Friday, September 10, 2004

The Ogletree Transgression

Dear Colleagues:

It has now been reported that Charles Ogletree, a celebrity law professor at Harvard (which has several), plagiarized the six paragraphs which open Chapter 16 of a book he recently wrote called All Deliberate Speed: Reflections On The First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education. I read and enjoyed the book earlier this year, but am going to say here some very harsh things about Ogletree’s plagiarism and what it represents.

The pertinent facts, as put together from a contrite apology from Ogletree appearing on the Web and from a Boston Globe article, are, in brief, these: Ogletree’s publisher, W.W. Norton, was pressuring him to finish his book in time for the 50th anniversary of Brown v. The Board. Ogletree had (at least) two assistants helping him with the book. (The Acknowledgments in the book implicitly suggest a possibility that there could have been a lot more than two, but who knows?) "During the final stages of the preparation . . .", said Ogletree, "material from Professor Jack Balkin’s book [Balkin is a Yale law professor] . . . was inserted in a draft section of the book by one of my assistants for the purpose of being reviewed, researched and summarized by another research assistant with proper attribution to Professor Balkin . . . . [Closing quotation marks for the Balkin material were dropped, however.] Unfortunately, the second assistant, under the pressure of meeting a deadline, inadvertently deleted this attribution and edited the text as though it had been written by me. The second assistant then sent a revised draft to the publisher . . . which included the material from Professor Balkin’s book, without identification or attribution. When I reviewed the revised draft I did not realize that this material was authored by Professor Balkin."

The plagiarism problem was subsequently called to parties’ attention by anonymous letters received by Ogletree and Balkin. Sometime thereafter the Dean of Harvard Law School, Elana Kagan, asked former law dean Robert Clark, and former law dean and University President Derek Bok, to investigate. Bok and Clark interviewed the dramatis personnae and reviewed documents that showed how the error arose. "Based on their report," said The Boston Globe, "Kagan deemed the case ‘a serious scholarly transgression,’ according to [law school spokesman Michael] Armini."

Bok, however, told The Globe that "There was no deliberate wrongdoing at all." Rather, "It was a case of publishers insisting on a tight deadline" in order to get the book out in time for the anniversary of Brown. Facing a deadline, Bok said, Ogletree "marshaled his assistants and parceled out the work and in the process some quotation marks got lost."

Ogletree himself has apologized to Balkin, and said in the web posting that he had "delegated too much responsibility to others during the final editing process. I was negligent in not overseeing more carefully the final product that carries my name."

Ogletree has received sympathy from some colleagues at Harvard. Laurence Tribe, himself one of Harvard’s celebrity law professors, told The Globe that "‘It clearly represents the fact that because he so often says yes to the many people all over the country who ask for his help on all kinds of things, he has extended himself even farther than someone with all that energy can safely do.’" The Globe itself referenced Ogletree’s extensive work in the public arena, calling him a "celebrity professor" and saying he is "the author of numerous books, makes frequent media appearances, and has taken on high-profile causes such as representing Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. The National Law Journal has named him one of their ‘100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.’"

The Globe also wrote four paragraphs placing Ogletree’s plagiarism in the current context of "heightened sensitivity in academia after several celebrated cases of misuse of research material." It cited and briefly discussed the cases of Brian VanDeMark, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and Michael Bellesiles.

* * * * *

Those are the major facts, at least as disclosed so far. But what, if anything, is their meaning? Though some may think this writer’s views overmuch, to me the entire incident further stimulates longstanding concern about, and may in fact reflect, forms of corrupt conduct that have become pervasive in America today. Not just pervasive in academia. Pervasive in America. The incident implicates possible dishonest conduct (wholly aside from advertent or inadvertent plagiarism). It portrays lack of diligence and competence. And it illustrates that rewards accrue to the celebrified, not to the honest and competent.

Let’s start with lack of honesty. If memory serves, Justice Brandeis once said that the Supreme Court was respected because it was the last place in Washington where people did their own work. Well, they haven’t done their own work at the Supreme Court either for the last 50 years or so. The Justices’ major item of work -- their opinions -- are drafted by others, by clerks whose names are publicly unknown.

Everywhere in this country underlings write the speeches, the briefs, the articles, the books, the p.r. statements for which bosses, superiors, people on top take the credit. Politicians, university presidents, corporate executives, partners in law firms -- wherever you turn people on top take the credit for the work of others. There are a million reasons (read excuses) for this: The top guys are too busy to do the work themselves. Or their talents lie elsewhere. Or it’s the job of the flack to do this work. Or the top guy told the flack what to say. Or Mister Big may have reviewed the work, may sometimes even have edited it, and agrees with everything he has put his name too. Or the flack was paid to write the big shot’s book for her. Or this is just the way the world works and everybody is doing it.

The justification -- the excuses -- don’t matter. It’s all a form of dishonesty: it all constitutes taking credit for work that was done by others.

Does an author need an editor? Sure. Does a writer, a businessman, a judge have to discuss ideas with others and to perhaps modify or change her own views accordingly? Of course. But editing and discussions are worlds removed from putting one’s own name to an idea, a project, a writing that was the work of another. Did Max Perkins, after all, claim to be the author of Look Homeward, Angel just because he edited the hell out of Thomas Wolfe’s book?

Which brings me to Ogletree’s work. He says he had two assistants helping him with the book. He says one was inserting material in the book. The other, he says, was reviewing, researching and summarizing the material for inclusion in the book -- it sounds like he was defacto putting the material into the final version of the book -- and would send manuscript to the publisher. What these two assistants were doing sounds awfully much as if they were writing the book, or at least some parts of it. Isn’t that what it means when someone inserts material, researches it, reviews it and edits it before sending it to the publisher, and then does send it to the publisher? Yet only Ogletree’s name appears as the author. So how much of this book did assistants insert, review, research, summarize and send to the publisher? How much, if any, of the rest of the book, in other words, was defacto written by someone other than Ogletree, although only Ogletree’s name appears as the author? Is it even possible -- though the very idea seems nuts -- that even sections detailing Ogletree’s own life were written by others, presumably after Ogletree gave them the pertinent facts?

A colleague of mine, who insists that his name not be used, suggests the possibility that people will now go over All Deliberate Speed with a fine tooth comb to look for other instances of possible plagiarism. Beyond that, he says, people may start going over Ogletree’s previous work with the same fine tooth comb. And, this colleague says with a fine but perhaps not wholly misplaced cynicism, it is a truism that people who in one place do something like what occurred here are bound to have done it elsewhere too.

But apart from whether the colleague is right or wrong, perhaps you can see now why this author’s view is that, even if it proves to be confined to what is known so far, the present incident of plagiarism may implicate, may reflect, some of the basic dishonesty which pervades this society because so many people in high places, or at least in positions of power, take credit for work that is actually done by others.

Now let’s turn to diligence and competence. Ogletree says that when he "reviewed" -- note the word: "reviewed," not "wrote" -- when he "reviewed" the revised draft he did not realize that Professor Balkin had written the first six paragraphs of a chapter. The first six paragraphs are approximately two and one-half pages long; by my secretary’s count, they are 824 words long. Beyond this, the chapter, carrying the significant title Meeting The Educational Challenges of The Twenty-First Century, is the initial chapter of an entire section of the book, called Part VI.

Ogletree is a man sufficiently brilliant that he is a professor at the Harvard Law School. Yet he read a draft of his own book so sloppily, so carelessly, that even though the six paragraphs in question are two and one-half pages and 824 words long, and even though they introduce an obviously significant chapter which itself begins an entire section of his book, he did not realize that he himself had not written those paragraphs? A man of his acumen didn’t realize that? Boy, that must have been some sloppy reading! It must have been a reading that was neither diligent nor competent, two qualities vastly lacking in America today.

Ogletree says that he "delegated too much responsibility to others during the final editing process" and "was negligent in not overseeing more carefully the final product that carries my name." This is hardly, shall we say, a maximal way of putting the matter, not when a man of his brilliance doesn’t recognize that six paragraphs that are 824 words and two and one-half pages long, and which introduce a chapter and a section of his book, were not written by himself.

But beyond the issues of diligence and competence implicated by Ogletree’s statements, additional questions are also raised by what is said to have happened. Ogletree says the mistake happened in "the final editing process." So let me get this straight: in the "final editing process" (emphasis added), assistants, not Ogletree but assistants, were finalizing and adding significant chunks of material? And not just any material, but material that introduced a chapter which itself was the initial part of a section of the book? This was being done by assistants? In the final editing process? Doesn’t all this raise the question of who the hell really wrote this book which, or at least wrote portions of this book which, in Ogletree’s words, "carries my name." Doesn’t it raise, that is, the very same issue of honesty discussed earlier?

Moreover, doesn’t the same question of who really wrote portions of the book arise from what may be very clever wording in Ogletree’s web posting? Ogletree doesn’t say "When I reviewed the revised draft, I did not realize that I was not the author of this material." Such a statement would of course imply that he was the author of the rest of the material in the book. But rather than say that, Ogletree said "When I reviewed the revised draft I did not realize that this material was authored by Professor Balkin." (Emphasis added.) Well, how in hell was Ogletree supposed to know that Balkin authored the material (unless Ogletree is claiming that he read Balkin’s book and has a near photographic memory)? Ogletree’s wording smacks of being too clever by half. It smacks of wanting to cover up the fact that he knew and expected that parts of his book were written by others -- by assistants -- and that the problem here was that he assumed the six paragraphs had been written by an assistant while being unaware that they had actually been written by someone wholly unconnected with him. I cannot say whether this logic is true in fact, but it is certainly plausible, and it further stokes the question of who did write portions of this book.

Let us turn now to celebrification. That Ogletree is a celebrity is not open to question. The Globe did not neglect to mention this, and even the compassionate pseudo defense it printed from fellow celebrity professor Larry Tribe implicates it. Tribe in effect said Ogletree is overextended because he so often aids "people all over the country who ask for his help on all kinds of things" -- only celebrities, in this case celebrity lawyers, get such requests from people "all over the country." Indeed, though Ogletree’s celebrity status is not open to question, it is open to question whether W.W. Norton would have been his publisher if he weren’t a celebrity, if he were just Joe Shmo from, say, the University of Akron Law School or the Kansas University Law School. We all know, don’t we, that that is the way the world has worked for about the last 40 or 45 years? The TV people, the magazines, the newspapers, the major book publishers all lust after the celebrities. Universities seek them out to be presidents. Huge companies make them Chairmen of the Board. Publishers ask them to put their names to books that in effect are written by others. Competence does not govern any of this. It is driven by celebrity instead.

When it comes to Ogletree’s book, its existence and its publisher may be owing to his celebrityhood, and the method of producing it which he describes is typical of so many books allegedly authored by celebrities, i.e., other people apparently did much of the work. His book, that is, may exemplify, at least in part, the celebrityhood that has afflicted this nation since John Kennedy ran for President and that pushes out competence, diligence and honesty as methods of advancement. (Not for nothing was there a joke about one celebrity law professor which ran as follows: "The most dangerous place in the world to be is between [the particular professor] and a television camera." The professor presumably understood the need for and certainly lusted after publicity; his exceptionally high competence and diligence were insufficient to obtain adequate success.)

* * * * *

Having written that the entire Ogletree episode implicates fundamental problems cursing this country, let me ask a question regarding the inquiry that was made about it. According to both The Globe and Ogletree’s web posting, Dean Kagan asked two former deans, Derek Bok and Robert Clark, to write a report. On the basis of that report, says The Globe, the Dean "deemed the case ‘a serious scholarly transgression.’" Yet in The Globe Bok defended Ogletree, saying "There was no deliberate wrongdoing" and it all arose from a tight deadline, the consequent marshaling of assistants, etc. What we do not know, however, is what the Bok/Clark report itself says, or why Dean Kagan feels there was "‘a serious scholarly transgression.’" To what extent did the Bok/Clark report ignore the dishonesty, lack of competence and celebrification which were at work here and which are present almost everywhere in America. To what extent, that is, are these elements of American life so entrenched, so taken for granted, in American life generally, and in academia in particular, that Bok and Clark did not even think it worthwhile to mention them and may not even have thought about them? Conversely, to what extent, if any, may Kagan have thought that what was revealed here was so lacking in diligence and competence that it is culpable? And did she give any thought to the dishonesty of what was being done and to the effect of celebrification? This writer cannot remember any academic who has raised these problems, but perhaps that is only my own ignorance or failure of memory. Has Kagan raised them, at least privately or at least in her own mind?

*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.

The Ogletree case is astonishing for another reason too. Presumably, his assistants were top Harvard law students, i.e., the creamiest of the cream of the crop. Yet in this instance they displayed a distinct lack of basic writing, editing, and even time management skills! Perhaps U.S. higher education is in even worse shape than I feared?

Robert E. Wright, Ph.D.


Sent: Monday, September 13, 2004 3:03 PM

Dear Larry (if I may go to first names with you) and bloggers:

There is another critique one might suggest about the Ogeltree case: his explanation is totally lacking in credibility. He claims the two and a half pages of Balkin's writing were originally inserted as a direct quotation, but closing quotation marks "were dropped"--note the use of passive construction here; it evades the question, dropped by whom?

But a quotation of that length would either be indented and be without quotation marks or it would have quotation marks at the beginning of each of the three paragraphs, without quotation marks at the close of the first two, only at the close of the entire quotation of course. So more than the closing quote marks were dropped. The opening marks and the secondary marks of the subsequent paragraphs also must have been inadvertently dropped. That's a lot of droppings.

What do the assistants have to say about this? which assistants? Did they really just stick a long selection from Balkin onto the opening of this crucial chapter with only a citation and without proper indentation or quotation marks?

And how did the citation get removed? Why would "the pressure of meeting a deadline" (what crap, as if this were a live network show about to go on the air in 10 seconds) cause the second assistant to delete the Balkin citation? Were any other attributions deleted because of deadline pressure? Why would deadline pressure make you start deleting your endnotes?

And what did the deleted endnote indicate? that Balkin was the author of those pages? or that he was just a source? and it had all been "edited" as Ogeltree claims. If edited, which means put into one's own words (in this case an assistant's words) then it's not quite plagiarism--in which case, why apologize for the closing quote marks that "were dropped."

It seems to me that until we hear from the assistants we cannot conclude for certain that (a) Ogletree has other people write his stuff for him, or (b) that Ogletree's story is just a smokescreen, a way of distancing himself from the fact that he plagerized Balkin. But I am inclined toward (b) because his explanation sounds like just so much dissembling. I think there never were any quotation marks inserted or dropped; there never was any attribution, and there never were any assistants who did all the sloppy "mistakes."

There is one merry spot in this sad story: I'm referring to Tribe's explanation that it was Ogeltree's excessive generosity and devotion to others that caused him to get overloaded and confused about things. Now that really gave me a chuckle. Hey, what are friends for if not to help you cover your ass?

- Michael Parenti