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Punishing Its Own

For Harvard, a year of faculty behaving badly

By Michael M. Grynbaum, Crimson Staff Writer

Hours after news broke widely that constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe ’62 had copied verbatim a 19-word passage in his 1985 book “God Bless This Honorable Court,” Tribe attended a reception at the residence of University President Lawrence H. Summers in honor of his recent appointment to the ranks of Harvard’s 19 elite University professors.

Two days earlier, star economist Andrei N. Shleifer ’82 played host to Summers for a break-fast at his Newton home on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement—just three months after a federal judge found that Shleifer and a colleague had conspired to defraud the federal government, leaving Harvard liable for up to $34.8 million in damages. (Please see sidebar, below.)

Since the reception, Tribe’s failure to attribute his source properly has been declared a “product of inadvertence” by a faculty committee. The University prescribed no formal punishment, according to an April statement released by Tribe, who is the Loeb University Professor and teaches at Harvard Law School (HLS).

Shleifer, meanwhile, still holds an endowed chair in the economics department and has continued researching and teaching classes at the College.

And Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree Jr.—who issued an apology on Sept. 3 for “serious errors” in his recently published book, “All Deliberate Speed,” including the use of six almost verbatim paragraphs from another scholar’s work—told The Crimson in September that he would be disciplined by Harvard, but did not elaborate further. The University has declined comment on the issue.

Three high-profile cases of faculty misconduct at the world’s most prestigious university, all in the span of a single academic year. The incidents have raised pointed questions on campus and off—of double standards, faculty favoritism, and the ethics of academia.

In the cases of Tribe and Ogletree, some dismiss the charges of plagiarism as politically motivated and petty. But other observers say that Harvard is going soft on its academic all-stars, a move they find less than surprising. For these critics, academia’s attitude toward plagiarism can be all bark, no bite.

“Can you see, in your wildest imagination, HLS dismissing Ogletree or Tribe for misconduct?” historian Peter Charles Hoffer writes in an e-mail. “And even if the single instance of plagiarism were only the tip of the iceberg, can you see HLS launching a full scale search for more evidence?”

Hoffer, an adviser on plagiarism to the American Historical Association, is the author of “Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds,” an examination of major cases of historical misconduct.

He notes that more prominent faculty members may be allowed more leeway by their institutions.

“Had the same flaws been found in someone not as highly regarded or placed, their university employer might well have lowered the boom on them,” Hoffer writes.

But other observers say Harvard’s actions were understandable.

“Without a direct link that they plagiarized, it seems to me these light slaps on the wrist were the best Harvard could do without additional evidence,” says Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility, and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an expert on legal and ethical issues associated with research misconduct.

“Certainly I think there is an understandable reason why any university would want to be protective of its top-flight prominent faculty,” Frankel says.

In Tribe’s case, Summers and HLS Dean Elena Kagan acknowledged in April that a “significant lapse in proper academic practice” had occurred.

“Academic integrity is crucial to everything we do at Harvard Law School, and I feel very strongly about upholding those principles,” Kagan told the New York Times last November.

She declined to comment for this article, referring inquiries to a spokesman.

HLS’s policy is not to comment on disciplinary matters, according to spokesman Michael A. Armini.

Calls to Ogletree and Shleifer were not returned.

STANDARDS AND INTENT

Two summers ago, the College rescinded its offer of admission to Blair Hornstine, an admit to the Class of 2007 who was reported to have plagiarized several articles written for her local newspaper in New Jersey. Admissions officials declined to comment on Hornstine’s case at the time but acknowledge that plagiarism could qualify as grounds for withdrawing an acceptance.

“We take plagiarism every bit as seriously as the Ad Board,” says Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, referring to the standing committee of faculty members that handles cases of undergraduate academic misconduct. “Normally we’d rescind the offer of admission.”

Under the heading of “Plagiarism and Collaboration,” the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Student Handbook notes that “students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action and ordinarily required to withdraw from the College.”

But not all cases lead to a requirement to withdraw. In the 2003-04 academic year, the Administrative Board heard 22 cases of undergraduate academic dishonesty, encompassing plagiarism, cheating, and “major misuse of sources.”

Only seven cases resulted in a requirement for the student to withdraw; 10 students were put on probation; and three resulted in no action being taken. Two cases were scratched, meaning no evidence of wrongdoing was found.

Thus, despite the handbook’s severe warning, less than a third of the 2003-04 cases resulted in the “ordinary” punishment. Coupled with the University’s response to Tribe and Ogletree, the statistics paint an amorphous portrait of how plagiarism is treated at Harvard. While students are largely taught the rules in black-and-white, the reality lies somewhere in the gray area.

In this ambiguous environment, the question of intent becomes a crucial issue in determining proper punishment for misconduct.

Indeed, in their reports on the incidents involving Ogletree and Tribe, the faculty committees appointed by HLS hinged their conclusions on the issue of intent, noting in Tribe’s case that his errors were “the product of inadvertence rather than intentionality.”

In an e-mail to The Crimson, Tribe takes issue with the description of his actions as “plagiarism.”

“The University nowhere uses the loaded term ‘plagiarism’ to describe this isolated lapse in appropriate attribution,” Tribe writes, adding that the use of the term “can find no support in anything that the University or I have said or done in connection with this episode.”

In Ogletree’s case, former University President Derek C. Bok told The Boston Globe in September that “there was no deliberate wrongdoing at all.”

“It was a case of publishers insisting on a very tight deadline because they felt they had to get a book out just in time for the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education,” Bok said to the Globe. “He marshaled his assistants and parceled out the work and in the process some quotation marks got lost.”

Ogletree acknowledged in his apology in April that a “serious mistake” had been made, but he also used the words “negligent” and “inadvertently” to describe the offenses in question. (Please see story, page C8.)

But Hoffer argues that questions of intent are irrelevant. “You can’t use the argument that it wasn’t intentional. Plagiarism is a strict liability offense,” he says. He suggests academia’s treatment of high-profile professors can be akin to an Orwellian scenario: “Some animals are more equal than others.”

John T. O’Keefe, secretary of the Ad Board, writes in an e-mail that “intent is a factor the Board considers, certainly, although it’s a rare student who tells us he or she intended to plagiarize, and we do hold students accountable for knowing the basic rules of the proper use of sources.”

“In some cases, even though we can see that a variety of circumstances contributed to a student’s error, and that it was without an intent to deceive, we may still hold the student responsible for the consequences of their actions,” O’Keefe writes.

Observers are split on whether the Tribe and Ogletree cases will send students the message that faculty members are treated differently from students.

“It’s inevitable that it’s going to have some effect on how students perceive how they are and/or should be treated if they find themselves in a similar situation,” Frankel says. “Any time they use these procedures to deal with faculty, the students are watching.”

He adds, “If it’s not a double standard, it certainly comes close to it.”

But Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby sees few differences between the University’s treatment of faculty and student academic misconduct.

“I would not automatically assume that it is a double standard,” Kirby says.

“The one thing I can comment on is that we take it very, very seriously. We try to make it clear in the materials that prospective freshmen have coming in. Expository Writing aims to teach the use of sources,” he adds. “I think no Harvard student should be unaware of the expectations.”

A MORE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY?

Some observers believe Harvard was remiss in not being more open about the procedures and punishments surrounding the HLS incidents, sending an ambiguous message to students and other universities.

“Harvard profs (including me) have no difficulty in recommending transparency to all sorts of organizations, ranging from nonprofits to nations. Yet, Harvard itself has been remarkably non-transparent,” Hobbs Professor of Education and Cognition Howard E. Gardner ’65 writes in an e-mail.

“As we have seen in the case of the law school, prestigious review panels have been set up but we don’t really know what they thought about what they discovered and how the punishments, if any, relate to those leveled against students accused of similar violations,” Gardner writes.

FAS spokesman Robert P. Mitchell says that Harvard does not comment on disciplinary matters concerning its faculty members. Mitchell says this is a “long-standing” policy, followed for the “same reason it’s in place for students or anyone else. It’s inappropriate to talk about specific cases.”

Though Hoffer says the University’s response to Tribe and Ogletree was barely a “slap on the wrist,” he argues that other factors must be considered when gauging the severity of their discipline.

“The real punishment for plagiarism is shame,” Hoffer writes. “A student may have a mark on his or her record, but a scholar admonished in public, no matter how slight or easily explained the offense, carries the scar for a lifetime where everyone can see it. So the double standard is not so double as you might think.”

And Ruth Flowers, director of public policy for the American Association of University Professors, agrees that what may appear publicly as a light punishment could be interpreted differently within certain circles.

“In addition to a professor being accountable to his or her peers at an institution...the person is even more accountable to their discipline and their reputation within that discipline,” Flowers says.

A COMMON PROBLEM?

While the incidents involving Tribe and Ogletree attracted media attention because of their high-profile subjects, many instances of academic misconduct go unnoticed—and many scholars have learned to ignore them.

“You see one in the kitchen and there are hundreds behind the stove,” Hoffer says, referring to cases of plagiarism in higher education. “There’s a lot of it, and a certain amount of it, we tolerate.”

In an investigation into academic plagiarism published in December 2004, the Chronicle of Higher Education found that “the same professors who constantly bemoan their students’ lax attitudes toward plagiarism often clam up when it is their colleagues doing the copying.”

Furthermore, the authors discovered that cases of plagiarism “are not exceptional”—hundreds of scholars suspect their work has been stolen at some point in their careers.

Charles Lipson, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of “Doing Honest Work in College,” a citation guide, says observers weren’t shocked by the revelations at Harvard.

“Were people surprised? I think they were disappointed. Were they surprised that any university didn’t take a strong public stand against what happened? No, sadly. I think that’s happened all too often,” Lipson says.

Flowers also finds Harvard’s actions predictable.

“With a professor who has already gone through several years of probation and levels of review [to attain tenure], there aren’t as many sanctions available to their peer organization. There is likely to be less a tendency to go for extremely strong sanctions,” Flowers says.

“Once all those steps have been passed the person is pretty well established for good reason,” she says. “The violation is weighed against their longer career.”

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu.

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