The forced resignations of two prominent Black Women highlight the fierce opposition to DEI programs.
The news about Dr. Claudine Gay’s resignation as President from Harvard University was deeply disappointing. She was the first Black person and Black woman to lead this prestigious university. The resignation comes after a right-wing crusade against her by right-wing activist Christopher F. Rufo, hedge fund CEO Bill A. Acman, and Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik. They attacked Gay over her congressional testimony where they accused her of not being tough on anti-Semitism on Harvard’s University campus. They then alleged she had plagiarized articles she had written. Even though Gay said she regretted her answer before Congress, she stood by what she wrote. Nevertheless, she resigned after six months—making it the shortest tenure for a President in Harvard’s history.
The more I read about the attacks that led to Dr. Gay’s downfall, the more I noticed the similarities between Gay’s resignation and the forced resignation of Tamara Thermitus—the first Black female President of the Quebec Human Rights Commission (QHRC). Both cases demonstrated a conscious effort by people with racial biases to prevent Black women from occupying leadership positions. If one were to analyze both cases, it would become abundantly clear that the attacks against both women had nothing to do with plagiarism in the case of Dr. Gay or abuse of power as in the case of Ms. Thermitus. It was a conscious attempt to push back against diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, which are designed to address major systemic problems that disproportionately impact marginalized communities.
Thermitus embarked on her academic journey at the University of Ottawa, graduating with a law degree in 1987 and a Master’s in law at McGill University. Her professional trajectory commenced in 1993 with a tenure in the revenue ministry in Quebec City. Transitioning into the legal arena, she served as a civil litigation lawyer for the Canadian government.
In 2003, an important chapter unfolded as Thermitus assumed the role of chief of staff to the deputy minister tasked with addressing the grave repercussions of residential schools—an educational system funded by the Canadian government to assimilate Indigenous children marred by abuse. Her engagement with this profoundly troubling legacy marked a significant turning point. Her accomplishments were recognized when she was awarded the Quebec Bar’s Award of Merit for her work in the fight against discrimination and inequality.
The subsequent year marked a pivotal moment as she engaged in negotiations representing the government in discussions with Indigenous groups regarding reparations for the multigenerational harm inflicted by residential schools. This endeavour was fraught with complexity. However, Thermitus’s impact transcended the negotiations. Her unique perspective, borne from her lived experiences, resonated profoundly.
Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, attested to her invaluable contributions. Fontaine highlighted her deep understanding of the survivors’ endurance through psychological abuse and racism, which complemented their perspectives, enriching the approach to the $2 billion compensation package negotiation process. Thermitus’s empathy and insight not only facilitated dialogue but also fostered a more comprehensive and compassionate resolution.
Dr. Claudine Gay
Gay, an esteemed figure in academia, assumed the prestigious role of the Wilbur A Cowett Professor of Government at Harvard in 2015, marking a pivotal moment in her illustrious career. Simultaneously, she holds the esteemed position of professor of African and African-American studies, exemplifying her multifaceted expertise.
The year 2023 witnessed Gay ascending to the esteemed position of the 30th president of Harvard University, succeeding Lawrence S Bacow, who had dutifully served as president since 2018. Her inauguration on July 1, 2023, marked the commencement of her transformative leadership journey at this renowned institution.
Primarily a political scientist, Gay’s journey at Harvard began in 2006 when she joined the Department of Government as a professor. This path led her to complete her Ph.D. in 1998 within the same institution. Her academic pursuits were preceded by a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Stanford University in 1992, laying the groundwork for her remarkable scholarly trajectory.
Born to Haitian immigrants in the United States, Gay’s upbringing encompassed diverse landscapes, from New York to Saudi Arabia, where her father served with the US Army Corps of Engineers. Her educational journey included attending the distinguished Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, shaping her formative years.
Judge André Prévost ruled in favour of Ms. Thermitus, faulting Quebec’s Ombudsman for rushing to a decision without hearing Ms. Thermitus’s version of the facts.
Thermitus resigned after Premier Francois Legault of the CAQ threatened to impeach her if she did not resign. His statement came after an investigation report from the Protection du Citoyen—Quebec’s Ombudsman—claimed that she abused her power during her tenure at the QHRC. This decision resulted from an investigation into her after a few employees simultaneously filed anonymous complaints. The decision was later quashed after Thermitus took the Quebec Ombudsman to the Quebec Superior Court. There, Judge André Prévost ruled in favour of Ms. Thermitus, faulting Quebec’s Ombudsman for rushing to a decision without hearing Ms. Thermitus’s version of the facts. Furthermore, according to Walrus.ca, essential parts of Thermitus’s testimony were omitted from the Ombudsman report.
Several reports state that the QHRC was marred with severe problems before Thermitus was nominated. In 1988, lawyers Andrée Côté and Lucie Lemonde conducted a comprehensive study, scrutinizing 174 cases encompassing racial and gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and related issues. Their findings sparked concern, revealing a mere 4.5 percent success rate for plaintiffs in cases investigated by the QHRC. They highlighted the commission’s rigid interpretation of discrimination, severely limiting the cases it accepted and impeding its efficacy in winning those it undertook. Moreover, they raised doubts about the objectivity and effectiveness of the QHRC’s investigative processes, likening filing a complaint to an exercise in futility.
Nearly three decades later, Thermitus encountered echoes of these problems within the QHRC. The commission grappled with governance issues, a matter that deeply troubled Thermitus. She was particularly dismayed by what appeared to be the preferential distribution of high-ranking managerial roles, accompanied by substantial $30,000 salary hikes, seemingly granted as favours to longstanding employees. At that time, the commission boasted five such managers, also known as ‘cadres juridiques.’ However, Thermitus advocated for a necessity of just two.
As one could observe, Ms. Thermitus’s concerns aligned with those articulated in a 2018 report commissioned by the justice minister, revealing that these promotions were often awarded to individuals lacking essential skills. This discordant practice only exacerbated the challenges within the QHRC, raising significant doubts about its effectiveness and fairness in carrying out its mandate. These were the issues Ms. Thermitus sought to correct—a move that would threaten the employees at the QHRC who wrongfully benefited from these promotions.
News broke from Business Insider that Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, plagiarized her doctoral thesis.
Understanding why both women faced such opposition involves learning more about their critics. For instance, Bill Ackman made it clear on social media that he’s against all DEI programs. Assuming that Ackman knows what DEI is, for him to be against programs designed to fight systemic racism is abhorrent. Since I began writing this essay, news broke from Business Insider that Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, plagiarized her doctoral thesis. Even more embarrassing for Ackman was that Business Insider provided proof that Oxman copied and pasted paragraphs from Wikipedia without crediting the author.
This demonstrated that Oxman’s plagiarism was far worse than Gay’s, thus obliterating Ackman’s argument that faults DEI. This caused Ackman to embark on a second witch hunt, which targeted Oxman’s former colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Oxman worked. It appears to be an act of desperation to find others who may have plagiarized their work, so he may then argue: “See, my wife isn’t that bad because her other colleagues did the same.”
Along with Ackerman, there was also Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik and right-wing activist Christopher F. Rufo—another DEI opponent, who were silent when news broke that Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch plagiarized material to write his book. Stefanik also pushed the racist “Great Replacement” rhetoric that was used by Payton Gendron, the white nationalist who shot and killed ten Black people inside a grocery store in Buffalo two days earlier. Recently, Stefanik came under fire for referring to the January 6 Capitol rioters as “hostages.”
The attacks against Ms. Thermitus began when rumours spread about her nomination for the top job of the QHRC. The most egregious attack against her came from Jean-Francois Lisée, claiming she was “too multicultural” for the position. Anyone living in Quebec who has either experienced racial discrimination firsthand or witnessed it has reasonable grounds to call out Lisée’s comments as a racist dog whistle. Fortunately, Lisée’s comments received enough public backlash that he reversed his position roughly an hour later.
In both cases, the similarities were that they were two Black women who were qualified to fulfill the leadership roles they worked in. The only difference was that Gay was at fault for neglecting to add quotation marks in the right areas—even though she credited the authors. This was the one mistake that her political foes exploited as a pretext to blame Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs designed to respond to systemic discriminatory practices that negatively impact marginalized communities.
As for Ms. Thermitus, she was attacked for doing her job. Her forced resignation resulted from a concentrated effort from her colleagues, who most likely felt threatened by the changes she would implement. What is even more suspicious are the motives of the Quebec Ombudsman to omit her testimony from their report to justify recommending she be fired. Ultimately, the CAQ-led Quebec Government led by Francois Legault—whose own racism towards Quebec’s ethnic communities is well documented—accepted a report they knew or should have known was biased and incomplete, further demonstrating that they will never accept a Black woman (or any qualified Black person) in a leadership position with white people as the subordinates. This leaves no doubt about their positions in DEI programs.
On a side note, in March 2023, the Canadian government disclosed that it had found instances of discrimination against Black and racialized employees within the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS), which is responsible for government human resources, reached this determination following a grievance filed by nine employees through their unions in October 2020.
No, your eyes are not deceiving you. The Canadian Human Rights Commission, whose mandate is to protect Canadians against discrimination in accordance with the Canadian Human Rights Act, was implicated in racially discriminating against their own racialized employees. This further demonstrates how serious the problem is in both the United States and Canada when DEI initiatives aren’t honoured.
The cases of Dr Gay and Ms. Thermitus serve as a prime example that when Black women prove their worth to be leaders in their professions, there will be conscious efforts to topple them because of their racial biases. As Dr. Ibram Kendi X stated on social media:
“When programs and offices for what’s now called diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) started to be created in the 1960s and 1970s, do you know what group opposed them the most? Jim Crow segregationists. Do you know what Jim Crow segregationists renamed efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion? Discrimination. Racism.
Times have changed, the racist playbook remains the same.”
The critiques levied against Dr. Claudine Gay and Ms. Tamara Thermitus were unrelated to allegations of plagiarism or misuse of authority. Rather, these criticisms consistently pertained to racial considerations and opposition to the preservation of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs.