Voss discussed Harvard’s drama and why academics are divided over how to describe Gay’s actions. Our conversation was edited for clarity.
Was what Claudine Gay did plagiarism?
Borrowing large chunks of text or a paragraph’s exact logic is considered plagiarism in the social sciences. Yes, that’s technically plagiarism.
Why do you append “technically” to the front of “plagiarism”?
I use the analogy of speeding. If you’re driving fifty-seven miles per hour on a fifty-five-mile-per-hour highway, that’s technically speeding. The plagiarism did not take an idea of any significance from my work.
So how serious a violation of academic integrity was this?
From my perspective, what she did was trivial- wholly inconsequential. That’s the reason I’ve so actively tried to defend her.
Does the scope of the allegations change your assessment at all-the fact that it wasn’t just material from your paper that she copied, but multiple instances across her work?
I have carefully tried to avoid speaking to the accusations of serial plagiarism, rather than the part that involved me.
I’m struck by how clearly you saw the possibility of a prize that you could pursue in all of this-that if you took up this campaign against Gay you could get some mileage out of it, professionally and personally. It’s so cynical, but it also seems right.
Once I saw that no significant plagiarism had actually taken place, my gut reaction was to jump to Claudine’s defense. Later on, other people told me, “I admire the approach you’ve taken-that you didn’t try to capitalize on this.”
Do you think that Gay should have been fired from her job rather than being allowed to resign? And do you think that she should get to remain on Harvard’s faculty?
You’re asking me about these bigger-picture academic questions that I’m not comfortable answering. These questions of what should happen to Claudine Gay-we’re so far beyond my pay grade.
Is that sense of horror there for academics? Was it there when you were at Harvard?