Poshard’s plagarism ‘pass’ is problematic

For weeks now, Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard has been embroiled in a plagiarism investigation after student newspaper The Daily Egyptian was given access to his 1984 doctoral thesis by members of “Alumni and Faculty Against Corruption at SIU.” The Egyptian and The Chronicle of Higher Education went on to find numerous similarities between already published work and both his 1984 work and his 1975 master’s thesis. Last week, the committee set up to review the matter ruled that Poshard committed “inadvertent plagiarism” and would have to make corrections but would not lose his job. This is a dangerous precedent to set.

An article in the Chicago Tribune quotes the report: “There are numerous instances in which the words of others are present in a continuous flow with words written by the author of the dissertation, so that readers cannot distinguish between those two sources. … The bulk of the allegations pertain to unquoted and uncited texts. These are pervasive. Some of these instances are significant.”

Apparently other graduate students at the time wrote their academic work in a similar style. The obvious question is, of course, “What about them?”

If this non-punishment for an apparent non-crime is any indication, then it appears that SIU has no intention of going through hundreds or even thousands of submissions that would presumably yield errors that would most certainly violate today’s standards like Poshard’s. The past is important to be sure, but there’s more at stake for the future.

The general wishiwashiness of the ruling seems to give any student license to bend academic standards simply on the grounds of forgetfulness or ignorance. That’s exactly the wrong message to send if academic integrity is a school’s biggest concern.

If there’s any area in which a university like SIU should be absolutely clear, it’s plagiarism. If it’s not, the school runs the risk of having its entire academic reputation undermined by its own hand.

The inability of this committee to make up its mind on an issue that has implications for the entire higher education community is troubling.

It’s very possible that today’s non-enforcement, despite the differences in decades, will be taken by today’s students as clearance to push the envelope just a little bit further to finish that term paper.

Obviously Poshard made mistakes, but he’s going to have to do more than re-type his paper to regain his mandate. He has to show that he can live up to the same standards that he expects of his students.