February 25th, 2010
Plagiarism can kill you. All the buzz right now is that the president of a small liberal arts college in Ohio has been charged with the crime and unceremoniously encouraged to ‘retire,’ and not on his laurels, I bet. These days, university presidents are getting kicked out of office more often than Bode Miller has been kicked out of bars. But kicked out for plagiarism? The guy is 64-years-old. He’s not Sarah Palin, for goodness sake. He knows where Russia is on a map. He doesn’t have to use crib notes inked on his palm to remember what to say next, as Palin was notoriously caught doing on camera.
This guy holds a PhD in ‘my’ own discipline, in English, the one field where the sins of plagiarism are drummed into you from the time you are old enough to spell Shakespeare. English is all about words—that is, owning the words, not stealing the words, or borrowing them without attribution. That, as we repeatedly tell our students, is theft, open and shut. Most colleges warn in bold contractual language that any act of plagiarism leads to an automatic zero and likely expulsion from the university. I should think this guy at Malone U probably knew that, too. Bet he wishes he had reached for a few lousy quotation marks when he had the chance.
Students at Malone U obviously had been well trained, and so there’s a certain pride the board of governors should be taking in knowing their students can spot a classy plagiarist in higher office. Apparently they noticed striking similarities between a speech he had given on campus and some online work written by others — namely the authors of Wikipedia entries (ouch), some press articles, and another general info web site.
Honestly, I feel sorry for the guy, if only for being so dumb as to use Wikipedia, an online bible of largely factual information but in massively wide circulation and available to anyone who can spell qwerty. What was he thinking? I think the answer must be that he was too busy to be thinking, or else his speech writer was even busier. How else to explain such a crude act of burglary?
What’s interesting here is the degree of punishment. Is expulsion from the presidency, so to speak, really called for? Online and continuing commentary about the matter ranges from those who are profoundly sympathetic and think the whole thing is way overblown to those who are outraged, including faculty members, and believe he deserves the scorn, the flogging, the door, the road to 24/7 perennial gardening, and all that. An especially telling postmodern angle to this is the commentary declaiming the lack of originality and the impossibility of anything being new or original under the sun any more. They have a point, but surely the president could have bundled up the words in a different order, just to deflect attention away from the alleged sources?
On the one hand, it is true that if we are going to be consistent with our codes of behavior then those in the highest office should not be above the code. On the other, the whole thing smacks of silliness. It’s not as if the guy was delivering a Nobel Prize acceptance speech or even speaking on public radio. He was speaking in pep-talk fashion to the campus community about something myth-based, and stressing, ironically enough, the meaning of the myth of the two-headed god Janus. I guess one of his heads was talking while the other was forgetting to attribute his sources.
But you also have to speculate about the smug students who turned him in. Since the statistics on campus plagiarism are alarmingly high you also have to wonder if the stone-throwers are themselves free of sin. I’m just saying.
Plagiarism is as real in graduate school as in undergraduate studies, and any graduate school dean alive and alert knows well how prevalent a problem it is. What’s rarely said, for obvious reasons, is how generous we tend to be to those who are either caught or accused of plagiarism, and especially at the graduate level. Appeals committees tend to buy the excuses for unattributed material, and I don’t blame them. We want our students to succeed, but not at the cost of cheating, but yet we also tacitly understand how pressure and the burden of graduate school can lead otherwise honest people into doing dishonest things. Cheaters rarely prosper, sure, but sometimes we understand that circumstances, and the degree to which someone has already invested in and proven their track record, has to count for something. Besides, there’s plagiarism and there’s plagiarism. As with all punishments, it really does depend on the nature of the crime.
In the case of Malone U and the much discussed scandal, you simply have to wonder if there wasn’t something more to the president’s sudden retirement. To many of us, it looks as if it was a last straw, or a convenient smoke screen for other problems. We just can’t believe that someone — a president with a PhD in English — would get shown the door just for relying on Wikipedia, and not acknowledging it.
But, then, these aren’t easy times for university presidents, a little plagiarism here and there being the least of their problems — or sins.