The Duke University Commencement Plagiarism Scandal

On May 8, 2022, Duke University held its commencement ceremony, which included an address by graduating student Priya Parkash. 

In that speech, she likened Duke University to its own country and said that she has been embracing her “Duke citizenship” over the past four years. She went on to compare Duke to a nation, saying that the school had its own unique landmarks, a large endowment and a tendency for citizens to proudly display their affiliation as they travel.

However, the next day The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, published an article noticing many similarities Parkash’s speech and a 2014 speech given by Sarah Abushaar at Harvard University.

Both speeches followed a very similar beat. They compared their colleges to a small nation, compared their schools to other countries, including landmarks, “passports” while traveling and even likened their respective alumni associations to tax collectors.

While, the exact landmarks and references were often changed, the ideas and the order they were presented in were identical. For example, where Abushaar said, “We had our own version of the Statue of Liberty, the John Harvard statue,” Parkash said, “We also have our own version of Christ the Redeemer – the statue of James Buchanan Duke.”

The similarities become all the more damming when viewed in a YouTube video that places the elements side-by-side. 

Parkash, for her part, has released a statement and said that she takes “full responsibility for this oversight and I regret if this incident has in any way distracted from the accomplishments of the Duke Class of 2022.” She further claimed that, when writing the speech, she sought advice from family and friends and learned about the similarities too late. 

Duke University has said that it is investigating the matter and has already removed a transcript of the speech from their site

For long-time readers of this site, the story of commencement plagiarism. We’ve seen stories from the University of South Carolina, my alma mater, West Liberty University and many public school districts including ones in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

However, this story is unique even among those tales as, with every single one we’ve covered, it’s been school officials that were caught plagiarizing, not the students.

This raises a serious question: What happens next?

The Next Steps

The allegations themselves are fairly easy to understand. It is pretty clear that Parkash’s speech was a rewrite of Abushaar’s. This is furthered by Parkash’s own statement on the matter.

There should not be much doubt that Parkash’s speech did amount to plagiarism in this case. 

But commencement plagiarism puts Duke in a tricky position. Parkash is a graduate and, though the plagiarism is clear, it wasn’t part of her coursework. As public and embarrassing as it was for Duke, this wasn’t something she was required to do for any class.

The school could still approach this as an honor code violation, but how do you respond if she is found to have committed an infraction? Do you revoke her degree and force her to take a remedial class before she graduates? What can, and should, the school do?

This is such an unusual case that there is no clear answer here. This isn’t newly discovered plagiarism in a thesis or dissertation. It’s a unique case that will require a unique response.

To that end, Duke has to find a response that is both within its power and appropriate. Oddly enough, since Parkash is cooperating, it may be best to work with her in determining the response. 

However, the school may be best served by focusing more on preventing future issues.

Focusing on Prevention

The lesson for Duke, and indeed any other school that determines graduation speakers similarly, is that this is something that can happen. 

This year, Duke University held an open contest for seniors that wished to speak at graduation. This began with a call for applications in February. Applicants were required to turn in a brief speech outline, and then those picked as finalists were required to delivery draft speeches to the selection committee.

It is unclear what the university did with those draft speeches. Given the amount of rewriting in Parkash’s speech, it is entirely possible that they did run it through some plagiarism detection tools but the similarities were not immediately apparent.

However, if such a check is not part of the process now, it absolutely should be moving forward. It is still an important safeguard. 

The more important step would be to make sure the rules are extremely clear. Not just about what is not allowed, but what the consequences are. This would apply not just to plagiarism, but all areas of academic integrity. 

This would, among other things, greatly empower the school to respond in a proportionate way.

This, ultimately, is a lesson not just for Duke but for all schools. You need to anticipate the possibility of academic integrity violations in commencement speeches and prepare accordingly. It might seem far-fetched. But, as this case and many others show, it is a real possibility and it can be a severe embarrassment for the school.

Bottom Line

In the end, the people who are most directly hurt by this are Abushaar and the other students at Duke University, in particular the other 2022 graduates.

That is the real tragedy of commencement plagiarism. At a time when we should be talking about the accomplishments and bright futures of all the students graduating, instead the headlines are grabbed by stories of plagiarism.

In short, it distracts from what is actually important this time of year, the students. 

However, I find it highly unlikely that this will be the only story about commencement plagiarism we cover this year. It’s a common theme this time of year and one that we will very likely return to sooner rather than later.

Update: Abushaar has released a statement through the Harvard newspaper, The Crimson. It reads, “The goal of my address was to inspire young people, and especially young women, from all backgrounds to break barriers in striving for their aims and to have the courage to use their voices to share their stories and serve as forces of good. I hope that this incident was a serious error in judgment and that the student can take this opportunity to learn and grow from it.”

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