University Responded Properly to Tribe’s Transgressions

To the editors:

We read with interest your recent editorial about the University’s review of plagiarism allegations leveled this year against Loeb University Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 in connection with his 1985 book “God Save this Honorable Court” (“A Disappointing Double Standard,” Editorial, Apr. 19).

We applaud your recognition of Prof. Tribe’s many accomplishments and contributions to the field of law. We also admire what appears to be the chief underlying motivation of the editorial: we agree with you that double standards for faculty and students are inappropriate, and that Harvard should expect its professors to set an example.

However, we disagree with you in two important ways. First, we disagree with your view that any existing gap in treatment of faculty and students should automatically be closed by ramping up punishments of professors. Rather, when an isolated and inadvertent mistake has been made honestly, students should receive no more than reasonable admonishment.

We also do not agree that the University’s response to Prof. Tribe’s error was disproportionately light. Your editorial repeatedly categorizes this matter as “academic dishonesty.” That is a serious charge and implies a conscious desire to mislead others, something that simply did not occur here. An accurate analogue to Prof. Tribe in this context is not to a student who has willfully taken shortcuts in classes, passing off someone else’s original work as his or her own. Prof. Tribe’s lapse, as the University found, though serious, involved inadequate attribution that was purely inadvertent. Prof. Tribe cited the source book in his bibliography, and he sent a pre-publication manuscript to the professor who wrote it.

Moreover, it should be remembered that this allegation of plagiarism—made two decades after Prof. Tribe published his book—was borne out of enmity, used by a conservative writer in a partisan magazine to make political hay. Indeed, the most accurate analogue to Prof. Tribe in this case is the college student who mistakenly neglected to attribute certain quotations in a paper written many years earlier, only to have the oversight emerge years later as part of a deliberate effort to sully that student’s reputation. We have a sense that, in such a case, a faculty review board would quite rightly be critical of sloppy mistakes in quotation and attribution but would also, quite rightly, decline to take formal action against the student.




Cambridge, Mass.

April 27, 2005

This letter was co-authored by Jeffrey Jamison, Tara Grove, Chris Egleson, and John Rappaport. All seven are currently attending or have recently graduated from Harvard Law School.