As a college teacher, I have always taken plagiarism seriously. As a result I have been shocked with how leniently Fareed Zakaria, the Time magazine columnist, who also hosts his own CNN show, has been treated for the recent plagiarism that he has admitted to.
Plagiarism by college students is usually a product of fear and ambition -- fear of failure in combination with a desire for a good grade. For students who plagiarize, the missing element is genuine intellectual curiosity. They are not interested in getting to the bottom of a problem so much as appearing to have gotten to the bottom of a problem.
I rarely get plagiarism at the small college where I teach, but my rules for dealing with plagiarism have always been clear. I fail the plagiarized paper and report the plagiarism to the dean of students.
The one-on-one discussions I always have with a student who has plagiarized -- and here I am talking about word-for-word theft, not borrowing with insufficient attribution -- have never precluded punishment.
So what am I to tell my students when they ask about how Fareed Zakaria was treated for a Time column with passages lifted virtually word for word from a New Yorker essay published a few months earlier by historian Jill Lepore?
The answer is, I am afraid: if you are prominent enough, your plagiarism gets you a slap on the wrist, nothing more. After a brief investigation and suspension, Zakaria is back in business at Time and at CNN.
Zakaria is not in the same league as the writer Jonah Lehrer, who resigned from the New Yorker when he was caught fabricating Bob Dylan quotes. But Zakaria, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, is no naïf when it comes to the rules surrounding plagiarism.
What is worrying is the double standard he benefits from after making, as he acknowledges, "a terrible mistake." The primary excuse Zakaria's defenders give is that he is a busy man with so many commitments that his plagiarism was just an oversight.
By way of making amends, Zakaria has promised to cut back on his work load. "There's got to be some stripping down," he has said. In one sympathetic account of how complicated Zakaria's current life is, he was even lionized for spending a weekday morning cooking pancakes and French toast for his children.
Try offering up such excuses at any serious college in the country! Imagine a student saying she plagiarized because she had a heavy course load, a weekly job, and volleyball practice. (Not an unusual schedule by any means.) Imagine that same student's roommate defending her by saying on the morning she turned in her plagiarized paper she baked home-made granola for everyone on her hall.
Such "I'm so busy" excuses would never fly -- although when applied to a 19-or 20-year-old they are a lot more convincing than the rationales offered on behalf of Zakaria.
Call me old-fashioned, but I'd like to see Zakaria try to make his plagiarism case before a college dean rather than his journalistic enablers.