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Does Plagiarism Really Matter Any More?

Yes, if we don’t want a world drowning in merely private truths
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Claudine Gay, the first black and female president of Harvard, appointed in July, resigned January 2 amid a firestorm of allegations of plagiarism. Gay denied plagiarism. In her resignation letter, she and many of her supporters alleged racism.

Many sources, including Gay, have also claimed or implied that the errors were not serious. But other university presidents in the same bind have faced the same fate:

As the figureheads of their universities, presidents often face heightened scrutiny, and numerous leaders have been felled by plagiarism scandals. Stanford University’s president resigned last year amid findings that he manipulated scientific data in his research. A president of the University of South Carolina resigned in 2021 after he lifted parts of his speech at a graduation ceremony.

Collin Binkley and Moriah Balingit, “Plagiarism charges downed Harvard’s president. A conservative attack helped to fan the outrage,” Associated Press, January 3, 2024

How various commentators saw the case

As any college student knows, plagiarism means specific, defined types of unauthorized copying or citation. Yet surprising numbers of academics have rushed into the field to defend Gay, citing doctrines and theories that would not save a plagiarizing junior. The gap between what appears to have happened and its interpretation points to two unsettling truths.

Plagiarism

Peter Wood, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, has few doubts: “The evidence was as plain as a red barn in a snowy field that Gay had appropriated the work of others and passed it off as her own.” But at The Guardian, it seemed “unfair that she should be the one to take the fall when her errors were missed by the institutions that published her – not least the Harvard PhD committee that awarded her the Toppan prize for the best political science dissertation in 1998.”

At NPR, it was seen as a problem with “regulating academic writing”: “ … her downfall raises questions about how people in such high-profile positions can find themselves facing such charges in an age when advanced technology so easily enables detection of alleged cases of plagiarism.”

Political conspiracy?

Ranging further afield, the Associated Press writers assigned to the case saw a broad and dark political conspiracy:

The campaign against Gay and other Ivy League presidents has become part of a broader right-wing effort to remake higher education, which has often been seen as a bastion of liberalism. Republican detractors have sought to gut funding for public universities, roll back tenure and banish initiatives that make colleges more welcoming to students of color, disabled students and the LGBTQ+ community. They also have aimed to limit how race and gender are discussed in classrooms.

Collin Binkley and Moriah Balingit, helped to fan the outrage,” Associated Press, January 3, 2024

It was, said Pennsylvania State history professor A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, “100 percent politically motivated … But when you plagiarize, you hand them a knife to stab you with.” Some blamed it on “conservative mastermind” Chris Rufo who has been more than willing to take the credit. But even a mastermind cannot force others to commit plagiarism.

Plagiarized prof speaks up

Meanwhile, prominent black American scholar Carol M. Swain filed a writ with Harvard, claiming that Gay had made inappropriate use of her work:

The Jan. 3 letter is addressed to Harvard Corporation fellows, who oversee the school, and states Swain’s 1993 book “Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress” was the “subject of plagiarism, use without citation, and unlawful copying” by Gay. …

The legal letter calls Swain’s book “a seminal work on Black representation in Congress” and notes it has been cited in two U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

“Accordingly, Dr. Swain is entitled to certain rights and remedies arising from the prohibited use of its content,” stated the letter, penned by her attorneys. “Through its acts, omissions, and public statements surrounding the use of Dr. Swain’s work, the Harvard Corporation is now invested in this matter and its subsequent outcome.”

Jennifer Kabbany, “Black scholar plagiarized by Harvard’s Gay sends legal demand letter: ‘unlawful copying’,” College Fix, January 5, 2024

Swain’s lawsuit certainly casts doubt on the racist power politics interpretation of the story; we will see how it plays out.

Two things stand out

Prior to the firestorm of plagiarism allegations, Claudine Gay had given testimony in Congress that made it appear that she was not especially concerned about recent anti-Semitic demonstrations at Harvard. Her testimony may have got her to the top of some in trays where the plagiarism issue was already simmering.

About that testimony, William Galston notes something quite significant, which I hope to explore in later posts:

In the apology Ms. Gay offered after her disastrous congressional testimony, she said that she had failed to convey “my truth.” As several commentators have observed, this phrase is the tip of an epistemological iceberg. It stands for the proposition that the truth doesn’t exist and that the quest for it is futile. Instead, there are multiple “perspectives,” each rooted in the position, experiences and sentiments of individuals or of groups in similar positions. If so, Harvard’s motto, “Veritas,” expresses an antique metaphysics that should no longer guide the academy’s aspirations.

William A. Galston, “Claudine Gay’s ‘My Truth’ and the Truth,” Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2024

Of course, in a world of private truth, plagiarism, along with many other assumed verities, will always be just a matter of opinion, perhaps politicized opinion.

Falling on a sword

Second, there is a basic problem with the assumptions Gay’s supporters are making. Fifty years ago, unfortunately, no black woman, however well adapted, would be president of Harvard. That honor would go to a well-connected (of course, white) frat boy. But Frat Boy knew an unwritten law: If he did something that disgraced the institution in the public eye, he quietly resigned, perhaps “to pursue other opportunities.” Revered institutions did not generally make a big scandal of these things. Why should they? Their centuries-long tenure resulted in part from quiet purges, but never from ongoing shocking revelations.

Gay and her supporters seem not to have got that message yet. A black woman can be president of Harvard today — on the same terms as Frat Boy. The supporters would be well advised to quit shouting about racism and find a champion with a solider background — someone like Carol Swain maybe.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Does Plagiarism Really Matter Any More?