One day after a regular meeting of our Academic Integrity Committee, where we discuss ways to improve awareness among both students and faculty alike about plagiarism, I open the paper over my bowl of oaty flakes to learn that the embattled president of SIU has been largely let off the hook for copying large chunks of his thesis from other sources. The recommendation of the committee that investigated the case is that the offending thesis should be returned to the library once it has been corrected. We should note that the committee consisted of SIU faculty members over which the president holds not inconsiderable clout. Exactly how independent could their decision making process be? They did not waste much time reaching the decision: not the indecent haste of the OJ jury perhaps, but quickly enough to put the sorry tale behind them and "move on" as is the general wish of the university and its administration.
I'm thinking that correcting the thesis is a complete waste of time at this stage; how many people actually read the thing so many years on? Theses are written to satisfy the degree requirements and then can sit on a shelf, in a library or a den, gathering dust for evermore. How many contain original work worthy of note and recitation later on? Martin Luther's perhaps an exception. The useful parts of any thesis end up being published as papers, which are more easily accessed and referenced. So I suppose that poor Dr. Poshard has now to flog through and put quotes around all those passages. How tarsome.
I'm a bit more bothered about the broader message that this weak decision sends to students about the costs (or lack thereof) of being caught plagiarising. As we lowly folk talk earnestly about integrity, morality and ethics, and preach imploringly about the horrible end that will await any cheater, the world teaches a very different lesson. The possible exception to that is the sports world (baseball excepted), where there has been a massive piling on by vindictive journalists over Marion Jones eventual confession. Generally though, in business, in academe, in politics, in the arts, you can get away with it even if you are caught. Joe Biden, presidential hopeful, once fabricated a story about his background based on that of an English politician. It cost him then; but now it is as if it never happened. Mitch Albom faked a story. I can go on.
The excuse for Poshard that standards were different back then is, to borrow from Gordon Ramsay, complete bollocks. If the university and its members did not know for sure back in the 1980s, even if it wasn't carved on some stone tablets, that copying whole passages from other sources and calling them yours was cheating (plagiarizing) then the institution should be dissolved. I think I knew that back in primary school. This was back in the day before cutting and pasting from the Internet became so easy and tempting. The scribe would have to painstakingly transcribe each word. One thinks it would have been quicker to write one's own, unless the author was so completely devoid of ideas.
Meanwhile, I am flogging through essays, noting with sadness a marked similarity in some cases with Wikipedia, an indication of the putrid level of effort and imagination exerted by those authors in executing a simple assignment. Do they imagine I won't find out?