Why Do Universities Keep Getting Caught Plagiarizing?

It's a tough time to be a school administrator...

Photo Credit: Tdorante10 / CC BY-SA

Back in June, I reported the University of Lincoln, a UK university located in Lincoln. There, the CEO of the school’s student union, James Brooks, was accused of plagiarizing a statement and apology on racial inequality from another school,

Though Brooks apologized for the incident, he declined to resign his position as many students demanded.

The case seemed to be an outlier, a university was caught plagiarizing in an important statement, something that seemed unlikely to repeat itself. However, it wouldn’t be the last time it happened.

On September 3rd, the College of William & Mary, located in Williamsburg, VA, published a letter various cuts that would be made to its athletics programs. The letter was signed by President Katherine Row, Provost Peggy Agouris and athletics director Samantha Huge.

However, multiple sections of that letter turned out to be identical to a Stanford letter, which was sent on July 8th and announced similar cuts at their school. William & Mary admitted to consulting with Stanford, among others, to discuss best practices but also said they, “Clearly fell short of the William & Mary community’s standards.”

Huge said, “Upon reflection, we should have taken more care with the review of the materials we shared with our community. At the end of the day, regardless of the drafting process, I take responsibility and we will do better.”

But even that wouldn’t be the end of it as just a day later Stockton University, located in Galloway, NJ, sent out an “inspirational” email to staff that turned out to be about 30% plagiarized from various sources, including an op-ed advocating for re-opening schools written by the President of Trinity College.

Interim Provost Michelle Craig McDonald, who sent the email, admitted to the plagiarism saying that she was attempting to rewrite her work quickly and that she “ran out of words” and copied from Trinity College op-ed. The school defended McDonald saying that the email was not intended as a public statement. Nonetheless, Stockton’s Faculty Senate has voted for an investigation into the plagiarism and for a national search for a new provost instead of automatically making McDonald permanent.

All of this raises a simple question: What is going on? Why are so many schools, supposedly the strongest force battling plagiarism, suddenly turning to plagiarism so frequently.

The answer, sadly, is human nature. To make matters worse, it’s highly unlikely that these three incidents are the only ones that have happened in recent months.

Difficult Times, Difficult Emails

Though it’s cliche to say we are living in “unprecedented times”, we absolutely are. The one thing that all three of these cases have in common is that they are all very difficult and very unusual messages for a school to convey.

For the University of Lincoln, they were attempting to respond to growing calls for racial equality. For William & Mary, they were having to make deep cuts to the athletics due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, Stockton University was trying to explain the decision to open to faculty and staff understandably concerned about the ongoing pandemic.

These are all difficult letters to write and not letters university administrators are accustomed to penning. However, getting these statements wrong can have dire consequences and make an already bad situation worse.

As such, it’s natural for schools to turn to others that have managed to hit the right notes for guidance. However, a line is clearly crossed when schools go from taking lessons to taking words. The reason for this is two-fold.

The first and most obvious is that schools are supposed to be forces against plagiarism. Schools have academic integrity policies that hand down serious consequences for students that are accused of malicious plagiarism. However, that policy is meaningless if the school itself doesn’t set the example. In short, administrators should be held to a higher bar, not a lower one.

The second, as I noted back in the June story, is that these statements need to be sincere. They need to be the result of significant contemplation, soul-searching and empathy. Plagiarism is none of those things. Plagiarism is seen as lazy, thoughtless and rushed. No matter how sincere the plagiarized words are, the fact they are plagiarized will forever mark them as less-than-heartfelt.

Still, it’s hard not to feel some compassion for these school officials. They’re being tasked with writing difficult and complex statements that they’ve never had to do and all on a tight time timetable. These are serious challenges and not every administrator will be immediately up to the task.

However, if they’re going to garner any real sympathy from the public, they first need to pass that sympathy on to their students.

Sympathy for the Plagiarist

Yes, administrators are being asked to write difficult, high-stakes statements on a tight timeline. But this is a reality that students face every single day while in class. To a student, an essay on an unfamiliar subject that’s worth a significant part of their grade has all of the same stressors as a statement on racial inequality or a severe athletics budget cut for an administrator.

However, if students commit plagiarism in their essays, they face dire consequences. Meanwhile, university officials do not (at least not consistently). Even though those same administrators will be the ones to judge their students’ misdeeds, they aren’t held to the same standard.

McDonald, for example, is a Provost. But if a student came to her said that they “ran out of words” on an assignment and that it wasn’t mean to be a public statement, would receive the same leniency McDonald is hoping for now? It seems unlikely.

While I understand that all of these administrators are operating under difficult circumstances so is nearly every student they’ll ever encounter. If they can break under the pressure, then why do they expect more from students that are younger, less experienced and often under a lot of other stressors?

For schools, this is an opportunity. It’s a chance to understand WHY plagiarism happens. With this, they can then start to evaluate their current policies and see what they need to do to prevent it. Sure, there will always be avid cheaters that need to be dealt with, but a lot of students can be saved if schools refocus their anti-plagiarism energies.

This is a chance to do that. However, it’s a chance that few are likely to take.

Bottom Line

To reiterate, this isn’t to say that those administrators involved need to be treated as harshly as students would be in the same situation. Instead, it’s to say that schools, all schools, need to look at these incidents as a cautionary tale of why plagiarism happens and how just about anyone can be tempted into it.

Plagiarism is a serious issue. However, addressing it isn’t just a matter of academic integrity. Schools need to look at their policies on assessment, course load, course requirements and more to really get to the heart of the issue. These cases above illustrate this perfectly.

Just as with your average class, most schools and universities have handled the challenges without committing plagiarism. But administrators aren’t supposed to be an average class, they are supposed to be better than the students. Understanding the lessons from their failures can help them treat students more fairly and tackle plagiarism in a more productive manner.

Unfortunately, learning these lessons is unlikely. The most likely outcomes will be that schools will continue to be blindly tough (not to mention inconsistent) on plagiarism and faculty and administrators will continue to duck most of the consequences for plagiarism when they are caught. This will continue to undermine the schools’ stance on plagiarism and create mistrust around the process.

Hopefully, this is a learning opportunity that will not be lost. After all, if a provost can “run out of words” then clearly a student can too. Understanding that might be the first step to truly understanding much of student plagiarism.

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