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

Introducing Dr. Spence: Former Director of the Toronto District School Board

In the context of his position as Director of Education, Chris Spence wrote an opinion article titled, Without School Sports, Everyone Loses that appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday January 6, 2013.  The next day, an avid reader contacted a Toronto Star editor to report the suspected plagiarism in Dr. Spence’s opinion piece.  The editor investigated, and confronted him with the allegations.  He acknowledged the article drew on at least five different unattributed sources.  This event sparked a process that found Dr. Spence to be a “serial plagiarist.”  His reputation was ruined and he resigned from his position, which generated an annual salary of close to $272,000.00.  Two years later, Dr. Spence has been unable to secure a similar position, and the University of Toronto is involved in a drawn out process that is challenging the legitimacy of his doctoral dissertation, on grounds of plagiarism.

When initially confronted with the allegations, Spence acknowledged that he “’was careless and sloppy and rushed, and I should have given credit to some of the work that I used… This is something that I’m very passionate about and that I’ve spoken about and written about, and again I apologize for exercising such poor judgment.’” (Rushowy, 2013, p. A3)  Furthermore, as part of his initial contrition, he pledged to enroll in a journalism ethics course.

The Investigation Deepens: Uncovering a "Serial Plagiarist"

However, investigative journalists at the National Post and other news sources soon uncovered a career of entrenched plagiarism, extended back twenty years to his dissertation studies at the University of Toronto.  Perhaps the most troubling example surfaced in another Toronto Star opinion article after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

In the wake of the tragedy, Aisha Sultan wrote, What to say to kids about Connecticut school shooting, for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  In the December 14, 2012 article, she wrote:

But when I looked at my 7-year-old son, I put on my calmest face. 

"A terrible and sad thing happened today," I said. "Someone shot a gun at a school."

He looked at me for a minute, trying to understand what I had said. 

"Was anyone killed?"

"Yes, some people were killed. It's very sad. But your school is safe. And I will do anything and everything to make sure you and your sister are always safe at school."

Then I hugged him. 

On December 17, 2012, Spence wrote, Connecticut school shooting: ‘Heavy with hurt’ in Toronto, for the Toronto Star.  He wrote:

But when I looked at my 10-year-old son, Jacob, I put on my calmest face.

“A terrible and sad thing happened today,” I said. “Someone shot a gun at a school.”

He looked at me for a minute, trying to understand what I had said.

“One of your schools, Dad? Was anyone killed?”

“No, not one of ours but, yes, some people were killed. It’s very sad. But your school is safe. And I will do anything and everything to make sure you and your sister are always safe at school.”

Then I hugged him.

In this article, Toronto Star editors later noted that Spence plagiarized from at least three different sources.  In examining the progression of plagiarism into a habit forming protocol, the former director’s writing seems to have taken on the character of a strange and regrettable mode of communicating that continues to bring severe consequences.

Dr. Spence's Resignation Letter

It is with great sadness and regret that I am writing to tender my resignation as Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board.

I have come to this decision after a great deal of reflection, and no small amount of consultation with family, friends and colleagues. I do so with a profoundly heavy heart.

My life’s work has been education, and the education of young people. More than anything else, I regret that I have not set a good or proper example for the many thousands of young people I’ve been privileged to meet and know.

I intend to continue to do the things I pledged to do – to restore my reputation, and to uphold the academic integrity I consider to be so important. But most importantly, to make amends for what I have done.

I do not wish to be a further distraction to the Trustees, or my many friends and colleagues at the Toronto District School Board. I therefore submit my letter of resignation and, once again, offer my sincerest apologies. (Dotan, 2013)

Analysis of the Case Study Introduction: For Faculty Only, Students, Do Not Read

This shocking real world case study is current, relevant and local in geographic terms.  However, it has its drawbacks as a deterrent for would-be intentional plagiarists.  Because many students enter college before they reach age 20, in their minds, at 51 years, Chris Spence may appear to be an “old guy” and part of someone else’s generation.  They may also fail to relate to this example simply because it comes from the “real world” of work and maturity.  College students may adopt the attitude that something like this could not possibly happen to them. 

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