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Plagiarism: a study in the spectacular fall of Dr. Chris Spence!

Learning the Tricks of the Trade Or How did he get away with it?

By many accounts prior to the plagiarism scandal, Chris Spence was a “stand-up, guy,” even if seen by some as a controversial figure.  A former running back for the B.C. Lions, Spence earned his teaching credentials from York University and the University of Toronto, completing a Doctor of Education degree in 1996.  In 2009, he began his role as the Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board, the largest in the country, after serving the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in the same capacity.  A noted author, he dedicated his life to many aspects of education, especially creating and championing programs that sought to enhance the education of disadvantaged individuals and groups.

First branded a “serial plagiarist” (O’Toole & Selley, 2013, p. A1) by an article in the National Post, Spence drew upon his charismatic public profile and his personal academic achievement to hide a career of plagiarizing that seems to have spanned at least two decades.  From his newspaper columns, personal blog, and speeches through to his books and dissertation, the academic misdeeds went undetected until a Toronto Star reader looked closely at his opinion article,. Without School Sports, Everyone Loses.  For a highly educated public figure, with a passion for educating youth, no one’s first thought of Chris Spence was that he was a seasoned plagiarist!

In the end, his public image shield was no match for the vast sea of news readers.  Because his body of written work was in the public realm and easily accessible, the house of cards quickly came under intense scrutiny and crashed violently.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Spence partially explained his lapse into plagiarism with these words, “’I was out in the community a lot, presenting a lot, and I never really had the kind of time that you need to sit down and put pen to paper.’” (Rushowy, July 26, 2013, p. A1)  Despite this acknowledgement, an examination of the original school sports article reveals the strategies of an intelligent plagiarist.  It does not appear that Spence lacked time to write carefully, was careless or sloppy, or simply meshed his own ideas with those of others.  On the other hand, it appears that Spence devoted time to the art of plagiarizing well.

First, his use of as many as five different sources in Without School Sports, Everyone Loses suggests that he had time to devote to research.  Cutting and pasting different voices so that they blend together in a loosely coherent whole takes practice.   It also acts as a smoke screen in the way that verbatim copying from only one or two sources does not.

Second, Dr. Spence copied in the first person.  His opinion article is filled with phrases such as, “On the athletic field, I learned…”, “As my athletic career progressed, I quickly learned..” and, “At an early age, I was fortunate to learn the fundamentals of leadership…” to name a few instances of the personal “I.” (Spence, 2013, p. A15) By connecting with readers on this very personal level, who would suspect that the personal “I” was really the voices of Bill George, author of True North: Discover your authentic leadership, and Allison Graddock, who wrote “What Being an Athlete in Team Sports Taught Me about Leadership” for the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC)?

Finally, Dr. Spence enclosed his article with information about the current local situation.  He began with, “Right now in Ontario, our children are being starved of the opportunity to participate in something that plays an integral role in their education – sports and other extracurricular activities.”  (Spence, 2013, p. A15) He concluded the article with, “Despite the ongoing labour challenges facing school boards across the province, it is my hope that all sides will somehow be able to rise above them and ensure this precious opportunity for individual student success and growth is maintained.” (Spence, 2013, p. A15)  If the beginning and end of an essay are the most important parts as far as making an impression on the reader is concerned, Spence has carefully attempted to inoculate his article against plagiarism detection by addressing the current local situation.

Moral of the Story

For Chris Spence, it has been and continues to be a long road to recover an image, reputation and livelihood that crumbled quickly under the weight of exposed academic misdeeds.  In an effort to recover, Dr. Spence has co-authored two books, one with his daughter and another with his son.  Both touch on the plagiarism controversy.  In Dear B: How to survive and thrive in high school, Spence writes, “’You’ll be expected to write lots of papers in high school; be sure to give credit, or the consequences can be devastating.’” (Rushowy, July 26, 2013, p. A1)

However, the devastation continues if we juxtapose this restorative work against the backdrop of a dissertation that appears to be academically compromised.  Intricate legalities have paralysed the University of Toronto tribunal process looking into the question of the legitimacy of Dr. Spence’s doctoral degree.  After two years, a new date for a hearing has yet to be set.  In the words of a Toronto Star reader, “When will he stop pointing his finger at others for his indiscretions and accept responsibility for his actions?  This is a fine lesson for any adult, never mind an educator, to give young people – blame others and never accept responsibility.” (Lachapelle, 2014, p. A12)

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