ACTA in the News | Trusteeship

When Presidents Plagiarize

Politically motivated plagiarism claims prompted Harvard’s Claudine Gay to resign. Her decision to step down largely follows the trend of other, similar cases.
INSIDE HIGHER ED   |  January 12, 2024 by Josh Moody

When Harvard University president Claudine Gay stepped down on Jan. 2 amid swirling plagiarism charges, it was a win for her conservative political opponents and a blow to her many supporters.

Gay cast herself as a victim of right-wing forces that pushed her out for political reasons, taking minimal responsibility for the flawed scholarship, ineffectual leadership and bungled performance at the congressional hearing on antisemitism that contributed to her downfall.

While some of her conservative critics crudely took credit for the takedown, Gay’s decision to resign over plagiarism charges follows what has largely been the trend for presidents accused of such actions—even when those claims are not accompanied by a political sideshow, as hers were. Some scholars have suggested that plagiarism allegations are being weaponized against college presidents, but Gay did what many of her peers have done in the past when confronted with similar accusations: she resigned.

Now, in the wake of her exit, questions abound about Harvard’s vetting process for Gay, how institutions should assess a presidential candidate’s academic work during the search and how plagiarism may be deployed as part of the culture war between liberals and conservatives.

Before Gay resigned, she submitted corrections to several past articles, despite disagreement about whether the work qualified as plagiarism, as her critics have argued, or simply academic sloppiness, as others have claimed. Harvard has also come under scrutiny for its opacity on the issue; now the institution must answer to Congress for the way officials handled the plagiarism claims.

Whether issues with Gay’s scholarship should have been caught during the presidential search is unclear. Harvard has remained silent on the matter, and Gay’s work was peer reviewed. But given the highly public nature of the scandal, search committees have surely taken notice—though it’s too early to say what that means for future presidential searches.

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, believes the evolution of presidential searches is “inevitable and salubrious for higher education,” especially at a time when public confidence in the sector is low and many institutions are struggling to attract students.

Poliakoff described the Harvard issue as a “reputational crisis within a reputational crisis.”

To avoid the same fate, he urged governing boards at other institutions to do their own due diligence in presidential searches, rather than delegating those responsibilities or relying too heavily on search firms.

“The academy needs to restore public trust, and one of the ways they can do this is by taking all steps to ensure that its members—faculty and administrators—are operating at the highest ethical standards. It should not be that difficult to find people who are worthy of that trust,” he said.

But evolving the presidential search processes will likely be neither easy nor cheap.

Larry Ladd, a senior consultant at AGB Consulting, noted that candidates for college presidencies are already subject to extensive background and reference checks. Colleges and search firms review academic credentials, work history, legal records, credit scores, research records and more to ensure that candidates don’t have skeletons looming in their closets.

“It’s a pretty thorough background check. Whether that background check might extend to the content of academic research, we don’t know yet. If it does, it will be very time-consuming,” he said. He questioned whether “the technology is sufficient” to police academic integrity.

To illustrate the challenges of identifying such issues, Ladd pointed to Stanford University, where former president Marc Tessier-Lavigne resigned last year after an institutional investigation into research misconduct determined that he “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record” related to articles he had co-authored dating back to the early 2000s.

The investigation lasted eight months, Ladd noted.

“It takes a lot of work, even with improvements in technology,” Ladd said.

As politically motivated as the charges against Gay may have been, the claims were valid enough to force corrections from the short-lived Harvard president. A look at other cases of alleged plagiarism by college presidents from the past 20 years show that such accusations were often career ending.

In more than a dozen instances where presidents were accused of plagiarism, the outcomes followed similar patterns. In some cases, the presidents were cleared of the charges. But when plagiarism was proven, presidents retired or resigned, or their contracts were not renewed; some decamped for another job.

After Gay, the most high-profile presidential plagiarism case in the past few years is arguably that of Robert Caslen, who stepped down from the University of South Carolina in 2021 after he admitted to swiping a quote for a commencement speech without proper attribution. (Caslen was already under fire for mistakenly congratulating “University of California” graduates in a commencement speech.)

Similarly, Gregory J. Vincent resigned as president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2018 after the institution opened an investigation into claims he had plagiarized his dissertation.

Those who didn’t have their contracts renewed include West Liberty University president W. Franklin Evers in 2021 and LeMoyne-Owen College president Andrea Lewis Miller in 2019—though both were also plagued by other issues.

And some presidents simply retired when accused of plagiarism.

Malone University president Gary Streit retired in 2010 “in response to recent concerns about the use of unattributed materials in some of his speeches,” the university announced at the time. Blandina Cárdenas retired as president of the University of Texas–Pan American in 2008, making no mention of a plagiarism investigation into her academic work. Central Connecticut State University president Richard Judd also retired in 2004 after his superiors determined he had plagiarized an op-ed for The Hartford Courant. Both Cárdenas and Judd emphasized health issues in their respective retirement announcements.

A rare few have managed to continue their presidencies despite plagiarism allegations.

William Meehan was hit with plagiarism accusations in 2007 and again in 2009 when he was president of Jacksonville State University, a position he held until he retired in 2015. Saint Louis University’s president the Reverend Lawrence H. Bondi was accused of borrowing significant portions of a homily he delivered in 2005, only to shrug off the allegations and serve until 2013.

Ladd noted that presidential resignations over plagiarism claims are typically about doing what’s best for the university, given the potential for reputational damage.

“When you see presidents resign, sometimes it’s fair to the president and sometimes it’s not fair to the president, but it’s always in the best interest of the university,” Ladd said, emphasizing that instances of academic dishonesty by presidents are fairly rare.

In any case, presidential plagiarism allegations don’t always stick.

Weymouth Spence, president of Washington Adventist University, was accused of plagiarism in 2019 but later cleared by the Board of Trustees after an outside investigation. Glenn Poshard, who served as president of Southern Illinois University from 2006 to 2014, was accused of plagiarism in 2007. A faculty panel found Poshard was careless with citations but ultimately stopped short of declaring him a plagiarist.

Some scholars and news organizations have warned that the attack on Gay’s scholarship is likely just the beginning of the coming plagiarism wars. Bill Ackman, a billionaire Harvard graduate who repeatedly called for Gay to step down over her citation issues, has signaled an appetite for toppling other academics over similar missteps.

Ackman threatened to review the academic work of the entire faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after his wife, Neri Oxman, a former MIT professor, was exposed as a plagiarist.

“We will begin with a review of the work of all current @MIT faculty members, President [Sally] Kornbluth, other officers of the Corporation, and its board members for plagiarism,” Ackman wrote in a social media post on X earlier this month after his wife’s work was exposed. Ackman also threatened to review the work of reporters at Business Insider, which published the story on Oxman.

Jonathan Bailey, founder of the website Plagiarism Today, who has served as an expert witness in plagiarism cases, argues that weaponizing such allegations has a long history. But he believes the plagiarism war is changing, moving away from metaphorical guns and into its nuclear phase, in which the tools are used primarily to advance a political agenda.

“Plagiarism has been weaponized for as long as there’s been plagiarism in politics. Because when you’re calling someone a plagiarist, you’re fundamentally calling them a liar. You’re calling them someone who can’t be trusted. It’s a convenient way to disparage an opponent’s name,” Bailey said.

To illustrate his point, Bailey referenced plagiarism allegations leveled against Barack Obama, John McCain and other public figures accused of lifting various materials. But he noted that those charges rarely derailed campaigns or altered careers. Yet in academe, as Gay’s experience shows, “plagiarism is often a career-ending sin.”

Still, Bailey is skeptical of Ackman’s threatened review, noting the sheer amount of time and money investigating MIT’s faculty would require, even with a billionaire’s resources; the website lists 1,080 faculty members as of fall 2022.

Bailey also stressed the need for clear policies so institutions can deal with such allegations when they arise. In the case of Harvard, he suggested the initial review of Gay’s scholarship was not thorough enough, given the continual drip of plagiarism allegations.

“One thing I would encourage schools to do when they get [plagiarism] allegations is to find someone independent of the school to examine them,” Bailey told Inside Higher Ed. “Someone who is not beholden to that individual or president in any way should be the ones examining the claims and making a decision about whether or not the claims are valid, whether they point to any corrective action as needed, and whether they point to the need for a further investigation.”

In the end, he argued, everyone will benefit.

This article appeared on Inside Higher Ed on January 12, 2024.


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