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Current Policy, Past Investigations Offer Window Into Harvard’s Next Steps In Abramson Plagiarism Case

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The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has grappled with multiple high-profile cheating scandals concerning undergraduates over the years, but relatively few faculty have faced public allegations of academic misconduct.

Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill E. Abramson ’76 broke that trend last week when she made national headlines for plagiarizing passages in her newest book, “Merchants of Truth.” Journalists on Twitter claimed she lifted material without proper citation from the New Yorker, Time Out Magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, and Ryerson Review of Journalism, among other sources.

Though she initially denied the allegations, Abramson later acknowledged that she had made “completely unintentional” citation errors.

“Anyone who knows or has worked with me knows that I would never intentionally use any other journalist’s work without giving them credit,” Abramson wrote in an email to The Crimson last week.

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Abramson’s errors have attracted sharp criticism from her peers in the newspaper industry. But Abramson is not only a journalist — she is also a FAS lecturer who teaches journalism classes.

The allegations against Abramson evoke comparisons between University policies for responding to undergraduates who commit academic dishonesty and procedures concerning faculty misconduct. The College previously attracted national media attention after suffering cheating scandals in 2012 and 2017 that collectively affected more than 100 students.

Though Abramson is the first FAS faculty member to come under public scrutiny for plagiarism in recent years, the University saw a string of plagiarism allegations against three prominent Harvard Law School professors in the mid-2000s.

The University-led investigations into the three professors — Alan M. Dershowitz, Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., and Laurence H. Tribe ’62, — bore structural similarities to each other. The University first formed a committee to investigate each professor. After considering the facts of the case, each committee issued a report to administrators. And in the end — though the outcomes of the investigations revealed different results — all three professors faced no public disciplinary action.

Though FAS has not recently seen any public accusations of plagiarism, their procedures closely mirror the investigations each of the Law School professors underwent.

If FAS opens an investigation into Abramson, she too will be subjected to a potentially months-long process involving two investigatory committees, one of which will submit a report to FAS Dean Claudine Gay, who will then decide Abramson’s fate.

Allegations of ‘Utmost Seriousness’

The University treats allegations of “research misconduct” — which FAS defines as instances of plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification — with “utmost seriousness," according to FAS procedures.

FAS procedures for responding to such allegations define plagiarism as “the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.”

Multiple writers have alleged that Abramson copied passages from other works, posting images on Twitter that reveal similarities between her work and that of others — including specific details and nearly identical sentences.

Abramson wrote in an email to The Crimson last week that seven passages in her book lacked citations.

“I did not have citations for seven short passages that contain factual information. These should have been either quoted in the text or footnoted,” she wrote.

She maintained, however, that all of the ideas expressed in her book are “original” and that the errors were “completely unintentional.”

Alleged infractions of the policy arising from “honest error” do not constitute research misconduct and would not warrant an investigation, according to the procedures.

FAS procedures mandate that all allegations of research misconduct be brought to the chair of FAS’s Standing Committee on Professional Conduct, which advises Dean Gay. The chair must then inform the accused faculty member of the allegation and determine whether the full committee should open an inquiry into the matter.

Abramson wrote in an email Thursday that she has not heard from the Committee on Professional Conduct.

If the standing committee decides FAS should pursue an investigation, its chair would create a new investigating committee which would then spend an unspecified amount of time “completing the procedures and deliberations it deems appropriate,” according to FAS procedures.

At the end of the process, the committee would present a final report to the FAS dean who then has the power to take “whatever action he or she considers appropriate.” The policies do not further specify what possible disciplinary actions, if any, accused Faculty members may face.

Though FAS procedures are different from those at the College, in cases where College students face accusations of plagiarism, the Honor Council — the body that investigates academic misconduct committed by undergraduates — can abstain from taking action or choose from a range of options that include forcing the student to withdraw.

No matter what decision Gay makes, the “Office of the Dean” will keep a record of the investigation, FAS procedures state.

University spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment for this article.

‘No Sanction or Reprimand’

Though the Law School does not follow FAS procedures for addressing research misconduct, the outcomes of its investigations into Dershowitz, Ogletree, and Tribe may provide a window into how the University addresses plagiarism charges against its faculty.

Each of the three professors retained their teaching posts at the conclusion of their respective investigations.

In September 2003, when Dershowitz appeared on a talk show to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with then-DePaul University Assistant Professor Norman G. Finkelstein, Finkelstein alleged on air that Dershowitz lifted material in his bestselling book “The Case for Israel” from an earlier work by journalist Joan Peters.

Dershowitz categorically denied the allegations and sought out a Harvard investigation to clear his name. The investigation, which, according to Dershowitz, was headed by former University President Derek C. Bok ’71, determined that the professor did not plagiarize.

Dershowitz wrote in an email Thursday that he maintains that the charges were “phony” and “baseless.”

A few months later, Ogletree came under fire after Harvard administrators received an anonymous note alleging that three complete pages from Yale Professor Jack M. Balkin’s “What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said” appeared in Ogletree’s book “All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education.”

Ogletree admitted in a letter of apology that his research assistants unintentionally lifted content from Balkin’s paper.

Bok and former Law School Dean Robert C. Clark led an investigation into the allegations, ultimately finding that Ogletree had committed “serious scholarly transgression,” but had not done so deliberately.

Ogletree, who could not be reached for comment, told The Crimson at the time that he would be punished by Harvard, though he declined to say how. He continued to teach at Harvard after the investigation and still retains his professorship.

Shortly after, an exposeé in the Weekly Standard alleged that Tribe’s book, “God Save This Honorable Court,” contained sections copied from University of Virginia professor Henry J. Abraham’s book “Justices and Presidents.”

Then-Law School Dean Elena Kagan and then-University President Lawrence H. Summers convened a task force to investigate the allegations.

In December 2004, the task force issued a report to Summers and Kagan, both of whom released a joint statement concluding that brief sections of Tribe’s book did “echo or overlap with” sentences from Abraham’s book.

Tribe apologized after the University issued its statement. Though Kagan and Summers’s statement did not divulge whether he would face disciplinary action, his assistant said at the time that Tribe would receive “no sanction or reprimand” beyond the release of the statement.

Tribe continues to teach at the Law School. He did not respond to a request for comment.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at molly.mccafferty@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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