Monday, June 13, 2011

Is discipline warranted?

It would appear the dean of medicine at the University of Alberta has landed himself in the soup. According to press reports, he borrowed much of his speech to the graduating class from someone else’s work. He’s apologized and I think we’d all agree that he made a bad decision in mirroring the content of the earlier speech.

Yet some are calling for the dean’s resignation. The Edmonton Journal references the university’s Research and Scholarship Integrity policy, noting it precludes students from passing off someone else’s ideas as their own on pain of expulsion.

This case actually poses an interesting HR question. What would be an appropriate penalty?

Much of discussion is moralizing in tone and centres on whether this speech is plagiarism. I wonder if this is not something of a red herring. Yes, the fellow borrowed liberally from someone else’s speech. But a convocation speech (or Bar Mitzvah toast or a eulogy) is different from a piece of original research. There is no claim of ownership and there is no credit earned through deceit.

Don't get me wrong--this was bad judgment--but we need to see this in its context. If he’d hired someone to write his speech for him (a no-no in academic papers!), we would probably think that was quite alright. In fact, I've often wished academics would hire someone to write their dinner speeches... .

The short of this is, while it is awfully fun to catch a professor out, this isn’t really the same situation as a student who turns in a paper bought on or borrowed from the internet. Or a professor who passes off the work of another as his or her own in a journal article. And I’d venture the university policy mentioned by the Journal does not apply to a graduation dinner speech.

From the university’s perspective, this is obviously a PR gaff. But the fellow apologized. There was little harm done. And, given the media crucifixion that is unfolding, I’m guessing this won’t happen again any time soon!

So is there anything to be gained by disciplining the dean?

From an HR perspective, I’d say no.

But there is likely some risk in disciplining the dean. The dean might well grieve the discipline—which entails legal costs and the risk of an adverse result. Or he might quit—which also has large direct and indirect costs.

A wise HR approach might be to make disapproving noises and wait until this blows over. Which it will. Because this just isn’t that big of a deal.

-- Bob Barnetson

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