Overseer’s Admission of Plagiarism Comes With Few Repurcussions

When Harvard Overseer Doris Kearns Goodwin publicly admitted earlier this month to using material in her books without attributing it to the proper sources, the popular historian’s admission drew national media attention.

But among her colleagues on Harvard’s second highest governing board, the accusations raised few eyebrows.

“It sounds like kind of small potatoes,” said Overseer Richard H. Jenrette.

Goodwin, who received her doctorate in history from Harvard in 1968, has insisted that she did not commit plagiarism in copying—almost verbatim—sentences from Lynne McTaggart’s Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times in her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

News of Goodwin’s plagiarism surfaced in the National Standard magazine, which published an article earlier this month citing dozens of passages that had been taken from several books almost word-for-word.

In response, Goodwin claimed that the lack of attribution was due to faulty note-taking while doing research for her book.

Harvard maintains strict policies on plagiarism and academic dishonesty for its students. A Harvard College student who copied sentences as Goodwin did would most likely be required to withdraw for two terms, as per College policy, said Richard Neugeboren, senior tutor of Cabot House and a member of the Administrative Board.

But well-known historians are often given more leeway, said Gordon C. Harvey, associate director of the Expository Writing Program.

“[Some individuals are] important enough in some area that people seem willing to let it slide,” he said. “That seems to be the case in popular histories in the news right now.”

“If you’re famous enough, it might not matter,” he said.

Goodwin could not be reached for comment yesterday.

—Staff writer Andrew J. Miller can be reached at amiller@fas.harvard.edu.