The Standard Reader
From the September 20, 2004 issue: Joseph Bottum on Harvard's plagiarism problem.
Sep 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 02 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Another Harvard Copycat
What's going on up in Cambridge? Is it something in the water? First Doris Kearns Goodwin, member of Harvard's Board of Overseers, gets caught borrowing from a book on the Kennedys. Then Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter professor of law, is accused of excessive dependence on an earlier book about Israel. And now Charles J. Ogletree--the Jesse Climenko professor of law--has admitted on the Harvard University website that he, too, did a spot of plagiarism this year.
Only a spot, you understand, and "inadvertently," "under the pressure of meeting a deadline" for All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education (W.W. Norton: 2004). Along the way, three pages of Yale professor Jack M. Balkin's What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said (NYU Press: 2001) got stolen--or, rather, got "inserted in a draft section of the book by one of my assistants for the purpose of being reviewed, researched, and summarized by another research assistant." But that "second assistant then sent a revised draft to the publisher," forgetting to clean up the work of the previous assistant.
This is an explanation, I suppose, for how plagiarism can happen. But think about the worse thing the explanation reveals: Ogletree didn't plan to write All Deliberate Speed in the first place. His graduate assistants cobbled it together for him from other sources--and, as Ogletree puts it, "I was negligent in not overseeing more carefully the final product that carries my name."
That's a curious construction, but it seems correct, in the end. Surely we reserve the term "authors" for people who write books--not people who create "final products that carry their name."
WHEN DID THIS BECOME the way that a Harvard faculty member produces a book? There are easy ironies in any story of professorial plagiarism, of course. In Writing with Sources, a guide for Harvard's composition students dug up by Slate magazine during the Goodwin scandal, Ogletree's time pressure is explicitly rejected as an excuse: "Most often . . . the plagiarist has started out with good intentions but hasn't left enough time to do the reading and thinking that the assignment requires, has become desperate, and just wants the whole thing done with."
So, too, this week's back-to-school issue of the Harvard Law School's official newsletter, the HLS Adviser, notes: "The Administrative Board wishes to call the attention of all students to (1) materials on plagiarism and collaboration appearing on p. 223 of this year's HLS Catalog, and (2) the information on discipline on p. 231 of the Catalog"--where the claim of inadvertence that Ogletree makes is declared an insufficient defense.
BUT IRONIC as this all may be--a nest of unpunished plagiarists solemnly warning their students about the penalties for plagiarism--I find the pseudo-production of All Deliberate Speed more disturbing. Ogletree's assistants pasted together material from other books, then swept through the assembled text rewriting, editing, paraphrasing, and summarizing as they went. They got caught because they missed a passage, but what's wrong isn't the part they missed. It's the whole procedure.
Despite his very limited scholarly credentials, Charles Ogletree was granted tenure at Harvard Law School in 1993 as an expert in race relations during the peak of the agitation--sit-ins, marches, accusations of racism--to diversify the school's faculty. Rumors swirled about the writing, editing, and placement of his tenure-winning essay in the Harvard Law Review, but, by any measure, Ogletree was hired precisely because race cases like Brown v. Board of Education were his specialty. He's not supposed to need other sources. He's a Harvard law professor; other sources are supposed to need him.
AN ANONYMOUS NOTE, sent to Yale's Balkin and Ogletree's dean at Harvard shortly after All Deliberate Speed was published in April, prompted an investigation, which the dean assigned to former Harvard president Derek Bok and former dean Robert Clark. The only result so far is Ogletree's public explanation on the Harvard website. In the end, Bok told the Boston Globe, the investigators decided that though there was "a serious scholarly transgression," they found "no deliberate wrongdoing at all." Ogletree merely "marshaled his assistants and parceled out the work," Bok explained, "and in the process some quotation marks got lost."
But that ought to be the definition of "deliberate wrongdoing." Oh, the actual reproduction of Balkin's words was certainly inadvertent. But by every explanation, Ogletree conceived much of the book as a kind of double plagiarism: He set out to put his name on work done by his assistants, who, he knew, were merely rephrasing work written by other people.