The announcement of Dr. Claudine Gay’s resignation as president of Harvard University, on the first official workday of 2024, sent my cellphone buzzing with group texts about the sad news. Her decision to step down after months of pressure and criticism is not just a blow to the university – which, by the way, made a big deal in 2022 of her being the first person of color and the second woman to lead Harvard. It also undermines the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion in the highest ranks of our institutions.
How high people of color can rise within organizations – crucial for equity to take root in a meaningful way to positively impact workplace culture – is still determined by monied powers. When we let them choose our leaders, we let them set the pace of our liberation.
The official word is that Dr. Gay resigned after accusations of plagiarism in research she published years ago (which I and many others do not buy for a second). Dr. Gay continues to staunchly defend her academic record and her commitment to “upholding scholarly rigor.” Importantly, she has also spoken out about her experiences, describing how “frightening” it is “to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.”
Now that’s truth telling.
Behind the criticism of Dr. Gay – particularly as a woman of color – is a lot of donor money. It’s their privilege and permission that determines who gets to lead.
The BBC nailed the issue in its reporting: “For her right-wing critics, Dr Gay – who is Black – represents much of what they loathe about modern American higher education, which they view as being dominated by a left-wing ideology that places a greater emphasis on ethnic and gender diversity than on academic rigor.”
This Is Nothing New
Now, it comes down to a key question: Do Black people really belong if the “powers that be” can remove Black leaders who disagree with them or who do not answer to charges and allegations in the words they want to hear? This is an opportunity for the Black community and its allies to speak up and speak out about such attitudes and tactics.
Removing Black leaders who disagree is nothing new. And, trumping up charges is part of the model to legitimize their removal. There is a double standard at work here. Larry Summers continued to lead Harvard long after he was called out for sexist and discriminatory comments, as well as his protection of a close friend who had been embroiled in a scandal. His resignation after five years as Harvard president was called a “short tenure”; Dr. Gay was forced out after one year. Perhaps more to the point here, did anyone look back 25 years at Summers’ research to review his citation protocol?
White men are allowed to make mistakes and to keep following their leadership path as a road to redemption. Black leaders are not given that same opportunity.
Dr. Gay continues at Harvard as a professor. But the career of this competent academic and administrator, who has devoted more than 20 years of her life to the university, has been deeply damaged.
The Real Threat to Corporate Success
Corporate leaders beware. These are not one-off actions that affect only academic institutions. This is the latest salvo in an escalating war against DEI. Bill Ackman, the billion-dollar investor at the center of the push to oust Dr. Gay, has made no qualms about the war he has decided to wage. In a 4,000 word manifesto he posted on X (formerly Twitter), he called DEI “inherently a racist and illegal movement in its implementation even if it purports to work on behalf of the so-called oppressed.”
DEI is not reverse racism. Why? Because racism takes power to define, decide and include. DEI is a reparative action after 300 years of systemic exclusion. This is a time for leaders to double down on their DEI programs, which do not seek to exclude anyone. Rather, the entire premise of inclusion is to ensure that a diverse pipeline of candidates – internal and external–allows companies to hire, develop, and promote the best people.
There is so much room and need for diverse leadership at the top of organizations. In 2023, the number of Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 reached a record high–eight. That’s hardly a “record” worth celebrating. There are exactly two Black women CEOs in those ranks. In the 21st century, these numbers are appalling. The business priority for 2024 is the development of inclusive cultures that allow everyone to bring out the best of themselves and help a company succeed.
Those that embrace this challenge will reap the benefit of being “future-proofed” with a competitive edge. Those that do not will give in to “anti-woke” pushback and excuses for why a person of color cannot do or keep a job based on nitpicking as insidious as hunting up a 25-year-old footnote in a research paper. CEOs who allow a vocal minority to tell companies where the best ideas and talent will come from are a huge risk. Even the latest McKinsey report is clear: “Diversity Matters Even More.”
Malia Lazu is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group, former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank and the author of “From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity.”