay's response to a line of questioning from GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik during her testimony before a House Committee on Education and the Workforce on antisemitism on college campuses in December prompted outrage. Asked by Stefanik whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment, Gay responded, “It can be, depending on the context.”

“Antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct and we do take action,” Gay said.

Critics faulted Gay for not giving a simple "yes."

In the midst of the uproar over the congressional testimony and response to antisemitism was the growing rumble of accusations of plagiarism.

Harvard's initial review of some of Gay's work found instances of “duplicative language," but that Gay's work didn't rise to the level of misconduct. Accusations persisted, however, published in some cases in right-leaning publications and brought by anonymous conservative activists.

Why does Gay's resignation matter? Different advocates have different answers.

Gay's comments before Congress generated criticism from across the political spectrum. But her resignation sparked different reactions from across the political spectrum.

Some Jewish groups said her resignation matters because it means she was held accountable for her remarks.

Ron Halber, the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told USA TODAY after her resignation that university presidents have to understand that speech can create an environment where Jewish students feel "physically intimidated."

"We wouldn't accept it for any other group. Why should the Jewish community demand any less?" Halber said.

But the accusations of plagiarism leveled against Gay that helped end her term as Harvard president were pushed largely by conservatives. And those accusations in particular were done in bad faith and had racist roots, according to Gay's supporters.

They say the resignation matters because it shows how vulnerable people of color can be to accusations tinged with racism. They cite rhetoric that claimed Gay had gotten the job in large part because she is a Black woman as particularly concerning.

Those accusations can have a "devastating effect" on Black women advancing in the corporate world, government and academia, said the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"To act like this president, Claudine Gay, was not qualified to be president, and that she was only given the job because she was a Black woman, is a threat to Black women in high positions all over the country," Sharpton told USA TODAY on Wednesday.

Gay wrote it was "distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor … and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus."

Attacks on the embattled president took the form of "repugnant and in some cases racist vitriol directed at her through disgraceful emails and phone calls," according to the Harvard Corporation, one of the institution's two governing boards.

Gay was also criticized for her work on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Harvard before her tenure as president.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Claudine Gay resignation: What happened and why it matters