Academia’s Double Standard

It’s the holiday season, so it is time again to spread some cheer. This post is about Harvard University, its president Claudine Gay, and academic elites. The usual disclaimers apply: this is my opinion, based on a steady drip of news reports (e.g., here and here) rather than a full dissection of everything Gay has gotten published during her career.

Gay’s publications indicate a history of pasting entire paragraphs from other people’s work, making only minor word changes, and not attributing the original authors. In other words, evidence of serial plagiarism. Yet the Harvard Corporation’s investigation into the matter, which it was forced to undertake after its initial threat of litigation failed to bury the story, did not follow the university’s own policy on academic misconduct.

Given Gay’s pedigree — high school at Philips Exeter Academy, freshman year at Princeton, transfer to and graduation from Stanford, PhD at Harvard, hired by Stanford as an assistant professor and tenured, then back to Harvard as dean — she was undoubtedly aware of basic citation standards.

But then so were the dissertation readers, journal editors, reviewers, and hiring committee members who failed to act as a check against intellectual theft — probably because of Gay’s early imprimatur as a member of academia’s uber-elite. Meanwhile, those of us who lack the stamp of a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton must constantly prove that we are worthy of being part of the club, and even when we do, we are relegated to the cheap seats at the back of the auditorium.

Gay is not alone in benefiting, at least for a long while, from this double standard. Cases include Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and her colleague at Duke, Daniel Ariely, who fabricated data according to the third-party investigators at Data Colada. Then there are the lies of former UCLA doctoral student Michael LaCour, brought to light by two graduate students at UC-Berkeley.

As I wrote in the blog post linked above, people like Gay, Gino, Ariely, and LaCour were granted entrée into the small circle that sits atop the academic food chain, in part because the reputations of those with whom they associated put their own actions above reproach. A much stricter standard gets applied to everyone else.