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Graduation Shame

April 22, 2010

As colleges go through this year's rounds of fighting over commencement speakers, Connecticut College is having a painful examination of last year's student speech.

The student newspaper, The College Voice, revealed that the student speaker's talk featured considerable material that came from a 2008 commencement address at Duke University by the author Barbara Kingsolver -- a talk that turns up on some lists of the best commencement talks ever. While the college has known about the plagiarism for months, the incident was not revealed until this week's article by the student newspaper. A college spokeswoman confirmed that the article was generally accurate (except for references to the sanctions imposed on the speaker).

The article described the incident as particularly painful to many at the college who had deeply admired the idealistic, gutsy commencement talk and the student selected to give it, Peter St. John, who was described as the kind of person who was used in YouTube videos to promote the campus and whose picture graced admissions publications.

A draft and then final version of his speech were used by a college committee that selected St. John after also viewing other submissions. The student newspaper quoted St. John as saying in an interview about the plagiarism that he and a friend at another college were both nominated to give commencement addresses, and that when his friend was eliminated from his competition, he e-mailed St. John his notes, some of which St. John used.

"I felt an expectation to produce something amazing," St. John told the student paper. "And that’s not to say that what I did was justified, because it absolutely wasn’t. But everything I said, I meant. There was absolutely no malicious intent, no Googling ‘10 best commencement speeches.’ I was not trying to make people believe I had written her words, and would have cited her had I known. I used things suggested by a person I trusted that I felt would help me push forward a sentiment I strongly believed." (Inside Higher Ed was unable to reach St. John.)

A college spokeswoman told Inside Higher Ed that, after the college learned about the alleged plagiarism, it held a disciplinary hearing on the case. She said she could not discuss the results in any way, citing privacy laws related to students. (At the time he gave the speech, St. John was minutes away from graduating, but hadn't actually done so.) Asked if St. John could still be called an alumnus, the spokeswoman said that was still true.

References to St. John have been removed from Connecticut College's Web site and much of the campus discussion has been about why no public announcement was made about the incident until the student newspaper revealed it. As the newspaper noted, the only public statement that had been made was a correction published in the alumni magazine, which had quoted St. John's speech. The correction stated: "In the Commencement article in the Summer 2009 issue of CC: Connecticut College Magazine, a quote on page 41 attributed to a student speaker was later found to have been a citation from a previously published speech by the writer Barbara Kingsolver. The college has extended apologies to Ms. Kingsolver for the misappropriation of her work."

Lee Higdon, president of the college, issued a statement to the student newspaper in which he discussed the case without naming St. John. "Our choices about how to handle this situation were based on fulfilling what we felt to be the college’s ethical obligations, while still respecting our legal obligations under [the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act]. We fully anticipated that our choices would bring the matter to public attention and that we would be, as we are now, faced with questions about the disposition of the case that we cannot legally answer," Higdon wrote.

Higdon said that as soon as the college determined that "parts of the student speech were virtually identical to a previously published speech by Barbara Kingsolver, I wrote to inform Ms. Kingsolver. I extended my apologies on behalf of the college community for the apparent misappropriation of her work" and he said he told her that the college would "pursue the incident fully through the college’s judicial process." He said that Kingsolver has been "gracious" in her response and that "she did not, as far as I know, choose to make the incident public, although that would have been her prerogative."

He added that due to the student's privacy rights, "I cannot comment in any way on how this case was handled by our judicial system. However, speaking in general terms and without specific reference to this case, I want to assure the college community that we take every allegation of academic dishonesty very seriously and that appropriate sanctions are applied when it is found to have occurred."

On Wednesday afternoon, Roger Brooks, dean of the faculty, and Armando Bengochea, dean of the college community, sent an e-mail to students and faculty members in which they praised the student newspaper "for starting a public conversation about last year's commencement plagiarism incident." The e-mail noted that the student paper is "not bound by the legal obligations to protect student privacy that prevent administrators and faculty who were involved in this case from speaking openly about it." The e-mail said that the portion of the article about the sanctions imposed on St. John (the article quoted him as saying that he had been banned from the campus and alumni functions for several years) was not accurate.

The e-mail concluded by stressing the importance of taking academic integrity seriously: "Plagiarism is wrong. Any individual's decision to plagiarize has the potential to weaken a college community built on the foundation of an Honor Code. As we enter the final exam period, we encourage students to take this opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the Honor Code in their own lives and to renew their commitment to acting with integrity."

 

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