Presidential Plagiarism

Board of Kirkwood Community College "expresses its disappointment" after president admitted he used material from The New York Times in a speech.

February 16, 2016

The board of Kirkwood Community College last week expressed "disappointment" in President Mick Starcevich for using material from The New York Times, without attribution, in a speech he gave. But the board took no further action beyond putting a statement of its disappointment in the president's personnel file.

The plagiarism came in a speech Starcevich gave at a campus event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Starcevich spoke about the stereotypes many people have about community colleges and their students, and he mentioned a high school counselor who had said that attending a community college was not like attending a "real" college. Many recognized the anecdote as coming directly from a column in The New York Times in 2015 -- a column that was much discussed in community college circles.

Some faculty members raised questions with the vice president for academic affairs, who then informed Starcevich. He apologized at the next faculty/staff gathering.

"While I have personally heard comments such as those I described in the story, I should not have told the story as if it were my own," he said. "Regrettably, I failed to properly attribute my source, which was a New York Times blog article written by Kristin O’Keefe in February of 2015, and for this I am deeply sorry. I am fully aware of the potential negative impact this decision may have on me and my reputation and the college as a whole.

"My hope is that you recognize my passion for what we all do to educate our students and the great value Kirkwood provides to our community, and it is in that spirit in which I made my comments. I trust you understand my goal was to celebrate your work and not to use another person’s ideas for personal gain. Nonetheless, I failed to properly give credit to the original source and for this I sincerely apologize."

After the apology, newspapers in Iowa reported that faculty members and others, while appreciative of the speedy apology, were troubled by the situation and wondered what the board would do.

The board met in private and issued this statement: "After meeting and fully discussing issues related to President Starcevich’s comments at this 2016 MLK Day speech, the board formally expresses its disappointment and concern with President Starcevich’s failure to attribute the source of the words he spoke. The board reaffirms its strong and absolute support for academic integrity. The board, however, also acknowledges President Starcevich’s full and prompt acceptance of responsibility in a public forum and his appreciation of the seriousness of the issues raised by his conduct. The board will have an official letter filed in President Starcevich’s personnel file concerning the incident and the board’s response to it."

Some at Kirkwood have noted that the college's policies for students suggest a meaningful punishment (failure on the paper) after one instance of plagiarism, and that there is not an exemption for those who apologized promptly. The policies on student academic dishonesty specifically state that students "are responsible for authenticating all work in a course," and that they need to keep track of sources they use and cite them.

Many academics consider plagiarism of any type an unforgivable offense in scholarship, but the issue comes up also in administrators' nonscholarly remarks and email messages -- and reactions vary.

Shirley Malone-Fenner, vice president for academic affairs at Wheelock College, in September sent a start-of-the-year letter to faculty members, and a number of passages came, without attribution, from the words of others, The Boston Globe reported. Six passages came from a letter from Drew Faust, Harvard University's president. Other phrases came from speeches by the presidents of Rutgers University and the University of the Pacific.

Faculty members discovered the phrases by running Malone-Fenner's letter through plagiarism detection software that the college uses to check students' work. Malone-Fenner told the Globe, “In preparing my message, I reviewed many letters from other institutions and used words from others’ welcoming messages without attribution. What I intended to share is quite simple -- I am excited about working with each member of the faculty to make this a most successful year.”

Malone-Fenner subsequently resigned.


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