The Boston Globe front page tells two tales that, to me at least, reveal something about delayed reactions on the part of institutions.
People are creatures of habit, and prone to both cognitive error and poor judgment of risk. Institutions all the more so. After all, if as the saying goes it takes only one to make an argument by the time you get to two a fight is quite possible. With three and above it is a wonder that chaos does not reign universal.
Having worked a lot in organizations I have often observed that people’s sense of what is bulletproof is derived too much from an internal sense of safety and danger. If influential person x is viewed as having the back of person y then person y is pretty safe. If group cohesion suggests an arrangement is safe then people will conclude it will stay intact.
A few days ago the Globe reported that Shirley Malone-Fenner, the chief academic officer at Wheelock College in Boston, used “the words of others” in her welcome address to students.
In her welcome-back letter to faculty last month, the second-in-command administrator at Wheelock College spoke loftily of the Fenway school and its potential.
“No institution that I know holds greater potential to shape the world of ideas and contribute to improving the human condition,” wrote Shirley Malone-Fenner, vice president for academic affairs.
But those words — while inspiring — were not her own. As it turns out, Harvard University president Drew Faust wrote them several years ago, to welcome her own faculty back to school.
It gets better–or worse, depending on your perspective. The passages were pretty numerous and lifted quite literally. Not just “a few words” (on which, more below). She lifted language from two other college presidents in addition to Faust. And–irony trigger warning!–as the college’s chief academic officer, she is the person in charge of enforcing institutional plagiarism policy.
Most such policies are uncompromising. Colleges celebrate multiculturalism but that impulse is cut short where things like plagiarism are concerned. It matters not that China operates with a way looser standard concerning such things–in the United States Chinese students are expected to stick to Western standards, period full stop. Plagiarism is taken very seriously. And not as a ministerial thing but rather a priestly one. It is connected deeply to higher education’s hot mission core, for which the chief academic officer is high priest(ess).
Does the cribbing of such text in an address constitute plagiarism? The Globe equivocated a bit here, pointing out that plagiarism, strictly speaking, applies to certain kinds of speech and writing, typically research oriented. But it doesn’t take a pedant to see the large problem here.
When contacted, the reaction of the chief academic officer was as follows:
In preparing my message, I reviewed many letters from other institutions and used words from others’ welcoming messages without attribution. What I intended to share is quite simple — I am excited about working with each member of the faculty to make this a most successful year.
OK maybe we can reasonably expect stonewalling and denial from the speaker. But what about the President? When told of the issue by the Globe did that lead to concerted action? According to the story
(a)fter the Globe called Wheelock about Malone-Fenner’s letter last week, Jenkins Scott wrote to the college’s board, calling Malone-Fenner “a highly respected academic and a wonderful leader.” Jenkins Scott said Malone-Fenner “acknowledges that she used a few words from others’ welcoming messages without attribution.”
A “highly respected academic and a wonderful leader” who used a “few words”?
When I finished the article I turned to my wife to say that while the administration of the college did not seem to know it yet, Malone-Fenner was a dead (wo)man walking. Shirley she would have known that a Globe front page article would be devastating? Shirley the President would have responded to the threat of press coverage with something more than ass coverage with the Board?
No. We can hunker down and get through this . . . right? . . . . right . . . . right? . . . . right? . . .
Sure enough, it took only five days for the departure to be announced. It’s a good example of collective delusion.
The second example of collective delusion and delayed reaction involves yet another story about migrants/refugees (migrufees? regrants?) landing on the shore of Lesbos. The accompanying photo shows two migrufees on the beach, one with arms stretched to heaven and the other on his knees.
It is charitable to think that they are simply thanking Allah for their safe passage but it is not unreasonable to think that they might also be grateful to Allah for letting them know that Europe will make a great new home for Muslims.
The coverage of this whole enterprise in the press suffers from a case of delayed reaction much, much larger than that found at little Wheelock College. Things are changing in the real world much more rapidly than the institutional mechanisms of the press can handle. The influx of non-Europeans (is that term neutral enough for you?) to Europe is, to use a word the fashionable set likes, unsustainable. People employing counter-rhetoric are just now beginning to wash up on the beach of skepticism. But a skeptical view has yet to be adopted as a mainstream thing. Give it time, perhaps?
Gertrude Stein once said in a slightly different context, dealing with the arts . . .
(f)or a long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause everyone accepts. . .
. . . and life, after all, imitates art.