With Plagiarism, the Problem is Not DEI, But Academia

Yesterday, Luke Rosiak and Christopher F. Rufo at the conservative publication The Daily Wire published plagiarism allegations against Natalie J. Perry, the head of Cultural North Star, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

According to the investigation, which was done with the City Journal, Perry committed widespread plagiarism in her 2014 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Virginia. This includes lengthy passages of text copied verbatim or near-verbatim from outside sources. Those sources are either not mentioned or are not indicated to be quoted.

To make matters worse, in some of the copied passages, Perry appears to have copied in-text citations that were not included in her full bibliography/references, indicating she copied the text without examining the original sources.

To that end, the evidence is damming, and an investigation is in order, likely by both UCLA and the University of Virginia. Regardless of the reasons for this investigation, it does appear to highlight serious issues with this work that need to be addressed.

To be clear, I have not been able to verify these allegations independently. However, even if only parts of these allegations are accurate, there are significant problems that need to be closely examined.

However, the article then goes further, saying that Perry’s plagiarism is not just an individual failing but a failing of DEI broadly. In their conclusions, the Daily Caller said, “These institutions have dramatically lowered expectations for favored groups and pushed a cohort of ‘scholars’ through the system without enforcing basic standards of academic integrity.”

Regardless of what one thinks about DEI programs, my experience has been that these issues are not unique to DEI, any particular field of study or any particular institution. Rather, they are pervasive issues in the whole of academia and fixing them will mean addressing issues larger than any one component.

The Problem with Weaponized Plagiarism

Anyone following plagiarism news over the past few months knows that Perry is not the first to face such allegations.

This recent spate began in December 2023, with allegations against Claudine Gay, then Harvard’s president. Though the allegations against her were comparatively minor, she ended up resigning her position, facing significant backlash both over the plagiarism allegations and her performance at a Senate subcommittee hearing on antisemitism in schools.

In the months following that, others at Harvard were similarly accused, including Sherri Charleston, the school’s chief diversity officer, and Shirley Greene, an associate dean of students at Harvard Extension School and a diversity advocate.

The allegations have also gone beyond Harvard, including Alade McKen, Columbia University’s chief of DEI, and, just yesterday, Perry at UCLA.

As we discussed in January, these efforts are part of the weaponization of plagiarism. Critics of DEI programs are aggressively checking the work of DEI allies, administrators and perceived “DEI hires” for plagiarism. The goal isn’t to preserve academic/research integrity but to discredit DEI programs.

Ironically, this results in only certain groups having their work thoroughly checked for plagiarism. This creates a double standard in academia, which is one of the things that DEI’s detractors accuse DEI of doing.

However, a quick look outside these cases shows us that plagiarism is not exclusively or even primarily a DEI issue. It’s an academia-wide issue that needs to be treated as such.

A Problem Without Borders or Boundaries

Amazingly, the plagiarism scandals listed above are not the only ones Harvard has faced. Just last week, Dipak Panigrahy, a professor at Harvard Medical School, was accused of heavily plagiarizing an expert witness report. The week prior, already embattled professor Francesca Gino was accused of plagiarism on top of long-running allegations of data fraud.

Looking outside the school, DEI critics have not been immune to allegations of plagiarism. Neri Oxman, the wife of billionaire and Claudine Gay critic Bill Ackman, was accused of plagiarism in her dissertation.

The cases aren’t even limited to the United States. In Norway, two government ministers were accused of plagiarism in their dissertations, and both have since resigned.

None of these cases features DEI officials or supporters. The one thing they have in common is that they all involve individuals who, for various reasons, found themselves targeted for an investigation. Whether it was an attempt to discredit an expert witness, a political motive, or just wanting to target a minister who took a hard stance on self-plagiarism, they were all targeted cases.

As we discussed in February, there is so much plagiarism around right now because it’s relatively easy to check a small number of works for plagiarism. If one doesn’t find anything, they simply move on with little lost, but if they do, it can be fatal to the target’s career.

However, those efforts don’t scale easily. While an initial check of a dissertation for plagiarism may only take a few hours, doing that for hundreds or thousands of students is much more difficult and less rewarding.

The result is that plagiarism often slips through the cracks, even in theses and dissertations, only to come back up when the now-former student is targeted for whatever reason.

It’s a system-wide problem with no easy answer. But it is not a DEI problem. It is a problem with academia, and, if we are to fix it, we must treat it as such.

Bottom Line

If you examine the dissertations, theses and other research of many higher degree holders, you’ll likely find a surprising amount of outright plagiarism, poor paraphrasing, citation issues and other related problems.

The reasons for this are systemic to academia, not a product of any segment thereof.

Some of it can be attributed to many in academia having a blind spot regarding post-graduate students. So much time and effort is spent ensuring undergrads don’t cheat or plagiarize that graduate students are often given far more trust. That can lead to a lack of guardrails.

Likewise, students often lack resources on proper research, citation and paraphrasing processes. Students who learn bad habits or processes before coming to university often don’t get an opportunity to fix them.

These types of changes can help but need to be made system-wide. Treating this as a DEI issue does nothing to address the very real plagiarism problem and does not encourage honest discussion about DEI itself.

It’s academia that has the plagiarism problem; DEI is just the current target.

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