What Academia is Hiding

Ogletree’s admission of plagiarism speaks to a widespread morally questionable practice

For every Harvard student, the charge of plagiarism could prove fatal to one’s undergraduate career. From the outset, students are forewarned of the College’s daunting zero-tolerance discipline policy; that is, whether inadvertent or otherwise, according to the student handbook, plagiarism of any sort “will ordinarily result in disciplinary action, including but not limited to requirement to withdraw from the College.” But, it seems that this stringent policy—aimed to ensure sincere and scrupulous scholarship—does not extend to members of Harvard’s Faculty. Rather, after the recent reprimand of Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree for virtual verbatim plagiarism in his book All Deliberate Speed, it is apparent that Harvard’s steadfast standards of scholarship do not apply across the board.

Last week, Ogletree admitted that six paragraphs of his book—nearly two pages of text—had been lifted from the work of Yale Law School professor Jack M. Balkin, after the latter author was anonymously informed that Ogletree’s work should be investigated. However, while admitting to some fault for his carelessness, Ogletree maintains that the text’s inclusion was an oversight due, in part, to strict deadlines and a strong reliance on research assistants. Neither defense is excusable.

According to a statement released by Ogletree, the professor insists that he “made a serious mistake during the editorial process of completing this book, and delegated too much responsibility to others during the final editing process.” But while it is not unlikely that such sloppiness was a result of editing errors rather than an egregious attempt to pass off Balkin’s work as his own, Ogletree’s transgression is a serious one—one that would likely result in expulsion for a Harvard undergraduate. That Ogletree will not face anything remotely this severe reveals the glaring disparity in Harvard’s plagiarism policies—and the different scholarly standards it holds for its students and Faculty.

But Ogletree’s “serious scholarly transgression”—so deemed by Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan—not only leaves a blemish on the renowned professor’s resume and reveals a ludicrous double standard, it is also indicative of an alarming trend currently threatening the legitimacy of the work of those in academia; that is, the extensive use of research assistants and students to do much of a project’s grunt work. Of course, it’s entirely legitimate to acquire help from assistants, but that help must be limited to ensure that a piece of scholarship is indeed a scholar’s own work. When the author himself does not recognize that a text of two pages is not his own, something is amiss.

And while Ogletree also suggests that his ever-looming deadlines contributed to his oversight, his work’s integrity should have come first. Perhaps he should have spent more time reviewing his assistants’ work before putting his name on it and having it published.

The bottom line remains that had a Harvard student committed such a grievous error, intentionally or not, the College would likely turn a deaf ear to any excuses—particularly any that involve an over-reliance on paid assistants to do their research and writing for them. If Harvard is not willing to hold its Faculty to the same high scholarly standards as it does its students, then perhaps it should rethink its undergraduate plagiarism policy and do away with the charade of irreproachable academic integrity.