Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Re: Plagiarism and Gonzalezism

January 26, 2005


Re: Plagiarism and Gonzalezism
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

Catalyzed by the Ogletree and Tribe affairs, the print media has of late paid somewhat more attention to plagiarism in academia, i.e., to a form of gross dishonesty in the academic world. Thus, in mid December The Chronicle of Higher Education carried several articles, totaling eleven and one-half pages, on academic plagiarism of one kind and another. To my mind, the major conclusions were these: Plagiarism is widespread in the academic world. Sometimes a work is plagiarized wholesale. Some people seem to have virtually made a career of plagiarism. Professors often steal the work of graduate students -- sometimes even feel they have a right to do so. Very little is done about plagiarism. Professors who are victimized by it are discouraged from taking action. Students whose work is ripped off by their mentors are in a hopeless position: they cannot take action because they depend on those mentors for the recommendations without which they can have no careers. Academic associations are loathe to act against plagiarists; it is too much effort, and can cost them money. Universities don’t want to act against plagiarists; this can require too much effort and can result in lawsuits, by accused plagiarists, that result in adverse publicity and that are expensive to fight even though the plagiarists most often lose. The consequence of all these prior conclusions is that plagiarism is punished infrequently, is punished lightly when punished at all, and generally is a subject which is not publicly disclosed but instead is just swept under the rug when discovered.

This writer has to admit to being thunderstruck by the disclosure in The Chronicle of the extent and non-punishment of plagiarism. For plagiarism is a gross form of dishonesty: it is falsely claiming as your own something that is in fact the work of another. What The Chronicle has revealed -- and, shocked as one is, I know of no reason to doubt its reporting -- is that dishonesty has extensively penetrated to the very heart of the academic enterprise: to the writing of articles and books. One has gotten used to the unfortunate spin, baloney and, as Paul Fussell might put it, advertising-like exaggerations regularly emanating from university administrations, public relations offices, and marketing and admissions departments. All of these are a form of dishonesty: dishonesty by leaving out important facts, dishonesty by leaving out an important but differing side of the story, dishonesty by gross exaggeration. But now dishonesty appears to have penetrated to a core raison d’etre of universities.

One occasionally reads various supposed justifications for the dishonesty: "I was writing not for scholars, but (in an accessible way) for the general public" is a favorite one. "I was not writing a peer-reviewed piece," is another. These are bovine bleatings. In the May/June 2001 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, the executive editor of Commonweal, Paul Baumann, quoted someone named Lars-Erik Nelson as saying that "‘The enemy isn’t liberalism. The enemy isn’t conservatism. The enemy is bullshit.’" That crystallized this blogger’s basic philosophy more concisely, and more pithily, than the writer himself has ever been able to. This enemy is everywhere in today’s America, and the alleged justifications for plagiarism given above are themselves examples of the enemy as defined by Nelson. So what if one was not writing for scholars but for the public, or was not writing for peer review? Regardless of why he or she is writing, the plagiarist is being dishonest, is claiming as his own creation something that was the creation of another.

It is interesting, isn’t it, that the academic world often claims a superior morality? Just as interesting to this blogger personally is that, much as he has reviled so many of the academic world’s characteristics in books and articles, he lately finds himself wondering whether the claim to superior morality might conceivably be true on a percentage basis (on sort of a man for man or pound for pound basis) in view of the extent to which the figuratively insane right wing has captured the government of this country and the thinking of its citizens, and has persuaded citizens and country alike to adopt the historically crazed concept of peace through continuous war, peace through destroying cities, and through bombing and shelling civilians, women and children and calling it collateral damage. But be all this as it may, how can the academic world claim superior morality when its members widely practice, and when it does not punish but instead sweeps under the rug, the gross dishonesty of plagiarism?

All of which brings one back to the matter mentioned in the opening phrase of this blog, the Tribe and Ogletree affairs. Tribe admitted his plagiarism and, while Ogletree seems to resist admitting very much, it nonetheless seems plain that he had assistants write parts of a recent book for which he claimed the entire credit. This is a form of plagiarism and, whatever name it goes by, is certainly the dishonest claiming of credit for the work of others. Yet one has no idea whether Harvard has punished Tribe in any way, and the same is true regarding Ogletree even though he says he was punished in some unspecified way. According to an email sent to one of my colleagues (who had emailed him) by Larry Summers, "The University, as a matter of policy, does not comment on individual reviews of the conduct of faculty members. ("Rest assured, however," Summers’ email added, "that we take these matters very seriously.") So Harvard’s policy, at least according to Summers (or whomever may have written the email for him if he did not write it himself), is not to talk about what, if any, punishment has been or may be assessed against Tribe and Ogletree. And the rest of the university, especially the Dean of the law school, seems to be following suit in regard to Tribe and Ogletree.

Whether Summers’ email is itself accurate -- is honest -- is conceivably subject to some question, which is surely ironic when the subject, plagiarism, is a form of dishonesty to begin with. For Harvard commented in December, in a pretty self justifying manner, on the situation of an assistant professor (Ali A. Sultan) who had plagiarized in portions of a grant application, had been investigated by the Harvard School of Public Health, which turned its report over to a federal agency, and ultimately resigned last September after a federal watchdog group issued a condemnation and the Feds assessed a punishment against him. Harvard’s December, 2004 comments were after the fact, but nonetheless were comments relating to an "individual revie[w] of the conduct of [a] faculty membe[r]," which Summers’ email claims Harvard does not do.
But with regard to Tribe and Ogletree, Harvard seems to be sweeping the matter under the rug as much as possible (whereas the punishments suffered by Joe Ellis at Mount Holyoke are public knowledge). One is tempted to remark that Larry Summers, having previously shown himself to have a big mouth on more than one occasion, has chosen to remain quiet when he should have spoken out. For Harvard remains the leader, at minimum it is one of the foremost leaders, in American higher education. It sets an example for others. A good example for Harvard to set would be one showing that dishonesty through outright plagiarism, or through using and claiming assistants’ work as one’s own, is not to be tolerated and will be punished heavily. A bad example is one of silence, of sweeping dishonesty under the rug, and creating the understanding, and the likely well taken suspicion, that dishonesty is being punished lightly if at all. The latter example, the bad example, is the one Harvard is setting. Academia’s claims to moral leadership, whatever merits they may have in other ways, ring hollow in the area of honesty when the brightest star (or one of them) in the academic firmament appears not to be punishing at all, or not to be punishing heavily, serious dishonesty by two of its professors.
* * * * *

Dishonesty, and the enemy as defined by Lars Erik-Nelson, is all around us in this country. It is everywhere. It pervades politics, is rampant in big business, is a way of life in the academy, is practiced on the personal level. After nearly 50 years of adulthood, one is heartily sick of it, one indeed thinks it the fundamental flaw of American society, the tragic flaw, in the Greeks’ sense, that is most likely to bring low a nation that was once the hope of the world, as Jefferson and Lincoln thought it so long ago.

The battle of today, Lincoln once wrote, is not for today alone, but for a vast future. This correlated with his view of America as the last best hope of earth. Since 1941 America has indeed played the role of last best hope of earth, sometimes playing it laudably, at other times playing it hypocritically, militaristically and dishonestly. And if there is one thing that is going to sink us, it is dishonest conduct and its often conjoined twin, hypocritical conduct. It is indeed lies and hypocrisy, from WMDs to torture, that are a major lens through which much of the world sees us today (excluding, of course, the Bushian toady who is Prime Minister of Britain).
Since much of the world already sees us as liars and hypocrites, it is only the more deplorable that the nominee for Attorney General has to be considered, can only be considered, a liar.
Alberto Gonzalez not only repeatedly told Senators at his hearing that America does not use torture, but afterwards he compounded this lie. In written answers to questions propounded by Senators, he repeatedly said that America does not use torture under any circumstances. This repeated statement can only be an intentional, knowing lie, unless Gonzalez has been on the moon for the last year or so. It is well established that the CIA and the military have tortured prisoners, and the latest information to become available is that the deaths of somewhere between 30 and 40 prisoners are being investigated as homicides or suspected homicides. And while Gonzalez claimed, at the hearing and in his answers, that George Bush has directed that torture is not to be used, recently it became established, and Gonzalez even had to admit in his written answers, that Bush’s directive is not applicable to the CIA or some other intelligence operatives. (One is aware that, given the way Washington works, Gonzalez’ answers were almost surely written by some highly educated lackey(s) rather than by Gonzalez himself. But Gonzalez is nevertheless responsible for them: they were submitted as his answers, not the lackey(s), and it is he, not the lackey(s), who is the nominee for Attorney General).

So, to this nation’s dire discredit, we are about to get, as Attorney General, a man who is a liar and who has lied about a matter of great concern to America and the world. (One wonders what Lincoln or Jefferson would think about a supposed last best hope of earth that tortures people.) To top it off, lying to Congress is, if memory serves, a crime, so that our top federal law enforcement officer will be not only a liar, but an unindicted criminal. And the Democrats, instead of standing for something, have said they are going to vote for this guy (although a few of them recently have said they may change their minds). Do the Democrats wonder why people think their party isn’t worth a damn?

Which brings me to my last point. Gonzalez, like Summers, is from Harvard. (Gonzalez went to law school there.) It would be a bit much to put the blame on Harvard for the rise of the lying society in which we live. Yet Harvard is not wholly free of guilt, either. In my own lifetime, though there was some major league lying in the Eisenhower administration (e.g., regarding the U2), the rise of spin and phony image meistering really got going, in my opinion, with the administration of the famously Harvard trained President, John Kennedy, who used lots of other Harvard men too (e.g., the lying McNamara, a graduate of the Harvard Business School).

Harvard was also home to leading proponents of realpolitik (e.g., Kissinger), a philosophy that led to decades of dishonesty and hypocrisy. So Harvard is no shrinking innocent when it comes to America being a nation of dishonesty. As the leader in American academia, or, at minimum, as one of the leaders, it has given us people who seem not to know the meaning of, and to care less about, truth. How much more unfortunate is it, then, and how disappointing, that a great institution like Harvard is now under the "leadership" of someone who, while claiming only to be interested in fostering inquiry into the truth when he said that women are perhaps inherently inferior in math and science, nonetheless does not care enough about restoring honesty (i.e., truth) as the desideratum at Harvard, or in the country, to announce whether two serious cases of plagiarism and dishonesty are being punished at Harvard and, if so, how heavily. One begins to wonder whether perhaps the nation’s foremost or near foremost university would be betteroff with someone less attuned to the dishonest culture of modern American life, especially the culture of Washington, D.C. where he was for awhile a player, and more attuned to the demands of plain honesty.*

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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