Punishing Its Own

For Harvard, a year of faculty behaving badly

“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.


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