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A gold sign that says "President" hangs on a wall.

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Few higher education stories have received more coverage than the controversies surrounding the now former president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay. But Gay is not the first university president to resign or retire after being accused of plagiarism or research misconduct.

In 2000, after being accused of plagiarizing parts of a speech, the president of Hastings College announced his retirement, stating, “Even though I promptly and sincerely responded to my accusers in the current controversy, I believe my ability to lead the college has been compromised.”

In 2006, the then chancellor of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale was accused of plagiarizing a strategic plan he had developed at his previous institution. In the end, he was asked to step down by the system president.

In 2011, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that student concerns about plagiarism by Tennessee Temple University’s president “ultimately led to his resignation from the school”; the president, “while acknowledging that he plagiarized some passages in his book Jesus Is Awesome, said he was leaving the university anyway.”

More recently, in May 2021, the University of South Carolina’s president made national news with headlines such as “University president resigns after plagiarizing part of a speech by the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command.”

In July 2023, Stanford University’s president resigned following an internal investigation into research misconduct allegations; while the investigative team found the president “did not have actual knowledge of the manipulation of research data that occurred in his lab,” it faulted him for taking inadequate steps to correct errors in published papers.

And, of course, in the case that has received so much coverage, 2024 began with Gay resigning from the presidency of Harvard “amid swirling plagiarism charges,” charges that prompted her to seek corrections for “citation errors” in published articles.

One question that’s come to the fore in the weeks since Gay’s resignation is whether presidential search committees are looking for plagiarism and whether they’re likely to step up their scrutiny of candidates’ publications. Since past resignations of presidents have not induced them to do more due diligence, count us skeptical that much will change.

In our 2016 study of search firm contracts and our review of dozens of contracts since then, we have yet to find evidence that the contractual requirements for due diligence have increased in either breadth or depth. None of the contracts we’ve examined required the search firm to check for allegations of plagiarism, research misconduct or any other issues—let alone conduct an independent review of a candidate’s scholarly work—all of which, we believe, has led to shorter presidential tenures.

Not a single proposal submitted by a search firm or contract that we’ve examined requires the search firm to verify anything on the vitae of candidates—not even past employment. At best, some require a “certification" that the information submitted by the candidate is true and accurate. We suspect this is done for the search firm’s protection, not for the benefit of the client university.

As such, we have never seen a search firm contract that requires verification of publications or research grants listed on a candidate’s vita. We have yet to see a contractual requirement to validate an H-index. In our article on due diligence, we reported “that on-list reference checks, the most-often-completed element, were included as part of the base fee in only 51 percent of the contracts” we examined. In that same article, we wondered about one firm stating “that it verifies educational degrees by checking ‘publicly available sources’” and whether that meant “checking candidates’ vitae published solely on their websites.”

Even when there is a due diligence clause, it is often subcontracted to other firms or consultants and accompanied by an additional charge. However, as we reported, “in a number of contracts, we found explicit language stating that the firm would not guarantee the accuracy of its findings with regard to any aspect of due diligence. That was the case even when an extra fee was involved or a third party, such as a private investigator, was hired to conduct the review.”

We are not naïve. The problems of plagiarism and research misconduct are not going away. While the now former presidents of Harvard and Stanford provide high-profile examples of potential consequences, unfortunately, these are likely the exceptions—not just in academia but throughout government, business and the nonprofit sector.

In higher education, we can do four things to mitigate our risk of discovering such issues after the fact. The first is to abandon secrecy in conducting presidential searches. Secrecy has increasingly become the norm, primarily at the insistence of search firms.

While the allegations of research misconduct at Stanford and plagiarism at Harvard started with a single report, these quickly gained traction, and other examples were found through what was essentially crowdsourcing—which leads to our second recommendation. Requiring all finalists to be named publicly and to meet with faculty would allow the faculty grapevine, the ultimate form of crowdsourcing, to do its work. Justice Louis Brandeis’s quote from over a century ago still holds: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

We also recommend that the vetting and due diligence processes be explicit in the university’s request for proposals from search firms and in the search firm contract. This also means that there should be substantial penalties if the firm gets it wrong. Typically, these firms mitigate their risks by limiting their liability to the cost of the search without regard to what a failed presidency costs the university.

Finally, all doctoral programs must provide scholarly ethics training and require students to participate. Anyone who becomes a department chair, dean, provost or president should have advanced training in ethics. One place for our students to start would be to require that they read a document from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity: “Avoiding Plagiarism, Self-Plagiarism, and Other Questionable Writing Practices: A Guide to Ethical Writing.” Every academic administrator should have a poster of the department’s “28 Guidelines at a Glance to Avoid Plagiarism” on their wall as a daily reminder.

There is no doubt that there is a double standard regarding research misconduct and plagiarism. Some may remember back to 2004 when Laurence Tribe, then the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law School, apologized for failing to attribute material from another scholar in a 1985 book. A Harvard Crimson editorial on the university’s subsequent decision not to discipline Tribe lamented “A Disappointing Double Standard”:

“Plagiarism at Harvard, at least for the student body, is a gravely punishable offense. Students caught plagiarizing are routinely suspended for semesters or even entire academic years; and in extreme cases expulsion is also an option. For professors who plagiarize, however, not even a modicum of punishment seems to be in play.”

The editorial closed, “For the public face of Harvard and for internal relations as well, it is crucial that the university maintain more consistent disciplinary rules for instances of academic dishonesty. Until then, the glaring double standard set by Harvard stands as an inadequate precedent for future disappointments.”

Those future disappointments have arrived—not just for Harvard but for us all. As the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce wrote in her letter to the Harvard Corporation, “Harvard is not just any university. It styles itself as one of the top educational institutions in the country.” Harvard may have learned its lesson from not disciplining Tribe. It took almost 20 years to get it right. The rest of us may not have that luxury of time.

Judith Wilde is a research professor and James Finkelstein is a professor emeritus in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

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