PROF ELLWANGER: Plagiarizing Toward Social Justice©

The implication that plagiarism is a piece of white culture matters – it’s a major reason why a black academic like President Gay will not face any significant consequences for her offenses.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown. His primary areas of expertise are rhetoric and critical theory. He writes political and cultural commentary for outlets like Human Events, Quillette, American Greatness, The American Conservative, New Discourses, Minding the Campus, and many more.     

Last week, Harvard President Claudine Gay testified before Congress and explained that calls for a Jewish genocide on campus do not violate university rules until students begin targeting individual Jews. Her comments resulted in calls from the public for Gay to resign. This week, conservative activist (and board member at New College of Florida) Chris Rufo and Chris Brunet (an editor at The American Conservative) added fuel to the fire: they charged Ms. Gay with plagiarism…and they have the receipts.

Rufo provided multiple screenshots of Gay’s dissertation, side-by-side with the source texts on which she relied. In many instances, Gay did acknowledge the works from which she was drawing ideas. But she lifts various passages from those texts, repeating them word-for-word – without using quotation marks. Essentially, Gay was often passing quotations off as paraphrases, but there were also occasions where the source text on which she relied went wholly unacknowledged. Only hours later, journalist Aaron Sibarium showed evidence of repeated, straight-forward instances of plagiarism in her peer-reviewed scholarly publications.

As an English teacher, I sometimes encounter this mistake in the writing of my freshmen. Some of them simply haven’t been taught to paraphrase. But I would impose the penalty for plagiarism on any graduate student who committed a similar fault. And during my time as the director of a graduate program, a student with repeated offenses like Gay’s would be dismissed from the university. For a doctoral candidate (as she was at the time), such offenses cannot be considered an “error.” They are indicative of deliberate academic malpractice.

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Plagiarism is a heavy charge, and in the recent past, any professor would have met a harsh punishment for violations of this kind. But members of the public who are waiting for the hammer to drop on Gay shouldn’t hold their breath. In fact, the Harvard board announced that Gay wouldn’t be removed for these violations on the same day as news of them broke: no further investigation; no nothing.

 This latest episode in the slow-motion implosion of higher education points to a larger trend: plagiarism, in the context of the Woke Academy, is no longer viewed as the sin that it once was.

That’s right – taking someone else’s ideas and passing them off as your own can be an act of revolutionary resistance now. You see, what we call “plagiarism” is just an invention of western bourgeois society – other cultures do not see it in the same way as we do. Thus, punishing students for plagiarism is a form of bigotry and intolerance that implies the superiority of western expectations regarding authorship.

Even in the Western world, postmodernists have challenged the importance of the author. As Michel Foucault famously wrote: “What matter who’s speaking?” Further, observing rules against plagiarism is just a way to reinforce white, western notions of private property and ownership. After all, no one can “own” a text: ideas circulate freely, and writing them down doesn’t make them your property any more than sitting on a park bench makes it your own.

Confusing authorship with ownership also perpetuates inequities. Some people are less capable of thought and effective writing than others. These gifts are unearned privileges, and textual production is a form of power. The more writing that a privileged writer produces, the more power he obtains. By this logic, enforcing prohibitions on plagiarism is a just a way to ensure that the (intellectually) rich get richer. Ownership of texts should be distributed more equitably. Therefore, by “plagiarizing,” students and faculty boldly reclaim their fair share of the power inherent to authorship.

Worst of all, rules against plagiarism disproportionately harm non-white students. As famed “Antiracist” grifter scholar Ibram X. Kendi writes, racial disparities are evidence of racist policies. I don’t make the rules, but by Kendi’s dictum the concept of plagiarism must be racist. We are left with no choice but to “dismantle” it.

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The implication that plagiarism is a piece of white culture matters – it’s a major reason why a black academic like President Gay will not face any significant consequences for her offenses. The American university is now defined by double-standards. No administrator would tolerate calls for the elimination of black people – but calls for a pogrom against Jews is probably OK…as long as no one individual is being targeted.

A similar double-standard pertains to plagiarism. When someone like Gay is accused, the academic world will shrug and rehearse all the arguments for why it isn’t a big deal (and why the very idea of plagiarism is “problematic”). But make no mistake: when the accused party is not someone who is favored by campus progressives, the old standard for plagiarism will snap right back into place. There will be consequences – and they will be much more severe for a professor, someone who really should know better.

It’s no surprise that an ideologically-corrupted institution like Harvard probably won’t dislodge a plagiarist like Ms. Gay from her position. But a new president would not change anything. It is the entire culture of elite schools that is the problem – the double standards, the lowered bar for success, and the sham of what passes for “expertise.” In that sense, Rufo and his colleagues have achieved a great service in exposing more of the rot at the core of higher education.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.