Friday, July 4, 2014

Plagiarism Charges Sticking With Mansfield Superintendent

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Friday, July 4, 2014

GOUVEIA: Still a question of integrity

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Posted: Friday, July 4, 2014 12:13 am | Updated: 3:50 am, Fri Jul 4, 2014.
If a student of Mansfield School Superintendent Brenda Hodges submitted a speech or paper which was found to be largely copied from another source, and did not credit that source, that student would have some serious explaining to do.
But apparently in Mansfield, those in positions of power are held to a different standard. What some have dismissed as something "blown out of proportion" is now threatening the very integrity of the school system itself.
Charges of plagiarism began to circulate on social media after the June 8 Mansfield High graduation address by the superintendent. It seems Hodges' remarks were extremely similar to those given by Naval Adm. William H. McRaven at the University of Texas less than a month earlier.
The superintendent denies she is guilty of plagiarism, saying she heard a speech in Oklahoma in 2013 and asked the speaker (whom she declined to identify) if she could use it. She says he handed her a copy, and she drew from that for her message to graduating seniors.
But she does admit she should have handled the situation differently. "In hindsight, I would have said 'I recently heard a speech that resonated with me and I'd like to share some thoughts from it with you'," Hodges said recently. She added she had not seen or read the admiral's speech before giving her own, but was able to clearly see the connection.
Mansfield High claims to take plagiarism very seriously. Students often have to submit their work to a website that checks for similarities to other written or spoken materials. Hodges herself has pointed out the school department instills in the students, "You have to cite your sources."
Yes, superintendent - you do. And you didn't. And for that, there needs to be consequences.
Plagiarism is a tricky concept. It is debatable whether this particular instance rises to the level of actual plagiarism. But there is no question what Hodges did was wrong, irresponsible and unprofessional. She has damaged her own integrity and credibility with students, parents and fellow professional staff and administrators.
But it's just a commencement speech, you might be tempted to say. Why make such a big deal out of a few remarks to graduates and their families? The head of the school's English department called the alleged plagiarism "much ado about nothing."
That is wrong. It is a big deal. The school department has been quite clear about citing sources. This not only fails to set a good example, but is the epitome of a bad one.
Very little that is written or said is truly and completely original. As a columnist, I draw information for virtually every column from a wide variety of sources. If I gave attribution to every stray fact or statement I encountered, there would be little room for anything else.
But if I were to copy much of what I wrote directly from someone else's work, I would have to attribute it. To not do so would be dishonest and get me fired.
When you are the head of a school system, your responsibilities are clear. You have to be able to conform to the standards and behavior you expect and demand from students. The concept of "Do what I say, not what I do" doesn't work.
What would Superintendent Hodges do if one of her students virtually copied a speech or paper from another source? If they told the superintendent they had permission from someone else to use their work, would that make it OK? Or would they face disciplinary action for failure to follow the rules?
Superintendents and students are different and should not be treated exactly the same. That is understood. But in this case, they should both abide by basic principles of right and wrong.
The school committee needs to investigate this matter. Continued failure to take this seriously will result in its own integrity being questioned. And if it is confirmed Superintendent Hodges did indeed operate outside the very rules she is charged with enforcing, she should be subjected to disciplinary action.
There appears to be no valid excuse for what has been done here. And until and unless one is forthcoming, the school committee needs to show the community their lofty standards apply to everyone.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime area town official. He can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.comand followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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