The Betsy Devos Plagiarism Scandal

Yes, another one...

Betsy Devos ImageAfter I had finished my articles about the Monica Crowley plagiarism scandal and the top 6 Trump administration plagiarism scandals, I felt I was likely done (for now) in discussing the plagiarism scandals surrounding President Trump’s administration.

However, it seemed the administration has at least one more in store.

This time the center of the story is Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick to head the Department of Education.

DeVos had already been a controversial figure in the Trump administration. Criticized for both her views and her credentials, she’s already been something of a lightning rod for the opposition.

But how serious is this plagiarism scandal really? Do they have merit or are they blown out of proportion due to the controversy surrounding her? To answer that, we have to take a look at what the allegations are and put them into context.

The Plagiarism Allegations Against Betsy DeVos

The allegations against DeVos originally came from The Washington Post, which claimed simply that several passages from her response to written questions from her confirmation hearings were plagiarized verbatim or near-verbatim from various sources.

The reason for the written responses was that many Senators on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee did not get a chance to ask her all of their questions during her confirmation. Instead, they sent their questions in writing and DeVos responded in kind.

Of specific issue was Devos’ answers to a series of questions asked by Senator Patty Murray of Washington. In response to Senator Murray’s questions, Devos submitted a 62-page answer and at least some of those answers appeared to contain text from various other sources.

Those sources include Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama, the Education Department website and passages from U.S. legal code.

Though the alleged copying was brought up in the confirmation hearing, it had little impact on her confirmation. The committee voted to forward DeVos’ nomination onto the full Senate, where a vote is expected shortly.

However, Devos may face a tough fight in the full Senate, where the vote to approve her is expected to be close.

How Serious is the Scandal?

When looking at the facts of the scandal itself, it’s not very serious.

According to a Washington Post interview with Rob Goad, a White House education adviser, DeVos answered nearly 1,400 questions from the committee, including 139 from the ranking member. It’s also almost certain that the answers were drafted, at least in part, by aides.

The seriousness of the scandal takes an additional hit when you consider that, according to CNN and other sources, several of Senator Murray’s questions were also copied without citation. Senator Murray’s staff has acknowledged that it happened, saying that the questions were compiled from her staff members, constituents and education advocates.

Her staff had admitted that the questions involved should have been cited.

But as with the Melania Trump scandal from the Republican National Convention, it’s a scandal that’s minor but takes on a life of its own when placed into context.

That context contains three elements:

  1. The Other Scandals: There have been at least six plagiarism controversies involving President Trump’s administration. This makes seven. It shows that the administration has not learned from its past mistakes and continues to repeat easily-avoided blunders.
  2. The Controversy Around DeVos: DeVos has been a center of controversy since she was nominated for the position. Knowing that her responses would be scrutinized that much more, DeVos’ carelessness stands out even more.
  3. It’s The Department of Education: I often have the misfortune of reporting on principals, superintendents and other school administrators that are caught plagiarizing. It’s a tremendous blow and raises questions about how instructors can teach that plagiarism is wrong when their officials are caught plagiarizing. Someone seeking to head the Department of Education has a higher responsibility to follow the rules of academic integrity. DeVos, or at least her staff, did not with their replies.

By itself, the plagiarized passages aren’t particularly significant. They represent just a handful of passages, likely plagiarized by aides, in a document where uncited text is frighteningly routine. However, when put against the backdrop that is Devos’ nomination, it takes on a different tone, one that is far more disconcerting.

Bottom Line

As I said in my recap article of the Trump administration plagiarism scandals, most of them are not, by themselves, very disconcerting from a plagiarism standpoint. Monica Crowley’s was an exception, but she has since decided to not accept her post.

What is instead disconcerting the sheer volume of smaller plagiarism scandals.

There is no mystery in preventing plagiarism scandals. It just requires a level of concern and effort to make it happen. Simply keeping and using an account with a major plagiarism detection service could have stopped nearly all of these.

But, even as the stories mount, the administration is either unwilling or unable to stop them from continuing.

While plagiarism is certainly just a minor part of the political drama unfolding, it’s a telling one and an insight into an unusual administration that clearly has a very different way of operating from those who came before.

With that in mind, it seems likely I’ll have a lot more scandals to discuss and report on over the coming months and years.

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