Is Plagiarism Now the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

Forty years ago, when I was an undergraduate in the California State University system, it was pounded into my admittedly mushy brain that one of the mortal sins in academia was not giving someone else credit for their work. If a student failed to cite or improperly cited someone else’s work, whether it be statistics, words, or ideas, that person was shunned by the intellectual community and made an object of ridicule and shame. In the age before personal computers or even word processors, it was a herculean task to make sure that all the footnotes fit at the bottom of the page, but it was worth it to avoid the professional stigma of being labeled a plagiarist. Passing off the results of someone else’s hard-won scholarly work as one’s own was wholly unacceptable and was not tolerated.

In 1988, Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden saw his White House aspirations go down in flames when it was discovered that he plagiarized some speeches from a British politician and exaggerated his academic credentials. At the time, the journalistic establishment discovered and exposed Biden’s deceptions. Despite his apologies, many assumed Biden’s presidential career was over before it began. Those were the kinds of missteps that politicians didn’t recover from at that time. He was considered lucky to have been able to hold on to his seat in the Senate.

But in the last several months, there have been multiple reports of prominent people at some of the most prominent colleges in the United States plagiarizing huge portions, if not the majority, of their academic contributions.

In one of the more public instances, the former president of Harvard University, the oldest and perhaps formally the most prestigious academic institution in the country, was found to have plagiarized significant portions of her major academic works from her PhD dissertation in the 1990s to as recently as a paper she published as recently in 2017.

It was already an incredibly thin academic resume of publications for a president of the oldest and most distinguished college in the nation, but now it was found to have been built on the work of others, including some of the most distinguished American scholars of the late 20th century. And, while she ultimately stepped down from the office of the presidency, she was allowed to keep her teaching position at the university and her $900,000 plus presidential salary. She even won the Faculty Award for her commitment to social justice and DEI at Harvard’s black graduation celebration last month.

But as it turned out, the Harvard president was just the tip of the iceberg.

Since then, administrators at colleges from the East Coast to the West Coast have seen themselves accused of plagiarizing to achieve their postgraduate degrees. These accusations aren’t just minor technical errors or mistakes either. In some instances, entire pages were lifted with almost no attempt to disguise the theft from other works. Plagiarized books or documents aren’t even mentioned on the works cited pages.

These administrators brazenly lifted the works of other academics to get their degrees and pad their resumes. A decade or two earlier, this would have ended their careers and ensured that they were unemployable in any serious position of responsibility at any reputable college. But that isn’t the world we live in anymore and some of these folks have not only remained in their jobs but have also been defended by the very people whose work they stole.

So, why such a dramatic about-face in a relatively short time?

Of course, there are many possible answers, but as I thought about these stories, it occurred to me that many of them have a few things in common. Much of the stolen material and many people involved were champions of the movement to infuse our higher education institutions with “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI). In fact, several instances of the most egregious and blatant plagiarism came from people who now head up DEI departments on college campuses.

I don’t think that this is a mere coincidence.

As anyone who has taught on a college campus in the last decade can probably tell you, DEI has become the most essential value a college can embrace. It has replaced veritas (truth) at Harvard, mens (mind) at MIT, and lux (light) at UCLA. It has even replaced the word education in my own college’s mission statement, which would rather be known as an anti-racist institution than one that provides top-quality learning.

And, in a perverted way, it makes sense. In a world where equity trumps everything except diversity, not everyone starts in the same place, and some need a little extra help. If borrowing someone else’s words or ideas and passing them off as one’s own can help us achieve a more equitable distribution of degrees or a more diverse workplace, then the moral or ethical concerns around plagiarism mean nothing.

We used to joke about this kind of plagiarism on my campus. As we saw the number of doctorates in education among administrators explode from the early 2000s onward, we surmised that there was but a single dissertation on how to increase student retention and success at the community college level. This dissertation was then passed around from administrator to administrator so they could get their degree and insist that everyone refer to them as doctors. Then, it was handed off to the next candidate.

That joke does not seem as funny anymore.

In every meeting about anti-racism, DEI, or anything else that deals with the true goals of a modern college, we are told that the debate is over. Science is settled, and the conversation is closed. Since we now know the truth about DEI, the truth about Western civilization and white supremacy, and the truth about systemic racism in every aspect of American life and culture, there is nothing left to discover. If nothing is left to discover, then there is no need for creativity, innovation, or even curiosity. There is simply the unquestioning acceptance of what already is and the transmission of that information to the next generations. We simply indoctrinate those who come after us in these truths.

And in the end, it really does not matter whose ideas or thoughts they originally were. Yours, mine, ours, it is all the same. There is only one truth, which must be protected and promulgated at all costs. In fact, if I am taking your work and using it to further my academic ambitions, you shouldn’t take offense. After all, isn’t plagiarism really the sincerest form of flattery these days?

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One thought on “Is Plagiarism Now the Sincerest Form of Flattery?”

  1. “…we surmised that there was but a single dissertation on how to increase student retention and success at the community college level. This dissertation was then passed around from administrator to administrator…”

    That is a lot more accurate than many might think — the “groupthink” is to the point where there are no new ideas anymore and everyone is trying to recite the same orthodoxies without outright plagiarizing anyone else.

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