Blogs > Cliopatria > More Pieces of a Puzzle ...

Jun 15, 2005 3:58 pm

More Pieces of a Puzzle ...

In a simple Google search about another matter, Sally Greene of the UNC Law School stumbled upon plagiarism in Bryan Le Beau's December 2003 Commencement Address at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. On Monday, the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber only) broke the story and UNC's Eric Muller commented on it at Is That Legal?. Le Beau, they all reported, had borrowed extensively from Cornel West's 1993 Commencement Address at Wesleyan University. Thinking that was probably the end of the story, I reported all of that at Cliopatria.

But that was not the end of the story. Yesterday, the story broke in the Kansas City Star(registration required), Le Beau issued a statement to the faculty at the University, the Associated Press covered the story, and History News Network contacted him to ask for a statement. You can read it here. But all of that occurred before Eric Muller's reader, Beth, ran another simple Google search. What she found was that, not only had much of the body of Le Beau's Commencement Address come from Cornel West's speech and not only had he sanitized it of its racial edginess, but the introduction of Le Beau's Commencement Address came from Russell Baker's 1995 Commencement Address at Connecticut College.

There is little that I have to add to their findings, except this: as an experienced hand at tracking plagiarism, I find it fairly convincing that both Cornel West's Commencement Address and Russell Baker's Commencement Address are conveniently located, for your pirating and mine, at Check their site map and scroll down. You'll find them both there, conveniently listed under"Commencement Addresses." About 1/3rd of Le Beau's text comes from West. Another 5% of it comes from Baker. It is convenient for Le Beau's cover story that he has disposed of the text from which he delivered his remarks. Their marginal notes, he tells us, surely directed his attribution of quotes to West. But, rhetorically, how do you attribute 1/3rd of your speech to another single source? And did Le Beau throw out his text before or after he had it transcribed to the faculty listserv? Perhaps his cover story has the chronology of things reversed. You've gotta love Le Beau's line about not knowing that putting the address on the faculty listserv would make it available on the net. That's an explanation about getting caught, not of the plagiarism itself. And why does his cover story make no reference to the introduction that is lifted from Russell Baker? You have to believe that it's because that hadn't yet been caught.

There is also internal evidence that suggests that Le Beau is not ordinarily so careful to attribute quoted material to his sources, as his cover story says. When he is plagiarizing West, he follows West's example and carefully includes lines from Hegel, Gibbon, Simone Weil, Nietzsche, and Socrates within quotation marks and names their author. When Le Beau is not plagiarizing West, he uses Abraham Lincoln's"the better angels of our nature" without quotation marks and without credit to Lincoln. As Sally Greene notes, in and of itself, that would not be a significant example of plagiarism because the phrase has become a part of the language itself. But a careful author will be consistent. If some commonly quoted material is in quotation marks, all commonly quoted material should be set off and cited in the same way.

Given the shared texts, the shared misspelling of Toni Morrison's name*, and the fact that Baker's and West's addresses are both at a single location, it seems unlikely, as Le Beau claims, that the author of his Commencement Address had not seen the text of Baker's and West's addresses. It is more likely that the author of Le Beau's text had borrowed directly from Baker and West. So, is this your one-stop shop for a Commencement Address, Bryan? Or did someone else do the patchwork for you? Given the facts that nearly 40% of your text was borrowed from two other authors, that their names are nowhere mentioned in it, and that you signed off as the author of your text, the bottom line defense that you offer -- that there was no intent to deceive -- just doesn't hold water.
NB Update: Both Thomas Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education and I, originally, reported that Toni Morrison's name is misspelled both in West's address and in Le Beau's Commencement Address. That seems to be incorrect. Unless it has subsequently been corrected at, it is misspelled only in Le Beau's text.
*NB Update II: In comments, my ever-resourceful colleague, Sharon Howard, points out that she used the Wayback Machine which shows that the text of Cornel West's address at did include the misspelling of Toni Morrison's name as"Tony." The publication of Bartlett's article apparently caused management over there to correct an embarrassing error. Unfortunately for Bryan Le Beau, the misspelling of the name in both addresses is deeply incriminating. Many thanks to Sharon Howard for the help.
NB Update III:"In a Different Time, In a Better Time ...," Margaret Soltan and I go plagiarism busting and strolling on the beach at University Diaries.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 6/15/2005

I gave the Baccalaureate Address at my own institution in about 1976. I slaved over it. No plagiarism -- all sweat -- but the night before I was to give it, I did not sleep at all. That may have been the beginning of one of my notorious qualities. I was also sick at my stomach and kept ralphing through the night. I warned a colleague the next day that I might simply have to turn the text over to him to preach for me. Apparently, however, the nerves put me at just the right edge. It was the best sermon I ever preached in my life. It was published and I am rather proud of it.

Eric Leigh Muller - 6/15/2005

For the eighties music fans among us, this seems an essential link at this juncture:

Jonathan Dresner - 6/15/2005

Nice work.

If I ever give a commencement address, I'm going to improvise the whole thing....

Sharon Howard - 6/15/2005

I checked one of my favourite toys, the Wayback Machine, and her name was indeed misspelt in the original text of the commencement address. have presumably taken the opportunity to correct a slightly embarrassing typo (which is fair enough). But you and Bartlett were both right.