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Is Humiliation an Ethically Appropriate Response to Plagiarism?

by Loye Young

Editor’s Note: In mid-November, 2008, Loye Young was dismissed from his position as a part-time faculty member at Texas A & M International University. Young had told his students that plagiarism in his course assignments would result in public humiliation in addition to any punishment doled out under the auspices of university policies. He subsequently found that half a dozen of his students had engaged in plagiarism and he published their names on his course blog on November 3rd.

I’m a business owner in Laredo, Texas. I had never taught a college course before, and I never asked to teach. The department asked me to teach this course. I accepted because of my commitment to Laredo’s future.

I worked hard on the syllabus, and everything in the syllabus was deliberate. Specifically, the language about dishonesty was based on moral and pedagogical principles. The department chairman, Dr. Balaji Janamanchi, reviewed the syllabus with me line-by-line, and I made a few changes in response to his comments.

I was surprised by how common and blatant plagiarism turned out to be. Six students in one class is an extraordinarily high number. I thought and prayed about what to do for about a week before following through on my promise. I decided I had only one moral choice. I am certain it was right.

My decision was guided by two factors: What is good for the students themselves? and What is good for other students?

What is good for the students themselves?


I am cognizant of the extraordinary moral difficulty involved when deciding what is in another’s best interests. Nonetheless, I am convinced that public disclosure, including the concomitant humiliation, is in the interests of the student because it is the best way to teach the student about the consequences of dishonesty and discourage the student from plagiarizing again. Humiliation is inextricably part of a well-formed conscience.

The Vice President-elect, Senator Joseph Biden, is perhaps the most well-known plagiarizer in recent history. Biden was caught plagiarizing while at Syracuse Law School. The school gave him an F, required him to retake the course, and subsequently treated the incident as confidential. See this piece in the New York Times.

Unfortunately, Biden didn’t learn his lesson at law school. He continued to plagiarize for another 20 years. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Senator Biden’s career of plagiarizing came to light, and he was forced to end his presidential bid. (For details of Mr. Biden’s plagiarism career, see, e.g., http://www.the-idler.com/IDLER-02/1-23.html, http://www.slate.com/id/2198597/, and http://www.slate.com/id/2198543/.)

It is my belief that the Syracuse incident left a subtle and subliminal message in Biden’s mind: plagiarism is not a deal breaker. Consequently, he continued to plagiarize. Unfortunately for the Senator, the facts came to public light at the worst possible time: when he was running for President.

I believe that had the Syracuse incident been available publicly, Mr. Biden would have actually learned his lesson and would not have plagiarized later. Twenty years later, if the incident had come up at all, the Senator would have plausibly and convincingly maintained that the incident was a youthful mistake.

There is yet another reason for publicity in such cases: unjustly accused students are protected, for two reasons. One, a professor will be more careful before blowing the whistle. I myself knew that posting the students’ names would be appropriately subject to intense public scrutiny. Therefore, I construed every ambiguity in the students’ favor. Two, public disclosure ensures that subsequent determinations by the university are founded on evidence and dispensed fairly.

What is good for other students?


On the second question, four reasons convince me: deterrents, fairness, predictability, and preparedness for life.


Deterrents—Only if everyone knows that violations of plagiarism will be exposed and punished will the penalties for plagiarism be an effective deterrent. (As a lawyer once told me after hearing of another lawyer’s disbarment, “I’m damn sure not going to do THAT again!”) In fact, one of the six students had not plagiarized (to my knowledge) until the week before I announced my findings. Had I announced the plagiarism earlier, it is possible that student would not have plagiarized at all.

Fairness—Honest students should have, in fairness, the knowledge that their legitimate work is valued more than a plagiarizer’s illegitimate work. In my course, the students were required to post their essays on a public website for all to see. Thus, anyone in the world could have detected the plagiarism. Had another student noticed the plagiarism but saw no action, the honest student would reasonably believe that the process is unfair.

Predictability—By failing publicly to follow through on ubiquitous warnings about plagiarism, universities have convinced students that the purported indignation against deceit is itself deceitful and that the entire process is capricious. TAMIU’s actions in this case have confirmed my suspicions that such a perception is entirely justified.

Preparedness for life—In the real world, deceitful actions have consequences, and those consequences are often public. Borrowers lose credit ratings, employees get fired, spouses divorce, businesses fail, political careers end, and professionals go to jail. Acts of moral turpitude rightly carry public and humiliating consequences in real life, and students need to be prepared.

In closing, I submit that education died when educators came to believe that greater self-esteem leads to greater learning. In fact, the causality is backwards: self-esteem is the result of learning, not the cause.

To listen to a podcast interview with Loye Young on WJR-Detroit, recorded on November 24, 2008, click here.

This piece was originally published by the and is reused with permission.

Short URL: http://www.adjunctnation.com/?p=693

2 Comments for “Is Humiliation an Ethically Appropriate Response to Plagiarism?”

  1. By the way, I have at least one or two students a semester who
    try to blatantly plagiarize, usually by copying something off
    of a website. These particular cases are laughably easy to
    spot, either because the student has not bothered to even
    change the font and the formatting from the website to their
    paper, or because of the blatant change from student language
    to advanced literary criticism. Those are generally easy to
    catch and most of the time I catch it when the students are
    turning in drafts, so I can reprimand them then or use it as a
    teachable moment.

    Ghostwritten papers are a little bit different, but still
    catchable. If you have students write regularly in class,
    even something like a 1-3 minute timed writing, which you
    review and give back to them, then by 1/3 of the way into
    the semester, you have a sense of their error patterns and
    the way they write.

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to detect 90% of plagiarism
    cases in the classroom, and you don’t have to be an academic
    policeman. It just takes a little bit of wiliness and
    attention. Some cases are always going to slip through, but
    much of it can be stopped.

  2. I guess I would like to know what preparation you had and why
    you were asked to teach the class. You talk about pedagogical
    principles, which sounds like you had some training in education,
    even though earlier in the article you had said that you had
    never taught a class. Do you have a PhD or a Master’s Degree?
    What kind of business do you own?

    My other, related question,
    was that if you care so much about Laredo, why would you accept
    a teaching position that you were unqualified for? What made
    the department chair ask you?

    I’m not meaning this to be mean or unpleasant. I just think there
    is probably more to the story than what you included here. Not
    coincidentally, I am always reminding my students to put
    everything that we need to understand the situation in their
    papers and not to leave us guessing on important details!

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