On June 16, the CEO of the University of Lincoln Students’ Union (USLU) CEO James Brooks posted an apology to black students, saying that the student union has failed them. He specifically cited how the union has ignored concerns raised by black students and failed to give them a platform to make real change at the university.
The apology went on to outline a 5-point plan of action for how the Students’ Union would address those issues and improve moving forward, including guaranteeing preliminary interviews for all students of color that apply for positions and requiring that all complaints of racial bias be reviewed by an officer independent of the institution.
However, shortly after the apology went live, students began to notice similarities between the USLU statement and a similar apology from the University of Essex Students’ Union, which was posted four days earlier. All totaled, nearly 60% of the apology was copied from the University of Essex site, resulting in a backlash against the “insincere and disingenuous” apology.
This resulted in the removal of the original apology and in Brooks posting yet another apology, this time apologizing for the first apology.
Though Brooks has reaffirmed his commitment to the changes proposed and promised additional changes should a referendum pass, he acknowledged that “Not citing or referencing that this was in solidarity with Essex Students’ Union was a mistake.”
Still, this has not been enough for many of the students at the university, some of which are calling for Brooks’ resignation. However, Brooks has said he will not leave the position and intends to continue forward.
But regardless of what happens to Brooks from here, it is very obvious that ULSU both failed at a challenge and blew an opportunity. What should have been a moment to show how the organization is progressing and working on making real change instead turned into evidence for how insincere and self-serving the organization can be.
It’s letter of caution to organizations of all types: If you want the world to believe you are being honest, you need to be honest about where your words are coming from.
Finding the Right Words
With the worldwide protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the issue of systemic racism and how to combat it is at the front of consciousness for much of the world. This is no different for organizations of all kinds and sizes as they wrestle with both the ways they may have contributed to those racist systems and what changes they need to make to promote racial justice.
By this point, we’ve all seen a variety of Black Lives Matter statements from everything to local businesses to massive corporations. For the most part, they all strike a very similar tone.
However, as similar as these statements may often seem, it is still crucial that each statement be original to the poster. The reason is quite simple: If you’re going to post a reflection on an impactful issue, simply copying and pasting the words of someone else is more than disingenuous, it’s avoiding the difficult work and reflection that should go into such a statement.
While the fear of saying the wrong thing may make copying an earlier statement tempting, it’s a very transparent shortcut. Part of the point is that these statements should come after great consideration and reflection, not simply copy and pasted from someone who “got it right”.
In the case of Brooks and ULSU, no matter how much they agreed with and liked the University of Essex statement, by merely copying it and using much of it without attribution, they avoided not just the work of writing the statement, but of the contemplation and consideration that goes on behind that writing.
When an issue requires sincerity, as this issue does, plagiarism goes from being a crime of mere laziness and incompetence and becomes fully dishonest, making the work itself a lie. After all, it’s tough to say that you are taking an issue seriously and giving it serious consideration when your statement on it is heavily plagiarized from an earlier source.
To be clear, plagiarism is never good. However, with issues as serious as this one, it is even more important that your words be your own or, at the very least, that you cite where your words come from.
Addressing these issues requires transparency and honesty, two things that are the antithesis of plagiarism.
While there are certainly many mistakes companies and individuals can make when addressing these issues, plagiarism should be one of the easiest ones to avoid. Make your words your own, cite when you use the works of others and always be transparent about your sources.
Brooks should have simply stated that he was using the University of Essex’s statement. While it might have made the statement seem less impactful and thoughtful, it would not have made it seem fraudulent. Now, no matter how genuine the intent of the statement, it will always be seen as disingenuous.
It’s a mistake that should be a lesson to other organizations, large and small. Battling racism requires thoughtfulness and honesty and you can’t get those from a plagiarized work.