Faculty Theft

November 5, 2007

Teaching at a small college like mine demands that one be a generalist. The downside involves not only the constant prepping, but also the reality that I will probably never be a specialist again (I can lecture -- for 5 to 10 minutes -- on virtually any literary or fine arts topic; my grad school dreams of producing an elegant full-length critical text on poetry are long gone). There is an upside as well, however, and that consists primarily of the interesting juxtapositions of and connections among the works on my various syllabi.

Thus, just as the final decision regarding Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University (yes, he plagiarized; no, he won’t be fired) was setting off yet another round of blogging, I found myself starting the day with The Great Gatsby and ending with Oedipus Rex, thus neatly pairing a novel in which "Everybody lies" (the line is Gregory House’s, although it might easily be Nick Carraway’s) and a play in which the tragic hero -- driving the plot toward his own destruction -- argues that “the truth must be made known.”

About a year or so ago, I put out a call at an online forum for tales about faculty plagiarists. What was driving my interest was the sneaking suspicion that in the case of plagiarism, colleges often have a double standard: one standard for students and another for faculty and administrators. If it is sometimes amusing (note that I said sometimes -- more often it is disheartening and aggravating) to listen to the excuses that students will argue in defense of their cheating ways, it is nothing less than appalling to hear a tenured administrator plead that he wasn’t adequately schooled in the meaning of plagiarism or to listen to a faculty member justify her appropriation of another’s work under the headings of forgetfulness, ignorance, or the impossibility of original thought in the 21st century. If one has already committed one egregious act -- that of stealing -- is it surprising that he or she would attempt to lie his or her way out of it? And most appalling of all is how many instances of faculty plagiarism are simply left alone by administrators.

My correspondents in the forum answered my query with examples of faculty plagiarists great and small: some offenders had been outed and severely penalized; still other perpetrators of the crime had triumphed with no punishment at all. A number of forum participants advised against becoming involved in bringing any sorts of charges, and, based on the sagas of revenge cited by several individuals, this began to seem like very good advice.

Formal grievances filed against them, bad teaching schedules, being shrouded by other departmental members, seeing no recourse but to leave: These are some of the repercussions not for faculty members who cheat, but for those who uncover the evidence. Having once or twice stolen the good work of others, some plagiarists’ line of defense is to go after the good names of those who cried "foul."

Plagiarism, I was beginning to understand, was only part of the story. This fact was reinforced for me by one of the final postings (readers having already begun to move on to other forums and forms of discontent). Why not, my anonymous source proposed, broaden the topic to faculty theft? Why not indeed? As the writer -- a veteran of academe, who gave me permission to quote his response -- pointed out:

“Plagiarism” is a somewhat narrowly-understood term -- i.e. the verbatim incorporation of another’s words without acknowledgment -- and the more general defining principle, theft, sometimes gets lost in the parsing. I would argue that other academic thefts -- in particular the hijackings of ideas, proposals, (co-)credit, publishing opportunities, support funds, courses, students, lab space -- are equally -- if not more pernicious.

The writer was indeed correct: plagiarism is just one category of the theft that’s practiced within the halls of academe. I’ve also observed that individuals rarely commit one isolated act of thievery -- there’s usually a pattern. And to my generous correspondent’s catalog, I would add the losses of time, concentration, reputation, joy, and friendships with colleagues.

What explains the lists above? Is it simply, as in the maxim attributed to Henry Kissinger, that university politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small? Do academic departments breed this behavior, or is there something in the makeup of the offender that led him or her to choose -- and abuse -- this line of professional work? In an outside, follow-up e-mail, my anonymous correspondent continued: "I think you will find that the most egregious serial offenders in academe fall under the DSM-IV category of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.... The essence of the disorder is an inability to distinguish between substance and grandiose facade."

If that’s the case, then a proposal regarding the faculty self-evaluation form at my college would be of even less use that it originally appeared to be. Several years ago, a provost and subcommittee of the curricular/academic policy committee suggested that we add a question involving a statement of ethics: Faculty members would be asked to describe and assess in detail their ethical performance. The introduction of this question provoked a lively debate. The conundrum it posed was similar to that of the sink-or-swim test for witchcraft. If a faculty member composed a lengthy screed on his/her ethical behavior, wasn’t he/she protesting too much? If, on the other hand, a faculty member refused to answer the question, was that an indication that he/she was in fact guilty of unethical behavior? Wasn’t the question an insult to anyone striving to live a moral, ethical life? And finally, what would a serial offender do with this opportunity? How likely was it that a faculty member who had misbehaved would seek atonement on the front page of the yearly self-evaluation?

As for what constituted unethical behavior, our discussion never reached the heights or depths of plagiarism. The one example that I can recall went something like this: If you bring cookies for your students on the day that they fill out the course evaluations, is that ethical? It’s certainly food for thought -- and we reflected on that dilemma for a bit, while gazing at the plates of cookies that are always provided for faculty meetings. (We were, in fact, ahead of our time, at least on this issue -- see "Sweetening the Deal" and the accompanying commentary on Inside Higher Ed.)

The question on ethics was cut from the faculty evaluation forms -- not for any philosophical reason but because the subcommittee had neglected to follow the procedure for such revisions that is mandated by the faculty handbook. When the topic surfaced several months later, there was general agreement that just as the students must follow an honor code, so too do faculty members everywhere have an implicit code. We all know, however, that there is no honor among thieves.


Carolyn Foster Segal is associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College.

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