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The Business of Academics

July 20, 2006

The Business of Academics is revealed in simmering plagiarism controversies. Simply stated, higher administration of academics shares more with business than with education. I know, your college or university is probably different, run by an old scholar who values academic integrity, research and good ‘ole rigorous integrity. If so, good for you. Yours is the exception, not the rule.

The rule, now, is that higher ed is run by and as a business. Gone are the days when old profs “moved” up through the ranks from Dean-dom to university President. It might still happen, but on the whole the president will more likely be a targeted businessperson who may or may not have academic experience: more MBA than PhD.

This is not something I note that should be blindly accepted…that this trend is right or beneficial to academia at large. That is another post.

What I am pointing out, though, is that stories like this one in Inside Higher Ed point to a growing cultural divide more than a disintegration of academic standards. [note: this article focuses on the controversy at one university, extrapolating a larger problem…I don’t know if that is quite the case] Let me explain.

Business looks at the written work far differently than academics. The latter sees an extension of his or her personhood: these are my thoughts, my work, my future, my integrity. Papers, articles, books, et. al. combine to form a body of work that moves one along to career success. Academics live and die by their individual work.

Businesses live and die from producing product or services, and the better run smoothly by using as much of the already-produced work to further future work. That is, they “leverage” existing materials (written work is often called “content”) in order to make present or future materials. For example, I have been an ERP trainer for much of my working career. I was, initially, appalled at the methods of producing training materials. As a starting consulting working for a Fortune 50 company, I was instructed to copy/paste the work of the software engineers, “cleaning up the language” only when needed. That is, I was not expected to produce original work as much as build on the work of others. Instead of the individual academic model, I was to adopt a corporate collective one. If I was doing my job well (with both time and effort), my materials would have little of “me” in them (voice, position, etc.) and have as much of the work of others as possible. Plus, you don’t footnote or cite in business. As long as you are not stealing from your competition (and then it is only bad when you are caught), there is no expectation of originality.

So, as higher admin are culled from and are embodying corporate culture, they will be “caught” “stealing” content.

One set of examples from the article comes from Southern Illinois U. where, among other accusations, was that:

University President Glenn Poshard, who oversees both campuses, copied almost verbatim the text of his predecessor’s online welcome page in his entry.

The local academics were outraged and shocked! How dare the admin not produce original work…we, the professorate, all do. Nay, we are forced to produce original work to get a job, tenure, etc. A linguistics professor of unknown tenure-status, Joan Freidenberg, is complains, “When you are the chancellor or president of the university, you can’t plagiarize. Our business is words and ideas; we are judged by them” (as quoted in).

Academics want the same standard of job performance they work under to be applicable to the ones above them. But that, given the current state, is unrealistic. There are two cultures at work here, and the academics would do well to realize this.

I leave you with a quote that illustrates this point:

“In many of the other form letters that the university uses, it is common for the names and titles to change, but for the content of the message to remain the same. Since university staff create these letters, we do not believe that this practice is improper,” [Michael] Ruiz [(a Southern Ill U. spokesman)] said in a statement.
To add a nice wrinkle to the mix…EdBloggerNews links to a CNN story about a new web site where academics-teachers can sell their materials. If I buy a lecture, is it now mine?

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  1. Dean Dad permalink
    July 24, 2006 1:04 pm

    It sounds like a dispute over the proper bounds of ‘boilerplate.’ Within faculty ranks, ‘boilerplate’ isn’t supposed to exist (though it certainly does), but it’s commonplace and functional in almost every other context.

    President Bush has speechwriters. Is he a plagiarist? I’m willing to accuse him of all manner of other things, but the fact that he has speechwriters bothers me not at all.

    It’s all about context.

  2. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    July 24, 2006 2:01 pm

    I would agree. That was really my point in posting about this “controversy.” I see it as two cultures with different values about content.

    I see little problem with boilerplate text in a syllabus. From an admin point of view, the more the legal stuff (and a syllabus is a legal document) is templated, the fewer the problem areas.

    Speeches and other functions of official university presence function just as political speech. Sure, one would like to think that all politicians are Lincoln, writing the Gettysburg Address on a napkin the night before…but that is both hagiagraphy and unrealistic.

    BTW, thanks for the comment.

  3. Collin permalink
    July 25, 2006 9:53 am

    I think your analysis here is spot-on, but at SIU, part of the reason why the faculty is up in arms is because someone was denied tenure for plagiarising a “teaching philosophy” statement, which is pretty boilerplate stuff, imho. It’s not that the faculty are trying to hold the prez to their standard so much as their protest of a double (administrative) standard. If reproducing boilerplate is enough to deny someone tenure who’s otherwise qualified, then what’s the prez (they argue) doing cribbing stuff?

    There was a big story in the CHE a while back about the guy who was denied tenure–this latest hullabaloo has its roots in that, I think…


  4. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    July 25, 2006 1:24 pm

    Thanks for the important clarification. I did get, from the article, a sense of wanting fairness and accountibility from that particular admin. group.

    I would have to agree that if a prof was fired (denied tenure would be pretty much the same thing) for cribbing some boilerplate syllabus info (see my thoughts on that above), then that same admin. should have all of their stuff in order.

    My guess is that the prof was canned for other reasons, and they, in haste, picked a dumb public reason…

    Again, the admin seems to be trying to take the short way out…

    Keep up the fight.

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