Update December 9, 2020: The Rochester school board voted unanimously to suspend Muñoz for five days without pay. With his daily rate, this amounts to a $4,390 loss for him. They are also launching a public restorative practice plan to more fully address what happened.
Michael Muñoz is the current superintendent of the Rochester Public School District in Rochester, Minnesota. Having led the school district through a challenging spring semester, the school board recently voted 6-1 to extend his contract through June 30, 2022.
Though that extension was not without controversy, especially among candidates for the school board, he seems to be generally well-supported and liked during his nine-year tenure.
However, Muñoz found himself at the center of controversy earlier this week when Sean Baker at Med City Beat reported that an email Muñoz sent to the staff Rochester Public Schools turned out to be heavily plagiarized.
The email, sent the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, was meant to express his gratitude to the faculty, staff and parents of the school district for their demanding work in keeping the school district going during these challenging times.
Unfortunately, the 500-word email turned out to be almost entirely plagiarized from outside sources. Recipients were suspicious almost immediately after realizing that the email was much longer than what Muñoz normally writes and that it contained multiple font sizes and typefaces.
Ultimately, more than half of it came from a combination of two sources: A thank you letter sent to the Hernando School District staff in Hernando, Florida and a similar letter sent to the staff at the City School District of Albany in Albany, NY.
This prompted a swift apology from Muñoz who took responsibility for the plagiarism. He called it a “bad choice” and did not offer an explanation saying it would, “just come across as making excuses.”
But all of this asks one serious question: Why? Why did he plagiarize this email? Why commit such a serious academic offense on an email that wasn’t even necessary?
That, unfortunately, is a bit more difficult to answer.
Not-So Difficult Letters
Back in October, we looked at a variety of cases where school officials were caught plagiarizing difficult letters. Whether it was a student union CEO plagiarizing a letter about racial injustice, a school dealing with deep cuts to athletics programs or a school being forced to justify reopening amidst the pandemic.
These are all difficult letters that are both necessary and challenging. While it’s difficult to ever truly justify plagiarism, it’s easy to see why school officials both felt they had to write these letters and struggled with them.
That is not the case with Muñoz.
While he was certainly talking about challenging things, this was a letter he could have opted not to send. No one, it seems, was expecting such an email from him and the letter drew suspicion for being longer than his usual fare.
There was no expectation of this letter and, while giving thanks to those working hard for the district is a good thing to do, it’s not necessary. Muñoz had the option to stay quiet, but instead chose to plagiarize.
To make matters worse, he plagiarized in a very inept way. He not only used a voice that was not like his own, but didn’t even mask the different fonts. It’s the type of plagiarism that wouldn’t pass even the most cursory examination in the classroom.
While his apology does help things some by taking full responsibility and not making excuses, it also doesn’t explain why or how it happened.
Though certainly better than many plagiarism apologies, it leaves a lot of big questions unanswered.
What happens next is up to the Rochester School Board and the employees of Rochester Public Schools. Though Muñoz says that he is “committed to rebuild your confidence and trust in me every single day” they are the ones that decide if that confidence and trust can be rebuilt at all.
An inept and lazy plagiarism in an unnecessary letter that was meant to be a heartfelt expression of personal gratitude is a lot to take in. Students have long taught us that, when faced with difficult and important assignments, plagiarism becomes a temptation. However, for Muñoz, there was no assignment, and the letter should not have been that difficult.
Muñoz’ mistake wasn’t that of a school administrator that was overwhelmed by the task at hand, but of one that wanted to write a thank you letter and opted to plagiarize it rather than taking the time to write it himself or having a staff member do it.
The school district has a tough choice and it’s one made more difficult by outside circumstances. Not only was his contract recently extended, but the ongoing pandemic makes any change more difficult. Furthermore, in spite of his poor choices here, he seems to be a well-liked and respected superintendent.
So yes, the school board has a difficult choice. However, it’s a choice wouldn’t have been necessary at all if Muñoz had simply made the easy choice of not plagiarizing in the first place.