Prof’s Pilfered Speech Cooks Up New Student Dynamic

By Jason Menard,

An allegedly plagiarised speech delivered at a recent University of Alberta banquet had some calling for the dean’s head on a platter. But whether it should ultimately be served up should depend solely on how the school would handle a student who did the same thing.

The key to success when it comes to discipline and fairness is the same key to success for restaurants — consistency. If the university maintains its stance on their dean’s plagiarism, then they have to ensure they have the stomach to deal with future students who serve up the same recipe.

Dr. Phillip Baker, U of A’s dean of the faculty of medicine and dentistry, appears to have cribbed significant portions of the graduation banquet speech he delivered on June 10th from a 2010 speech delivered by Dr. Atul Gawande.

The knee-jerk reaction from some called for Dr. Baker’s immediate dismissal — the termination of a respected member of the faculty who has appeared in more than 200 scientific publications and has written 14 books. Baker is clearly someone comfortable with the written word, but he may be brought down by a fake term: “velluvial matrix.”

It seems a couple of students in the audience recognized the odd term, performed a Google search, and found links back to Gawande’s speech to Stanford University’s graduating medical class.

The university has since stated that Baker will remain in his position and not be suspended, pending a formal investigation. Baker’s already apologized to his students, the university, and Gawande.

It seems that everyone’s going to try to put this ugly mess behind them, spread platitudes about learning from their mistakes, and tiptoe through the fields of acadaemia together. It’s all fine and dandy, right?

Sure. I’m all for forgiving. In fact, I don’t like advocating for anyone’s dismissal. I think our society is far too quick on the trigger finger, loving nothing more than to see someone fall from their lofty perch as a result of some scandal.

We see it in sports, with fans advocating regime changes left, right, and centre; we see it in politics, where personal lives become fodder for pundits to call for a person to step down (or be pushed out), and we see it in business, where momentary slips in judgment result in calls for dismissal.

There are those who love to get all high and mighty, play the righteous card, and pass sentence on others. ‘Fire him!’ they’ll cry, without even giving a moment’s thought to the fact that this is someone’s livelihood at stake. It’s not a game; it’s not a luxury – it’s their way to put food on the table, to feed and clothe their kids, and to put a roof over their heads.

We preach to our children about owning up to their mistakes and learning from them, but rarely do we practice that in real life. It’s almost as if some believe that having a high-profile and/or high-paying job opens that person up to having to answer to a number of bosses. And these people who sit in judgment are quick to dole out punishment, but slow to offer the same forgiveness they expect themselves.

However, when the tables are turned and it’s someone who may be less in the public eye – someone like us, then the rules of the game change. “It was just an honest mistake,” seems to be OK for some people, but not for high-profile others.

We all could stand to benefit from a little more forgiveness and a tolerance for accepting errors. After all, we want to encourage people to take risks and grow – and you don’t do that taking the safe route. And the university has apparently chosen to expand this forgiveness and forgive Baker’s transaction.

The question that now arises is what happens when the next student hands in a plagiarised paper? Are they immediately expelled?

They shouldn’t be. Not now, not after Velluvial Matrix-gate (I know, it doesn’t work, but everything’s a –gate these days). The university has shown it’s willing to tolerate errors of judgment amongst its administration and educators – how can it hold any student to a greater standard than its own leaders?

Originally, I thought that no matter how many helpings of crow Dr. Baker ate, it wouldn’t have been enough. I thought his goose was cooked. While academic integrity is vital to any university’s reputation, it’s admirable that this university is willing to allow its staff to learn and grow from their mistakes.

However, the table has been set for the next student cheat. And the next servings of student discipline may be hard to swallow.

1 thought on “Prof’s Pilfered Speech Cooks Up New Student Dynamic

  1. Timothy Felsky

    I agree with no punishment and you can def hold a student to a different standard when it comes to academic performance VS public speaking and oration.



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