Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Plagiarizing Professor

Educators and social commentators are increasingly alarmed at the growing epidemic of cheating by high school and college students. As documented in numerous sources, plagiarism is especially rampant as the internet provides convenient and sometimes virtually untraceable raw material for Frankenstein papers, assembled from the bodies of other authors’ works. Most alarming of all is the fact that so many students apparently see nothing wrong with the practice, regarding it as a reasonable response to busy schedules and the pressure to succeed. How can we reverse the trend and stop the plague of plagiarism?

Here’s one approach that seems reasonable: stop professors from doing the same thing.

Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree has admitted that his recently published book, All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education, contains a long passage that was copied, verbatim and without attribution, from a book of essays edited by Yale Law School professor Jack M. Balkin. Ogletree is embarrassed, and to his credit, has taken full responsibility for the duplicated section, saying that he was negligent in overseeing his assistants. According to the report of an internal Harvard investigation supervised by former University president Derek Bok, one of Ogletree’s assistants put the quote from Balkin’s book in a draft assuming that it would be summarized by another research assistant. The material was properly attributed to Balkin until a second assistant inadvertently left out the attribution “under the pressure of meeting a deadline,” according to the professor’s explanation. Ogletree said he reviewed the draft but did not realize the passages were not his own.

There is no reason to question this account, as Ogletree appears to be an honorable man, and we all know that mistakes happen. We forgive you, Chuck, except for one thing: if you were a Harvard student and this was your honors thesis, you’d be out on your ear. It is your job to make sure that someone else’s work isn’t put forth as your own. There are no excuses for plagiarism in an academic setting, not that such worthy plagiarizing predecessors as fellow Harvardian Doris Kearns and the late historian Stephen Ambrose haven’t done their best to concoct some when their books were found to contain uncredited chunks by other authors. Actually, both Kearns and Ambrose used your excuse: they thought the purloined passages were their own. Try that one on the Dean of StudentsÂ…his office is in Harvard Yard, just a short walk from yours.

But Ogletree’s colleagues have lined up to support their compatriotÂ…after all, the next copied passage may turn up in one of their books. Listen to Professor Lawrence Tribe, like Ogletree, a celebrity pundit and author:

“It clearly represents the fact that because he so often says yes to the many people all over the country who ask for his help on all kinds of things, he has extended himself even farther than someone with all that energy can safely do.”

Hmmm. Sounds an awful lot like the explanations plagiarizing high school students gave to Charlie Gibson in the ABC Special Report on cheating. They were too busy, you see, to write original papers, what with social engagements and team practices and other course requirements. They were, like Ogletree, over-extended. And as with Ogletree, this is no excuse at all.

Now Harvard says it is going to “discipline” their plagiarizing professor, whatever that means. A fine? A bad table in the faculty dining room? Dollars to donuts Harvard won’t revoke his tenure, and there is no chance that he will be kicked out of the Hallowed Halls of Ivy. Yet anything short of this sends exactly the wrong message to time-pressured students gazing at their PC and wondering if a viable shortcut dwells within.

If we want to stop plagiarism among students, we have to make it clear that the practice is antithetical to any scholarly pursuit and will not be tolerated no matter how pressured the plagiarizer might have been feeling. To allow a prominent professor escape any meaningful consequences of publishing the work of another under his own name not only creates a double standard, but also undermines the ethical principle. “Don’t cheat” becomes “Don’t cheat unless you are certain to get away with it even if you’re caught.” Obviously, these are not the same: one is an ethical rule, and the other is cold pragmatism.

Harvard needs to realize that taking a strong stand against plagiarism is worth bidding farewell to an academic star…especially one as careless as Charles Ogletree.

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