Commencement Blues

It seems that graduation season has brought out the worst, not in students, but in administrators.

In three unrelated stories, administrators have been caught plagiarizing material for their graduation speeches. The administrators, a high school principal, a teacher and one college dean, have by in large remained unapologetic and have dodged responsibility.

The first story comes from Springstead High School in Spring Hill, Florida. There, principal Susan Duval lifted much of her speech from the popular Internet “Noah’s Ark” work without providing any attribution and even declaring the words to be her “personal thoughts”.

When found out by sharp-eared listeners, she admitted that she “cribbed” the work but denied it was plagiarism. She later backtracked and issued an apology blaming the pressures of deadlines and unspecified “unintentional errors”.

The second story comes from Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek, Az. There, history teacher Mark Sweeny gave a commencement speech largely lifted from Anna Quindlen, a Pulitzer-Prize winning Newsweek Columnist. The speech, pulled from her book titled A Short Guide to Happy Life, had been circulating on the Internet for months.

Sweeny was not disciplined for his plagiarism, even though it was not the first time he gave the speech as his own. He had previously done so at a National Honor’s Society induction ceremony.

The Final Story comes from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri. There Bryan LeBeau, dean of UMKC’s College of Arts and Sciences at the university, used passages that were “essentially were the same as those Cornel West used in a May 1993 commencement speech at Wesleyan University,” in his 2003 commencement address.

The similarities, which were published on the The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Web site, have so far gone unanswered, to the best of my knowledge.

In all of these cases academic administrators, the very people who are sworn to prevent plagiarism in the academic arena and enforce tough anti-plagiarism rules, are caught stealing work and receive no punishment (as of yet). Why should students be treated any differently? Are we to hold students to a higher standard than those in charge of their academic future or are we to tell them “do as we say, not as we do”?

The truth is that the lack of understanding and respect for copyright many people have isn’t instilled at birth but by the callous actions of others and the praise they receive for them. Every person, especially if they’re an authority figure, who goes unpunished after being caught only reinforces the ideal that it’s ok to steal intellectual property

I wonder how many future plagiarists these incidents have helped create and it is my sincere wish to see some justice done, not only for the authors who were robbed, but the students who need a better example.

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