A Plague of Plagiarism

On academic dishonesty, Harvard fails to seek salvation

It’s not boils and the Charles River hasn’t turned to blood, but a different sort of plague—academic dishonesty—has fallen upon our campus and the University is doing little to stop it. More students are brought before the Ad Board for it (22 in ’03-’04) than for sexual assault (seven in ’00), but no student groups or committees of the Faculty are specifically working towards ending it. The Ad Board can—and does—require students to withdraw for even minor cases, but when faculty are publicly caught for it, they receive a slap on the wrist or less.

Plagiarism has come to Harvard in a big way, but no one seems to care. How huge is the problem? Let me put it this way: 22 cases of academic dishonesty were brought before the Ad Board all of last year, while 25 came before the Ad Board in the Fall of 2004 alone. That’s a one-year increase of 127 percent.

Plagiarism is typically caused by desperation, such as rapidly approaching deadlines. Naturally, this is not an acceptable excuse. The Ad Board is quicker to discipline students for academic dishonesty than Larry Summers is to gobble an entire platter of mayonnaise sandwiches, and rightfully so: plagiarism undermines the basic trust so fundamental to the academic experience. According to Secretary of the Administrative Board John T. O’Keefe, the typical response to documented cases of plagiarism is a requirement to withdraw from the College—effectively a two-semester suspension from school—although a range of disciplinary measures can be taken depending on the severity of the offense.

But one potential explanation for the recent rise in cases of plagiarism is lurking in the shadows. Several high-profile Harvard faculty and administrators—including Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree, Loeb University Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62, and former member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers Doris Kearns Goodwin—have recently been caught red handed with their word processors in the plagiarism mill.

Ogletree wholesale copied six paragraphs from Yale professor Jack M. Balkin for his book All Deliberate Speed in an incident Dean of the Law School Elena Kagan called a “serious scholarly transgression.” Tribe’s God Save This Honorable Court misappropriated a nineteen word passage from the work of Henry J. Abraham. Most troubling is Goodwin’s transgression, not because of the nature of her offense (compared to Ogletree and Tribe, Goodwin is Gordon C. Harvey!) but because of her role as one of the leaders of the entire Harvard community.

In each case, Harvard took no public (or as best as I can tell, private) action against any of the faculty offenders. Surely this apparent lack of concern about academic integrity on the part of Mother Harvard from its leaders and brightest stars has led some number of its students to countenance and commit plagiarism.

Why the discrepancy between the treatment of faculty and administrators and that of students? In an interview, Dean O’Keefe stated that the Ad Board-imposed requirement to withdraw is not solely intended to punish students, but rather is meant to “teach students about taking responsibility for using sources well.”

But that logic should apply to faculty as well. I can’t count the number of times that professors have proudly proclaimed that they learn something new every time they teach a course. Since by their own admission, faculty are students of a sort too, it seems fair to me that they too should be suspended (without pay, naturally) for documented cases of plagiarism. Visible punishment of faculty plagiarizers would likely discourage undergraduate academic dishonesty.

But even once faculty malfeasance is dealt with, there is still the driving force of desperation, which seems well suited for the Type A personalities who fill Harvard’s Houses. (I will write much more about desperation in an upcoming column on my blockmates’ dating habits.) When time runs short, conscience and fear of reprisal are overwhelmed by the fear of poor grades and academic dishonesty results.

Dean O’Keefe’s solution? Ask for an extension. But a one day extension on a 15-page paper that you haven’t yet started the reading for—if you can even get an extension, what with all the professors who prohibit extensions under any circumstances—is unlikely to solve the problem.

So what then? Are we to leave academic dishonesty as a cat-and-mouse game between students who copy paragraphs from the internet and professors who Google odd phrases hoping to catch cheating students? I have a better solution: reduce the pressure on students and you’ll reduce their desperation and likelihood to plagiarize.

I am hardly surprised that incidences of academic dishonesty are on the rise just as the Class of 2005, the first class to be bludgeoned by the new honors system, prepares to enter the real world. Think of how much less pressure students would be under in a system that actually rewarded the very best instead of just de-honoring some thirty percent of the campus!

Or what about an abided-by “Dean’s Date” after which no papers could be assigned or due? And how about administrators and faculty finally recognize that the current crop of students is the brightest and most rigorously selected group ever to grace Harvard’s halls and stop complaining about alleged grade inflation?

Plagiarism is a plague, but with proper handling we’ll just have frogs on our hands instead of the deaths of an awful lot of first-born sons.

Jason L. Lurie ’05 is a chemistry concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears alternate Wednesdays.

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