Friday, December 16, 2005

A friend, an associate professor in Berklee's harmony department, told me about a student who submitted a "project" copied right off a Richard Smallwood album. The kid obviously didn't think that his teachers were hip enough to listen to gospel music; and in this case, he was dead wrong. His punishment was to go home and write a real project.

I was stunned. How could he not have been expelled?

The internet spurred plagiarism, and in turn, plagiarism detection. It's become a high-profile crime at most universities. The question is, What's the punishment? Maybe failing to cite a source doesn't rise to the level of pasting your name onto the title page of someone else's term paper -- but doesn't the latter deserve zero tolerance?

My friend consulted with his department chair, who expressed "ambivalence"; and ultimately, they decided not to take any action. In cases like this, the student isn't merely forgiven; the entire incident is erased. The faculty may not have given him an A+ and two gold stars, but they looked the other way. The kid's record won't reflect that he broke the rules and was forgiven; according to his record, this incident never happened.

Now, I think plagiarism is a thousand times worse when you're talking about a musician at a conservatory passing off someone else's recording as his own. I have a room filled with obscure jazz CDs, and none of my friends listen to jazz; if I wanted, I could easily impress them by claiming some Jim McNeely chart was my own composition. But you just don't do that. Some rules are unwritten simply because they're so basic, so fundamental that to write them down would almost cheapen them. You don't have to be told that it's wrong. You know.

Colleges tolerate these transgressions because of greed. Nearly every college in America is staffed with competent, well-intentioned teachers; but it's run by bean-counting bureaucrats who have little contact with students and whose primary mission is to make money. There's almost no academic crime that will get you expelled from college today; in fact, if administrators weren't worried about lawsuits, they would probably reward sexual harassment and violence with a slap on the wrist. This dollar-sign attitude has cheapened the value of a college degree; today, both employers and graduates realize that many degrees simply denote an investment of four years and $100,000.

But isn't there an abdication of responsibility when schools stop demanding academic excellence, honesty, and integrity? When a CEO blows town with a pension fund and sentences six hundred employees to spend their golden years tossing French fries for health insurance, certainly, we blame him; we hold each adult responsible for his actions. But shouldn't we also look backward and ask, "What if his parents had punished him for shoplifting at age 10, instead of embarrassingly pretending it never happened? What if his college had expelled him for handing in someone else's paper, instead of brushing it under the rug and allowing him to resubmit? What if someone had stopped and, instead of letting it be the next guy's job, instead of hoping fate would deliver his comeuppance, what if someone had held him responsible?"

Yes, a college has a fiscal responsibility to its customers. But education isn't purely a service industry; and a school also has a responsibility to society, just like any other person, entity, or business. And willfully turning a blind eye to blatant fraud constitutes neglect.

Fisher College expelled a sophomore in October for allegedly plotting to frame a campus police officer. Hoping to get the officer fired, the student began posting on an internet bulletin board, "Either we get a petition going [we need at least 500 signatures] or we try and set him up." The college's decision was met with condemnation by so-called free speech advocates; but really, isn't this a step in the right direction? Isn't it an application of precisely the sort of standard that restores dignity and value to a school's reputation -- that if you lie, if you steal, if you conspire to harm someone, then you lose the privilege of joining the alumni.

It's worth adding: I'm not a rat. I'm not a tattletale. If a fellow Berklee student confessed to me that he had received credit for someone else's work, I honestly don't know what I'd do. But the flip side to that is, if you get caught, you have to pay the price. This wasn't an instance of ghostwriting, where one student hired another to do his homework; this is theft, pure and simple. This is scrawling your name on a Picasso. And when a couple of professors turn the other way while this kid graduates, every Berklee degree loses a bit of its value.


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