Academics Need Good Advice In The Face of Scandals And Subpoenas

Academics Need Good Advice In The Face of Scandals And Subpoenas

Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, resigned earlier this week.  Her resignation letter suggests two root causes: fallout from her recent congressional testimony and allegations of plagiarism in her academic work. This post primarily addresses legal considerations regarding the latter, though it offers some concluding thoughts about the testimony.

Dr. Gay is not the only high-profile university president to resign over a scholarship scandal. Less than six months ago, Stanford’s president resigned over charges of manipulated data in his research.

At BWO we expect more academic misconduct allegations to surface for at least three reasons:

  • Scandal begets scandal: When news of a high-profile scandal breaks, reporters and amateurs search for the next perpetrator to spotlight.
  • AI can spot plagiarism: AI is getting better everyday. One of the ways it improves is by consuming more and more material. As the base of this material grows, AI will become better at rapidly identifying plagiarized and manipulated content.
  • Increased politicization of higher education means more scrutiny. It’s an election year, so everything that is already politicized is about to become even more so. Higher education is polarizing, and it is a frequent focus of attacks by politicians. When people are unhappy with the stance of an institution or scholar, they have an incentive to find skeletons in the closet.

Usually, attorneys get involved with academic-misconduct allegations in one of two ways:

  • Representing the university in an investigation into the misconduct (e.g.., scrutinizing scholarship and interviewing those involved with it to determine whether standards of academic integrity were crossed, and if so, whether it was negligent or intentional).
  • Representing the academic who is being investigated (e.g., identifying pitfalls in the investigation, preparing the accused for and defending them in their interview with investigators, and ensuring that the investigation protects due process rights for public employees or similar contracted rights for those at private institutions).

Experienced legal representation is important both to the university and the individual. At BWO, our team of aggressive former federal prosecutors know both how to investigate and defend against investigations. We do both all the time, and we even have experience with high-profile academic misconduct cases.

And finally, no discussion of Claudine Gay would be complete without some acknowledgement of her disastrous congressional testimony last month. Many criticized Gay’s testimony as at best tone deaf, and at worst, complacent towards antisemitism. Perhaps the moment that best captures this criticism is her answer to the question of whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s rules. Her answer: “It can be, depending on the context.”  If that sounds overly legalistic, it’s worth noting that a prominent law firm reportedly prepared Gay for her testimony (and Liz Magill too, who resigned as Penn’s President shortly after testifying).

At BWO, we recommend obtaining skilled legal counsel any time you are testifying. But part of skilled legal representation means addressing the particularities of the forum. A congressional hearing is different than a deposition. If someone’s testifying before congress, counsel needs to prepare the client to answer questions with political savvy, not just legal soundness.  And if the forum for testimony is simply too hostile, then sometimes the best advice is not to appear at all, as the still-president of Columbia seemed to recognize, when she declined the same invitation to testify Gay and Magill accepted. For its part, BWO regularly represents high-profile clients in high-profile cases, and we are ready for any forum.

Greg Nolan

Greg Nolan is Senior Counsel with Brown White & Osborn. He is a former federal and state prosecutor, whose practice focuses on white collar criminal defense, investigations of all types, and business litigation. He has been interviewed by national media on criminal cases and investigations.
Greg Nolan