A Dean's High Crimes and Misdemeanors
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.

Tags: No subjects

1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Jun 16, 2011 at 3:31 am

I'm surprised the dean doesn't have a speech writer. At our school, the president has one of his subordinates write all his speeches. Knowing the subordinate, we know that the speeches are at least original!

about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.