Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 24, 2004
Time for a degree of honesty
The apparent plagiarism in Premier Ralph Klein's term paper on the Pinochet regime in Chile has raised a number of issues that do not reflect well on the government and universities of Alberta.
One may accept that the premier was an innocent who lifted significant portions of his term paper from the Internet without realizing that doing so was plagiarism, a form of cheating incompatible with any accepted standards of higher learning. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of educational institutions to make their students aware of what plagiarism is and why it is wrong, it is not all that uncommon for professors to receive essays where reference materials have been reproduced verbatim in assignments.
Alberta does not need a premier who is a top-flight academic. The premier should be a first-rate representative of the people, someone who has strong principles, but who listens to and responds to the needs and desires of the people. We also need our leaders to be honest and, if they learn that they have breached some rule of ethics which they did not understand, to apologize and make restitution for their wrong-doing.
It is thus disconcerting that the premier, when confronted with the fact that much of his paper was cribbed from the Internet and that this violates Athabasca University's rules on plagiarism, reacted by saying, "What is the big deal?"
This leaves an issue that should make Alberta citizens wonder. If public attention focused on the premier's violation of academic rules is "much ado about nothing," when does breaking the rules become more than "nothing"?
Citizens are entitled to ask whether investigations into companies that violate environmental laws or labour standards also constitute much ado about nothing. Are police supposed to turn a blind eye to drunk drivers because they are no big deal?
Democracy and orderly government depend primarily on the respect of citizens for the law and the enforcement of the law when there are violations. It is crucial that government leaders are not merely casual in their observance of the law; their exalted place in society requires that they be models of respect for the law. When they fall far short of being models, there is what is appropriately called a scandal.
Furthermore, respect for the law is diminished when the rules are not as stringently enforced on prominent members of society as on ordinary citizens.
To be sure, the premier's apparently innocent violation of plagiarism rules does not constitute a scandal. But his brushing aside of the issue once the rules were explained to him does raise concerns.
But what may raise the greatest concerns are the reaction of Athabasca University and the president of the University of Alberta. Athabasca University first said that it would not discuss the grading of any of its students because of privacy concerns. Then it issued a written statement, saying that the university "subscribes to the highest standards of professional integrity."
However, that integrity is now in question. It is one thing for a professor not to see an example of plagiarism in a student's work. It is quite another for the university to turn a blind eye when the student, also a public official, makes that assigned work a matter of public record and competent sources describe it as an example of plagiarism. The university can no longer hide behind a defence of student privacy.
Of equal concern are letters written to local daily papers by the presidents of Alberta's three other universities congratulating Klein on his commitment to lifelong learning. The obsequious nature of these letters reflects poorly on the universities, especially given that they were written after conversations with Learning Minister Lyle Oberg.
Are the university presidents really suggesting that plagiarism is not a concern?
What is needed now is for both the premier and Athabasca University to come clean. The premier should recognize the wrongness of what he did and apologize for it. Athabasca University should apply its rules on plagiarism to the premier in the same manner as it would to any other student. The respect for law as the highest governing standard in our province demands it.
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