Is There Life After Plagiarism?

In January of this year we learned that Dr. Chris Spence, the popular and charismatic Director of Education of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the largest public school board in the country, had been accused of something that no academic and no high-level educator ever wants associated with their name: plagiarism.

 Photo: Peter Power/Globe and Mail

Chris Spence. Photo: Peter Power/Globe and Mail

In what could only be described as a shocking story in the Canadian, and especially the Toronto media, the plagiarism seems to have first come to public light when Dr. Spence wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Star (January 5, 2013) entitled Without school sports, everyone loses. A reader of the Toronto Star apparently noticed that some of the passages had been used without attribution.

Online versions of the original opinion piece have in fact added the following disclaimer after the fact:

Public Editor’s note: This Opinion article includes substantial unattributed material from several other sources. Those sources include the ‘Coaching Excellence’ blog of the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, the blog, Pro Sport Chick, an online encyclopedia and a 1989 Op-Ed article in the New York Times written by Anita L. Defrantz, then president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles and a current member of the International Olympic Committee. Spence has acknowledged that he plagiarized parts of his article and apologized to the Star and its readers.

This “acknowledgement” and “apology” was indeed captured in a News Release entitled Director Chris Spence’s Statement With Regards to Op-Ed from January 5. from the TDSB itself 4 days later on January 9, 2013. Part of his statement read:

Earlier this month, I wrote an op-ed for the Toronto Star. The subject of the op-ed was sports and young people. It’s a subject I am passionate about, having been involved in sports, and education, for as long as I can remember.

I wrote that op-ed and – in no less than five different instances – I did not give proper credit for the work of others. I did not attribute their work. I did research and wrote down notes and came back at it the next day, and wrote down the notes.

I can provide excuses for how and why this happened – that I was rushed, that I was sloppy, that I was careless – but that’s all they would be: excuses. There is no excuse for what I did. In the position I am honoured to occupy, in the wonderful job I do every single day, I of all people should have known that.

I am ashamed and embarrassed by what I did. I have invited criticism and condemnation, and I richly deserve both.

Words of apology are not enough. So I want to describe what I intend to do, too.
He went on to outline a 5-step “program” of what he intended to do. One of them really caught my eye at the time and I almost chuckled at the “too little, too late” nature of the irony:

“I intend to enroll myself in the Ethics and Law in Journalism course offered by Ryerson University. A component of that course is identification, and avoidance, of plagiarism. I will enroll in that course at the earliest opportunity.”

Photo courtesy TDSB Facebook page

Photo courtesy TDSB Facebook page

However, it turns out that this apology was only the beginning, not the end of Dr. Spence’s week from hell. The very next day, January 10, 2013 it was announced that he had officially resigned.

Here is the way the Globe and Mail captured it, for one example: TDSB director resigns over plagiarism, PhD dissertation includes unattributed passages. In fact, the alleged plagiarism appeared to be so striking that the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto is (still) investigating whether or not to strip Dr. Spence of his degree.

But the plagiarism allegations went far beyond his PhD dissertation and the above-noted Op-Ed piece in the Toronto Star.  Allegations of passages liberally copied from other sources without any citation or attribution apparently were used in speeches, blog posts, newsletters and other written materials.

plagiarism.gifIt would be an understatement to say that plagiarism is akin to a cardinal sin for any academic, but couple that with the fact that Dr. Spence was the Senior Executive of the largest public school board in Canada, a Board (like all school boards!) where plagiarism by any student is dealt with in the most stringent of terms, and you have a real “What the hell was he thinking???” puzzle.

But he more or less disappeared from public eye soon thereafter, obviously in total disgrace, and we never really got any answer, at least not one that I saw. The question was never answered as to why an intelligent academic and educator, someone who by all accounts was capable enough and charismatic enough to take the school board to new heights in difficult times, would commit one of the very few things that above all else might be a career-killer?

About a week ago, Dr. Spence resurfaced and we started to get some answers to that question.

Sort of…

Disgraced school board head Chris Spence breaks his silence rang the the Globe and Mail. The Toronto Star, which broke the original allegation, pitched the story similarly: Chris Spence breaks silence on plagiarism scandal.

Both articles, as well as a similar one in the National Post and no doubt many other media outlets, described how Dr. Spence has been thoroughly devastated, depressed and demoralized over the incidents. He vowed to come out of this darkest period in his life and wants to re-earn the public’s trust and hopes desperately to rebuild his tattered reputation. He wants to continue in the field of education as has been his passion.

I don’t know Dr. Spence at all and I have no doubt he has suffered a huge setback. I also don’t doubt for a moment that he was, plagiarism aside, a good director of education of the TDSB. I also believe in giving people a chance to make restitution and allowing them to move forward. I believe in giving quality people a second chance. It would no doubt be a shame for the education system to lose someone of his calibre.

And yet, despite all of that, I found I was mostly unmoved by his latest pronouncements. He said he takes full responsibility for all of his actions and yet I did not really think he did.

For example, the Star article said:

“But Spence blamed his own “blind ambition” and relentless Type-A drive that left him little time to write his own work.

“I’m not looking to point fingers, but did I write everything? Absolutely not. I had support … as early as 1994,” said Spence, who by then was a full-time teacher, full-time grad student and writing movie scripts and books.

“When I look back at the blogs, the speeches, the presentations, I’m going to say that a large, large percentage, you had support to get some of that work done. But I recognize that I approved everything, I signed off on everything. I take full responsibility for that. …”

In his interview with the Globe and Mail, Spence struck a very similar chord:

“I never ever sat down to take someone else’s ideas. It was unintentional. I also had some support … research assistants and things like that. But I approved everything, I signed off on everything. I put my name on it, so I own it. I take full responsibility for that,” Dr. Spence said in an interview Thursday. “But it is complicated and there are some layers to it, some mitigating circumstances, if you will, not to point the finger at anybody else.””

For someone who was not pointing any fingers at anyone else, he sure seemed to be implying a lot of (albeit nondescript) finger pointing.

Rosie DiManno , a columnist whom I often find too abrasive for my taste, this time hit it on the head, speaking my thoughts exactly in her article “Chris Spence seems only somewhat sorry” in the Star on July 27 where she opines that the “disgraced former Toronto director of education needs to stop deflecting blame before he gets his shot at redemption”.

… his disingenuous and blame-shifting spin on events can’t go be allowed to stand as mitigating epitaph to a career in ashes.

He offered a rat-a-tat of exculpatory factors: The thieving was unintentional. Unnamed assistants were partly to blame for his tumble. He was too busy, too careless, stretched too thin, leaned too heavily on the input of aides. He became seduced by “blind ambition,” a Type A personality flunking out with an F on professional ethics.

Indeed, I had pretty much independently come to my own very similar conclusion when I wrote the following  letter to the Editors of the Globe and Mail:

As someone who himself has investigated academic plagiarism several times during my career, there is one ring of truth to what Dr. Spence said. In my experience the actual plagiarism is often committed by a subordinate (grad student, post-doc, research assistant) etc., but as Dr. Spence indicated that does not in any way absolve him of the full responsibility.

If it is under his name, the responsibility is his, period.

That said, this scandal appears to go far deeper – this cannot be a one-time mistake with (or by) a one-time assistant. The alleged pattern of multiple instances over a long period of time suggests that this explanation that he “also had some support” and that others share in the misdeeds is a red herring.

My main conclusion:

“Perhaps Dr. Spence should not have broken his silence since his feeble ‘explanation’ has made matters worse in my view.”

DiManno ends her article this way::

Few would begrudge Spence a shot at redemption. The man’s clearly mortified and despondent over what’s befallen him. Yet he appears sorrier for himself than repentant for wrongdoings committed.

Whether ego or hubris is the cause, Spence’s apologia hit too many flat, false notes.

As the teachers say: More effort required.

For me, I’m afraid I still have to file this one under “What the hell was he thinking????”

I am neither satisfied by his answers nor believe that he fully understands the depths of the career-limiting fiasco in which he has embroiled himself.

Perhaps there is no better indication that he just doesn’t (or didn’t) get it: the day after he “broke his silence” Caroline Alphonso of the Globe and Mail broke the further story that Chris Spence applied for top jobs months after allegations. Can you believe that he actually applied to be the Director of Education at the Greater Essex County District School Board and also at the Waterloo Region District School Board. These are the equivalent top jobs at other boards that he was forced out of in Toronto. I don’t find that curious, I find it incredible….

I feel very, very sorry for the man, since I do indeed believe he meant no harm. But huge harm WAS done in his name nevertheless, and as a educational leader and as a role model for the kids of the next generation, I fear he is done like dinner.

And, aside from the fact that it didn’t have to be like this, the saddest part for me is that I still don’t think he really, truly gets it….

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it, leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.


Is There Life After Plagiarism? — 2 Comments

  1. G’dang, another blog Michael? You clearly need to book another cruise to take up your time….

    There are two forms of plagiarism, self and other. Self is bad enough; it’s lazy, indicative of arrogance (my words are sufficiently wise to warrant repeating) and can, sometimes, be unintentional. The other is intellectual theft, pure and simple. The choice of words, construct of argument, detail of research, care of meaning are each essential ingredients in effective writing. To take this and place your own stamp of ownership on it is equivalent to stealing a piece of art that took years of education, skill and time to complete and signing your name to it. That an educator persisted in this practise is even more remarkable.

    But Dr Spence’s excuses and re-assignments of fault are entirely par for the course of career plagiarists. His crime, apparently, is that he was overworked. In fact he was lazy, disingenuous and arrogant. I fear that his rehabilitation will fail unless he comes to realise the enemy is within.

  2. Jim,

    Figures yours would be the very first comment on the new blog. Always appreciate your support. Many thanks.

    I agree 100% with your second premise re: intellectual theft. No way to sugar coat that one is there?

    I am not in 100% agreement with your first point, however. For me it is less an issue of arrogance as it is efficiency. If I have written a carefully thought out piece in one venue and it happens to apply again in another, why should I not be able to use my own words. I have done this myself. Rather than try to paraphrase some material I am very happy with, why not just use it again.

    I think the BIG difference comes in what it is and WHERE it was published. For example, if I write a blog about plagiarism and I want to lift this answer out of the comments and use it in my own blog post, I will do that and I probably wouldn’t reference where it came from. it came from me on a vehicle that I “own”.

    But if I published a piece in a book or a journal or even someone else’s blog, then I feel that although they are my *words*, I have an obligation that, if I again use a passage I wrote for someone else, I MUST attribute back to the source. The words may be mine, but the source (book, journal, blog etc) is not. To use the same stuff over and over again that people have paid you for, or that appear in some other venue other than your own personal space, I agree that needs to be cited and attributed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *