Goodwin’s Tribe

A Harvard law professor chides the Crimson for criticizing a plagiarist.

You’d think that Laurence Tribe’s highly public botching of elementary facts in the Elián González case (in a New York Times op-ed; for details, click here) would have taught the eminent Harvard law professor not to go off half-cocked when issuing media pronunciamenti. Not so! Today’s Harvard Crimson carries a blustery letter from Tribe protesting the Crimson’s March 11 editorial calling on Doris Kearns Goodwin to resign from Harvard’s Board of Overseers (i.e., its board of directors). The Crimson, echoing an earlier item by Chatterbox, had pointed out that the penalty meted out to Harvard undergraduates caught plagiarizing (deliberately or not, with footnotes or not) ought not to exceed that imposed on a Harvard overseer who does the same thing. The penalty for undergraduates, typically, is removal from the university for two semesters and a permanent mark of “academic dishonesty” on the student’s record. The penalty for Goodwin (from Harvard) has been … none at all. As Lisa Laskin, a teaching fellow in Harvard’s history department, points out today in the Crimson’s letter column:

[H]ow can I teach students about the importance of attribution and original scholarship, when the institution behind us all tolerates plagiarism at the highest level? Allowing Goodwin to remain as Overseer of an academic institution is tantamount to condoning such behavior. Worse, it promotes a double standard, suggesting that indiscretions diminish in importance as one’s fame and popularity grow.

Tribe answers this compelling logic by expressing “great sadness” about the Crimson editorial condemning Goodwin for penning “several inadequately footnoted phrases and passages.” (Tribe can’t bring himself to call it plagiarism, a word that appears nowhere in his letter.) Tribe writes that it adds “insult to injury” for the Crimson to ask Goodwin to resign from the Board of Overseers. Tribe concedes that he is “proud to count myself among [Goodwin’s] friends as well as her admirers,” and he pats the Crimson editors on the head for showing devotion “to the highest standards of scholarly integrity and simple honesty.” Nonetheless, he can’t abide the Crimson piling on “to heap self-righteous condemnation” on Goodwin and says the paper lacks “any real sense of proportion or, for that matter, much sense of decency.”

Tribe has little use for the “worthies [who] have seen fit to trumpet their own impeccably high standards by suspending or canceling roles and engagements in which Goodwin would have performed both brilliantly and honorably.” He mentions by name The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, which suspended Goodwin as a commentator, and the University of Delaware, which cancelled a speech Goodwin had been set to give. How dare the University of Delaware sit in judgment of a former member of Harvard’s political science department! The snobbery becomes explicit when Tribe denounces Goodwin’s critics for demonstrating “a rather crude moral and scholarly calculus” (though what that is must be “a subject for another time”).

Alert readers will ask: Where’s the argument here? To the extent there is one, it’s buried in the letter’s third paragraph:

[T]here can be no doubt that, unlike the student who turns in someone else’s work as her own and hopes the instructor won’t notice the cribbing—the student for whom the Harvard disciplinary rules to which the Crimson editorial referred were principally written—Goodwin, who cited the very sources she has been accused of not crediting, had not the slightest intention to deceive, to claim originality for thoughts that were unoriginal, or to appropriate another’s deathless prose in hopes that she might be credited with a literary gift that belongs in truth to someone else.

That’s it: Goodwin had no intention to deceive, and intention is all that matters. Well, OK, not all that matters (Tribe does seem to have some dim memory that Harvard recognizes inadvertent copying as plagiarism). But mostly what matters. The Harvard rules were “principally written” to punish deliberate cribbing, not inadvertent theft. There are two fairly obvious answers to this line of argument. The first is that Tribe places himself very much at odds with Harvard’s freshman handbook, which identifies inadvertent plagiarism as extremely common and fully punishable. Has Tribe himself never punished a student for committing inadvertent plagiarism?

The second argument is that Goodwin’s plagiarism crossed over the line from inadvertent to intentional several years back when she failed to correct the text of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys after being informed by Lynne McTaggart that she’d plagiarized McTaggart’s book about Kathleen Kennedy. Instead, Goodwin paid off McTaggart and inserted a few footnotes, which (as a former Harvard graduate student in political science) Goodwin had to know was insufficient to correct the plagiarism. Tribe disposes of McTaggart by treating her complaint merely as a personal-injury tort. McTaggart threatened to sue, Goodwin settled, so what’s the big deal? But as Chatterbox noted previously, this formulation overlooks the interests of the reader, by whom plagiarism ought to be viewed as a kind of consumer fraud. By agreeing to Goodwin’s terms, McTaggart became a party to that fraud. If that judgment seems harsh, check out McTaggart’s remarkable assertion in a March 16 op-ed page:

I discovered [Goodwin’s plagiarism] in the course of doing a review of Ms. Goodwin’s book. I was shocked to read passage after passage of my own book embedded in hers. I wrote a kind review[italics Chatterbox’s], then hired a copyright lawyer. We eventually reached a satisfactory settlement.

Hide the book’s flaws in public, squeeze the book’s author for cash in private. Clearly, Lynne McTaggart is nobody’s victim.

[Correction, 4:45 p.m.: Whoops, the handbook for Harvard’s freshman expository-writing course, cited above, does state a different penalty for people who commit plagiarism “out of genuine confusion.” But the penalty isn’t much less severeprobation rather than withdrawal, about which Harvard is obliged to tell any professional or graduate school that asks, as many, apparently, do as a matter of course. Chatterbox remains unclear how Harvard defines “genuine confusion” and whether Goodwin would qualify. For a lengthier disquisition, see Chatterbox’s Fray” posting  in response to Frayster GB, who spotted the error.]