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I Vote on Plagiarism Cases at Harvard College. Gay’s Getting off Easy.

By An Undergraduate Member of the Harvard College Honor Council

I have served as a voting member of the Harvard College Honor Council, the body tasked with upholding the College’s community standards of academic integrity.

In my time on the Council, I heard dozens of cases. When students — my classmates, peers, and friends — appear before the council, they are distraught. For most, it is the worst day of their college careers. For some, it is the worst day of their lives. They often cry.

It is because I have seen first-hand how heart-wrenching these decisions can be, and still think them necessary, that I call on University President Claudine Gay to resign for her numerous and serious violations of academic ethics.

Let’s compare the treatment of Harvard undergraduates suspected of plagiarism with that of their president.

A plurality of the Honor Council’s investigations concern plagiarism. In the 2021-22 school year, the last year for which data is publicly available, 43 percent of cases involved plagiarism or misuse of sources.

Omitting quotation marks, citing sources incompletely, or not citing sources at all constitutes plagiarism according to Harvard’s definitions.

In my experience, when students omit quotation marks and citations, as President Gay did, the sanction is usually one term of probation — a permanent mark on a student’s record. A student on probation is no longer considered in good standing, disqualifying them from opportunities like fellowships and study-abroad programs. Good standing is also required to receive a degree.

What is striking about the allegations of plagiarism against President Gay is that the improprieties are routine and pervasive.

She is accused of plagiarism in her dissertation and at least two of her 11 journal articles. Two sentences from the acknowledgement section of her dissertation even seem to have been copied from another work.

According to the Honor Council’s procedures, the response to a violation depends on the “seriousness of the infraction” and “extenuating circumstances, including the extent to which a student has had similar trouble before.” In other words, while a single lifted paragraph could be blamed on a lapse in judgment, a pattern is more concerning.

In my experience, when a student is found responsible for multiple separate Honor Code violations, they are generally required to withdraw — i.e., suspended — from the College for two semesters. Since the Council was established in 2015, roughly 16 percent of students who have appeared before us have been required to withdraw.

It is a serious thing for the Council to render this judgment, and I have never taken any such vote lightly. Voting to suspend a peer with whom I might share a dorm, club, or class is not easy. We have even voted to suspend seniors just about to graduate.

But strict sanctions are necessary to demonstrate that our community values academic integrity. Cheating on exams is not okay. Plagiarism is not okay.

It may be true that the plagiarism allegations against President Gay fall short of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ interim policy on research misconduct. She may not have “intentionally, knowingly, and recklessly” tried to represent the work of her doctoral advisor and others as her own. And there is no evidence that any of her arguments posited as original contributions were plagiarized.

But President Gay’s pattern of mistakes is serious, and the Harvard Corporation should not minimize these allegations of plagiarism, as it has readily done.

In a Dec. 12 University-wide letter, the Corporation described the alleged plagiarism as “a few instances of inadequate citation.” The letter lauded President Gay for “proactively” correcting her articles by inserting citations and quotation marks.

By definition, Gay’s corrections were not proactive but reactive — she only made them after she was caught. And that the Corporation considers her corrections an adequate response is not fair to undergraduates, who cannot simply submit corrections to avoid penalties.

When my peers are found responsible for multiple instances of inadequate citation, they are often suspended for an academic year. When the president of their university is found responsible for the same types of infractions, the fellows of the Corporation “unanimously stand in support of” her.

There is one standard for me and my peers and another, much lower standard for our University’s president. The Corporation should resolve the double standard by demanding her resignation.

Editor’s Note: In order to protect the author from retaliation, and because the proceedings of the Harvard College Honor Council are sensitive and confidential, we made the decision to grant this author anonymity.

Readers should also note that online commenting has been disabled for this piece in an effort to help protect the author’s identity.

—Tommy Barone and Jacob M. Miller, Editorial Chairs

—J. Sellers Hill, President

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