Rebecca Sonkin
Dispatch from the Diaspora

The Ivy League Is the Land of Many Chances

Elite universities bestow many chances upon their charges. No one wants to admit they may have invested in a fraud.

Getting a Pass on Plagiarism Isn’t Unique to Harvard and Claudine Gay. I Saw It at Columbia, Too

Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, is now a confirmed plagiarist. This, after toxic testimony on campus antisemitism at a House hearing in early December.

The faculty backs her on both counts. They don’t want to protect Jewish students either, so that part is no surprise.

But plagiarism? The gravest academic sin? The epitome of intellectual dishonesty and indolence?

As my thesis advisor might have said, Yes, but.

From 2015 to 2020, I held five writing-related positions at Columbia University where I also earned two graduate degrees. I taught composition, worked in the Writing Center, and ran a teaching-artist program, among others.

In each role, I was required to notify students of the Columbia undergraduate policy on plagiarism. “If found responsible,” sanctions “range from conditional disciplinary probation through expulsion.”

Not once, in my first three years, did I hear of anyone caught plagiarizing. As a public-school kid from the Midwest, I figured it was simply too tacky for an Ivy Leaguer to commit a cheapo cut-and-paste job.

But when I busted a couple students for straight-up copying off the internet, I got an education in how the Ivy League really works, not unlike what the world is now seeing thanks to Harvard’s forgiving treatment of Claudine Gay.

For four semesters, I taught University Writing, the required composition class for first years. I loved it. There’s nothing like working at a world-class university in the greatest city on earth. I still get goosebumps on College Walk.

But it was my students who made the experience. They were English language learners from the world over and they expected to struggle. The struggle led to major growth, both intellectual and personal, a source of great fulfillment for me.

Early in my second semester of teaching, I was confronted with plagiarism. I only had twelve students, so it was easy to spot two papers that made an identical argument in identical language. Funny, I’d never noticed these students talking or sitting near one another.

I took one of the identical phrases and typed it into Google. Bingo. A past student had helpfully posted her paper on Jamaica Kincaid’s essay “In History,” a UW perennial. After a few more searches, I learned that this was common practice. My heart was pounding.

In UW teacher training, plagiarism was talked about as if it were the sum total of the seven deadly sins. But with real-life students at stake, I felt torn about reporting them. I had been an international student in graduate school, studying complex ideas in a language that I was still learning. I felt enormous sympathy for students in a similar situation.

I went to my director and told her I was following the first protocol spelled out in the UW syllabus: “the case will be reported to the director of the Undergraduate Writing Program and the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.”

Should I contact the second entity too? She held up her hand. Since mine was an international section, she wanted to know the ethics of plagiarism within the context of the students’ respective countries of origin.

I looked at her dumbstruck. I felt as if I was in the Twilight Zone. Isn’t copying plagiarism? Where was context-dependence mentioned in the plagiarism policy?

I wrote down the students’ names and held out the slip of paper. She held up her hand again, then pointed me to the door. We never discussed the matter again.

Was my experience emblematic? One way to view it—the generous way—is that my director wished to save us an encounter with the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. A seventh circle of hell, by all accounts.

But as the allegations against Claudine Gay have dribbled out, I’ve been reminded of another lesson I learned at Columbia.

Despite tough talk, most rules are for those who accept them. Plagiarism, I believed, is different. A rare black-and-white issue in academia. But even plagiarism can’t always overcome a larger impulse.

Elite universities bestow many chances upon their charges. Fecklessness is one reason. Ego, another. No one wants to admit they may have invested in a fraud.

Left on my own, I met with each plagiarizing student separately to reveal what I’d found. I told them that I’d informed a director (true) and they were on UW probation (true-ish: they were on probation with me, a UW instructor). I said they were getting a second chance because they were English language learners (also true-ish) and if they did it again, I was going straight to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.

Did it work? Did I scare them out of ever plagiarizing again? Unless they reach the heights of academia, I doubt we’ll ever know.

About the Author
Rebecca Sonkin has published essays in The Washington Post, Tablet, Tin House, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has taught writing at Columbia University, University of Michigan, and Jewish Theological Seminary where she was Writer-In-Residence. She is now Literary Lead of Families for Safe Streets, where she runs the reading group on bereavement, and is reporting a memoir about a fatal car crash.