The Many Boards of Doris Kearns Goodwin

A corporate chieftain who moonlights as an historian.

Jeez, how many boards does Doris Kearns Goodwin sit on? Chatterbox began to wonder after learning from Jim Romenesko’s Media News that Goodwin had been suspended from The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer’s board of historians, that her membership on the Pulitzer board was under review, but that she will remain a director at Northwest Airlines. As Chatterbox noted previously, Goodwin is also on the Board of Overseers (i.e., board of directors) at Harvard, which deals quite harshly with undergraduates who get caught plagiarizing. Goodwin continues to deny that what she did was plagiarism (“There is absolutely no intent to appropriate anyone else’s words as my own, which is what plagiarism is”), a view restated yesterday by Boston Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant. But their definition is at odds with the policy at Harvard (where Goodwin received her Ph.D.), which states plainly that intent has no bearing on what constitutes plagiarism and that the presence of footnotes does not absolve the plagiarist. Moreover, though Goodwin’s plagiarism probably was inadvertent, her suppression (via a payoff) of the news that she had plagiarized and her failure to correct the plagiarism meaningfully several years ago when it was brought to her attention were quite clearly deliberate. (For details, click here. Goodwin is only now correcting the text of her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, after the plagiarism was brought to light by Bo Crader in the Weekly Standard.)

Another institution that, pace Oliphant, takes a hard line on plagiarism is the Boston Globe, which suspended columnist Jeff Jacoby for four months a couple of years ago because he failed to attribute an erroneous column on the Founding Fathers to its source, an anonymous bit of folklore circulating on the Internet (possibly derived from a 1956 commentary by Paul Harvey), even though in that case the theft was a matter more of structure and ideas than of language itself. Plagiarism was also one of the offenses for which columnist Mike Barnicle was forced to resign. Goodwin was on the Globe’s board during 1998—the year Barnicle was ejected—and half of 1999. (The Globe board has been more of an advisory board since the Globe was bought in 1993 by the New York Times Co., which has a board of its own. Members receive minimal compensation, according to a Globe spokesman.) The Globe’s Meg Vaillancourt reported on Feb. 28 that the Red Sox’s new owner, a group headed up by John Henry that includes the New York Times Co. (hence the Globe), plans to include on its board of directors one Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Wait Till Next Year: Summer Afternoons With My Father and Baseball.

Goodwin is also on the board of directors for the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, an adviser-at-large for a planned National Women’s History Museum in Washington, and an advisory board member for Americans for Democratic Action’s John Kenneth Galbraith Public Policy Fellowship Program. These are all do-gooder boards for which Goodwin likely received little or no compensation.

The most puzzling of Goodwin’s board assignments, of course, is Northwest Airlines. Goodwin, who was trained as a political scientist, has no business experience and probably doesn’t know how to read a spreadsheet. Indeed, the only relevant expertise Goodwin likely brings to the Northwest board is her extensive air travel to and from other board meetings and to the numerous speeches  she gives to corporate gatherings. “No matter how distinguished academics and former government officials are,” observes Nell Minow, editor of the Corporate Library, which tracks information on corporate boards, “the record shows they generally do not do very well at those tasks.” Goodwin’s plagiarism may cause Goodwin to lose her seat on the Pulitzer board and will probably cause her minor discomfort on Harvard’s board of overseers. But since the writing of history never was particularly relevant to Goodwin’s appointment to Northwest’s board, Northwest is probably right to conclude that Goodwin’s sins as an historian are no reason to push her out.

[Update, March 5: Goodwin has withdrawn from this year’s Pulitzer judging, because, she wrote to the Pulitzer board, “I am so distracted by the media focus on my work, I do not feel capable of giving the considerable time needed to make the proper judgments on the many books and newspaper entries that deserve our full and complete understanding.” According to a story  in today’s Boston Globe by David Mehegan, the Pulitzer board will consider whether to remove Goodwin at some later date.]