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I wrote a dissertation on a topic so untrammeled, Catholic women’s higher education, that there were no books from which to plagiarize. Later, I jumped off a tenure track at the University at Buffalo to go to law school, meaning I did not embark on a scholarship path to put me into the line of fire that has recently emerged around this topic.

In my administrative days, I wound up writing a lot, including this blog. But the form was freer; it was not scholarship but commentary on contemporary law, policy and politics of the internet. With some exceptions I did not have to follow an academic style book. Hyperlinks became the new footnotes. Maybe the most truthful thing I have to say about my own work and the subject of plagiarism is that I am probably a little too bullish on my own ideas to need anyone else’s.

I watch with concern, however, how the issue of plagiarism has reared its head in the general political attack on elites and higher education in particular. I would not be surprised to find that the publish-or-perish cycles of upward academic mobility have engendered a kind of sloppiness that is real among some of our most cherished scholars. When Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have done the dirty deed, I was disappointed. I was even more dismayed when she explained that it was her researcher’s original mistake. She has a researcher? Naïve me.

No doubt some who call out higher education have a political agenda. Need I mention the names Christopher Rufo and Elise Stefanik? That said, their expression puzzles me a bit. I confess when I applied for a position at an esteemed university in the last few years, I rolled my eyes at having to write a DEI statement. Part of the roll reflected a weary sense at this age and stage of my life and career lived around these issues before they even became a thing.

Has the pendulum swung too far to correct the wrongs of yesteryear? No, I don’t think that it has. We still live with the consequence of so many -isms. But I do think that in some instances higher education has fallen into certain rigidities and even silliness about how to approach these important issues. Calling those excesses out is OK, but the vehemence, the anger, the vitriolic antipathy, a fundamental lack of respect for education? I don’t get it. Apart from blind ambition, I do not understand why they take a jackass-knocking-down-the-barn approach to such a critical component of American greatness.

Now we have plagiarism as the vehicle for their attacks. Hoisted on our own petard, I suppose one might say. If a course of academic hygiene is called for, that project would not be a bad thing. The contemporary question is to ask what AI will bring to it. I suspect confusion. We already have copyright law newly in a snit about both the training of large language models and their output. Plagiarism is not the same as copyright, but it is an intellectual cousin. A year ago, I wrote in this blog about the academic integrity policy I now use in my courses to address consumer AI, i.e., ChatGPT. I can, however, foresee a blurring of the lines in academic work. Heck, if a noted scholar at MIT can take definitions from Wikipedia in a doctoral thesis, who might not be tempted to throw in a phrase or two from ChatGPT? The problem lies in the fact that ChatGPT does not always produce the same answer to questions, so detection might be a bit tricky. Turnitin, moreover, is irrelevant.

I devoted my career to higher education because I was so grateful to go to college. I wanted to do some form of service as my life work. I am by nature curious. I jumped off the rails in 2017 to run for Congress, and, as I have expressed in these posts many times, I learned a great deal from that experience. I now bring those lessons back to the classroom, where, even after years of administrative work, I am the happiest.

All of which brings me to these conclusions: we—humanity—will deal with AI as we have with so many other challenges historically. That is, imperfectly. Future historians will look back on this age in full view of our gifts as well as our faults.

Plagiarism is worthy of our attention. We—higher education—would do well to welcome the opportunity to take responsibility for our mistakes and clean up scholarship. We owe it to our students, to ourselves and to the generations of scholars who will succeed us. We might also learn a thing or two about the epistemology of the craft, especially as it distills into different disciplines. In keeping with our own spirit, this is a chance not merely to fix a problem, but to learn from it.

The most important lesson, however, is the political one. The attacks on higher education are serious, just as is our political landscape today. We must stand strong. We cannot allow this issue or any other (anti-“wokeism,” or anti-intellectualism by any other name) to undermine our service, purpose or missions. No ivy tower, literal or figurative, will insulate us, nor should we seek insulation. Like journalism or even democracy itself, higher education matters at the most fundamental level to the quality of a culture and society that values free inquiry and speech, innovation and the pursuit of science and the arts for its own sake. What AI and the issue of plagiarism might offer us at this contentious time are tools and reason to reinvigorate the meaning of our institutions.

A final note: if higher education is looking for volunteers to engage opponents, sign me up. I would love nothing more than to apply what I learned in the groves of academe, as well as in the foxholes of electoral politics, to fight this fight.

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