A Disappointing Double Standard

Tribe's rebuke amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist

Plagiarism at Harvard, at least for the student body, is a gravely punishable offense. Students caught plagiarizing are routinely suspended for semesters or even entire academic years; and in extreme cases expulsion is also an option. For professors who plagiarize, however, not even a modicum of punishment seems to be in play.

A woeful double standard is at work here, as evidenced by the recent events surrounding the plagiarism committed by Carl M. Loeb University Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62. Tribe’s 1985 book, “God Save This Honorable Court,” fails to credit text lifted verbatim from Henry J. Abraham’s book “Justices and Presidents.” In a joint statement issued Thursday by President Summers and Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan, the University declined to formally punish Tribe in any substantial way. While Tribe has been mildly chastised for the academic dishonestly, the statement, coming months after the plagiarism was publicly acknowledged, amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist.

We have tremendous respect for Professor Tribe as an academic and as a person. He is one of the top constitutional scholars in the world, and he is rightfully respected both within and beyond the academic community. His University professorship, one of only nineteen, reflects this distinguished record. The troubling trend, which we protest, is that these impressive credentials have lead to effective immunity from punishment for plagiarism. A highly distinguished resume should not exempt one from facing the consequences of academic dishonesty.

The evident double standard sets a poor example for the student body and for the wider community. A student caught committing a similar crime might face the termination of his academic career. And while we are not suggesting that the university suspend or expel Professor Tribe, we believe that it is up to the university to levy a punishment that does not demonstrate such a lamentable disciplinary double standard.

For the public face of Harvard and for internal relations as well, it is crucial that the university maintain more consistent disciplinary rules for instances of academic dishonesty. Until then, the glaring double standard set by Harvard stands as an inadequate precedent for future disappointments.