By John von Heyking, June 15, 2011 in Uncategorized
David Baker is the Dean of Medicine at the University of Alberta. He delivered the commencement address for his students last week, which contained numerous plagiarized sentences from a speech Atul Gawandedelivered at Stanford University last year and was subsequently published in the New Yorker Magazine. In the age of smart phones, students were locating the original speech while Baker was delivering his plagiarized speech. Baker has since apologized for his misdemeanor and officials at the University of Alberta are presently determining whether it amounts to a high crime. In other words, should a dean resign when caught plagiarizing a speech?
Clifford Orwin makes the case for firing Baker: “For any society there are some offences that brook no tolerance. When that society is a university, plagiarism is such a taboo. Firefighters can’t pilfer, chartered accountants can’t embezzle, and scientists and scholars can’t plagiarize…. Plagiarism is different. It’s not just a crime at the university, it’s the crime against the university, the primordial academic offence. It strikes at the soul of the institution. No student detected at it can hope to escape punishment, and none should. At my university (as at others I’ve known), circumstances may extenuate plagiarism, but they never excuse it.” As Kant rejected exceptions to the prohibition to lying because lying undermines the possibility of truth and also community, so too does plagiarism strike at the heart of the purpose of the university and thereby destroy the possibility of its existence.
One of Baker’s faculty, Clifford Cardinal, defends his dean: "’I'm not condoning what he did, but what I want noted is some people here are very vulnerable like (Baker), because of his role…. He is a human being and we are not showing the care and compassion it takes to be good doctors," he said. ‘It seems that people are content to see somebody strung up so far that he'll probably quit.’”
For Orwin, no mercy is owed to someone who undermines the university’s corporate person. For Cardinal, mercy is necessary because they are doctors, which also seems to be an appeal to the faculty’s specific purpose. For Cardinal, the argument Orwin advances amounts to having Baker “strung up.” Further, the article does not report what circumstances Cardinal would admit a dean should be fired.
However, Orwin does admit mercy into his argument when he allows that extenuating circumstances may explain plagiarism. Even so, they never excuse it. For Cardinal, Baker’s extenuating circumstance seems to be that he is “vulnerable.”
Unfortunately, “vulnerable” has become the garbage pail excuse for any action, pathetic and sordid, that aims to exculpate one of moral responsibility. That Cardinal would apply this category to the Dean of Medicine, of all people, is an indication that the category of “vulnerability” is worthless. If the Dean is “vulnerable,” then he is incapable of serving as a leader in the university. If the Dean is “vulnerable,” then everyone is “vulnerable,” and so no one is. Even so, in a time when academics and citizens turn a blind eye away from moral failure in their leaders, it is unsurprising that such an argument would have its defenders.
One of Cardinal’s colleagues gets closer to the likely truth of the matter: "My colleagues are disturbed. It casts all of us in a bad light,’ John Church, who teaches health policy and political ethics at the U of A, said Monday.”
And so the wagons circle.