An Unfortunate (and Expensive) Lesson on Plagiarism

In late March, the City of Burlington Vermont found itself at the center of an unusual and highly divisive plagiarism story.

Six months prior Kyle Dodson, the president of Burlington’s YMCA, took a six-month hiatus to be the town’s director of police transformation. As part of that, he was to spend six months studying the various challenges facing the police report and submit a report to Mayor Miro Weinberger with recommendations for changes and reforms.

The job came at an exceedingly challenging time. The town, as with much of the country, was dealing with the impacts of the Black Lives Matter protests and ongoing tensions regarding race and police violence. This included a protest in Burlington where protestors overtook a local park for more 11 nights.

Dodson, a black man with broad experience in municipal government, was chosen to produce the report. For his time, he would be paid $75,000.

He submitted that final report on March 19 and, almost immediately, city councilors were struck by the report’s brevity: Only 8 pages and 1,542 words. According to those councilors, the report contained few concrete suggestions and included controversial statements such as, “The community didn’t want transformation. Blacks and activists want revenge. That’s understandable, but it’s deeply problematic.”

However, it was a report from the publication Seven Days that raised a new problem: Plagiarism

According to Seven Days, more than half of the document’s words were not Dodson’s. Some were linked though it was not indicated outside language was used. In other parts, in particular his analysis, elements were lifted without any acknowledgement at all.

In an interview with a local TV station, Dodson did not deny the plagiarism. He said that he made the mistake of viewing this project as a memo to the mayor and not a formal report that would be seen by the public. He also expressed frustration, saying in another article that the demands of the report were unrealistic and why was it expected that he, someone who never presented himself as a police transformer, have the “silver bullet” in just six months.

As for Dodson himself, he has returned to his role as the president of the local YMCA, bringing an end to the matter at hand, but not the controversy.

A Problem We’ve Seen Before

Dodson is far from the first to face accusations of plagiarizing a difficult report or statement like this. In June 2020, we reported on the CEO of the University of Lincoln Students’ Union (USLU) CEO James Brooks was accused of plagiarizing an apology to black students.

We also have seen several universities face allegations of plagiarism over letters detailing budget cuts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and even superintendents that plagiarized letters thanking everyone for their cooperation during difficult times.

Dodson is likely very right that the expectations placed upon him were unreasonable and that there likely was not much he, or anyone else, could do to meet them. However, the time to set reasonable expectations is before a project begins, not after it.

While I can certainly understand how such an impossible task might lead to ambivalence, the topic itself is still far too important to not do the absolute best