Philip Baker, dean of medical faculty at University of Alberta, has apologized for plagiarizing from a 2010 Stanford commencement address by Dr. Atul Gawande.
Baker should resign. (See update below.)
I would be fired, and feel I deserved to be, for quoting another's words without attribution. We expect more of high-ranking academics, held in much higher regard by the public than journalists.
As it happens, N.A. newspapers have in the past decade "grown up" and now show zero tolerance for plagiarism and fabulism. (That is, stories made up from whole cloth; see Jayson Blair, which turned the entire NYT upside down).
University of Alberta is one of the finest schools in Canada. That there be no question of about the sterling quality of its faculty, much less administrators, Baker should quit immediately.
Not that it should make a difference, but Baker plagiarized the words and stirring insights and anecdotes of Atul Gawande, one of the world's leading heathcare reformers. His remarkable books and New Yorker investigative articles are must-reads in the Obama White House.
Dr. Baker would know that, or should. It's one thing for parish priests to routinely use off-the-shelf sermons pulled from the Internet. To know the words you're stealing have been widely read and held in high regard in high places is stupidity enough to disqualify Baker from continuing to hold his post.
How widely read? At least one student in Baker's audience last Friday recognized previously-read words, called up Gawande's poignant commencement address on his cell, and commenced listening and reading the same text. When your above-average students are up on their Gawande, as any med student and medical practitioner on the planet should be, stealing from that source - without attribution - takes some kind of vacant-mindedness that's obviously unacceptable in the administrator of a distinguished faculty of a distingished school. (Or any school or institution, come to that.)
Then, predictably, we have Baker's non-apology apology, from which I excerpt:
Dear Class of 2011
I have heard from you following the graduation banquet when the theme (and much of the content) of my speech was similar to that of one given by Dr Atul Gawande. When I was researching for the speech, I came across text which inspired me and resonated with my experiences. The personal medical traumas which I detailed were wholly genuine and did indeed engender the sense of inadequacy I highlighted. I also used a medical case of Dr. Gawande’s to further make my point. I offered a sincere written apology to Dr. Gawande and subsequently spoke with him; he was flattered by my use of his text, took no offence and readily accepted my apology.
Most of all, the basic theme of the talk – that of humility, has been overwhelmingly reinforced. I hope you accept my heartfelt apology and although you may not be proud of me as the dean of your school, please know that I am very proud of all of you. [Emphasis added.]
Throughout my professional career and private life I have I have held myself to the highest ethical standards possible. The talk was intended for a private audience, nevertheless, my failure to attribute the source of my inspiration is a matter of the utmost regret.
"Regret" doesn't cut it.
If Gawande was indeed forgiving - and that certainly sounds like the surgeon at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital - the only reason to believe it is that this is in what we know of Gawande's character. Otherwise, Baker's credibility is shot, and I have no compelling reason to trust him in the directions he offers to locating the cafeteria.
It's always the way in these "apologies" that the offender has never done such a thing before. First-time offender. A defense that doesn't hold water in bank-heist cases, nor should it here. That Baker doesn't "get it" is evident in his (likely inadvertent) chutpah in asserting that is theft actually "overwhelmingly reinforced" the virtue of humility, which indeed is a hallmark of Gawande's insights. (As it was of the great Sir William Osler, and Einstein, for that matter.) To put oneself in the same company as such giants having just plundered their work with due acknowledgement is beyond the pale. (Gawande is shown, left, courtesy The New Yorker.)
We condemn plagiarism because it is a hoax perpetrated on the reader or listener. It cheats those who hear the engaging insights, the wisdom, the memorable turn of phrase of which the thief is either incapable or too lazy to conceive himself.
Of course we all stand on the shoulders of giants, as Einstein put it. One only hopes the likes of Baker, holding the post he does, would have the wit to be inspired by an Atul Gawande. Quoting him with attribution is not only acceptable but to be encouraged.
But passing off Gawande's hard work - the fruit of years of traveling the world in search of best practices - as one's own, no, never.
There is a merry chase to hound Andrew Weiner from office. The congressman indeed is guilty of bad judgment, and his character in all things is in question.
Baker's offence is worse, I'm afraid, a trifecta of deception, theft, and dubious character. He's not worthy of his students or school, and should take his leave immediately. It would help if he left behind on his former desk a genuine apology for his successor.