By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 27, 2022
Old pirates, yes, they rob I / Sold I to the merchant ships/ Minutes after they took I / From the bottomless pit / But my hand was made strong /By the hand of the Almighty / We forward in this generation / Triumphantly.
—Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”
In the 1970s I had the privilege of teaching the late Fr Henry Charles at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He was one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught. In fact, he was more brilliant than I in certain respects. I taught a course on West Indian literature, and he seemed to know everything about the writers we were discussing. I deferred to him on many occasions when difficult questions came up in class.
Fr Charles was a student at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). After many discussions with Charles, I came to believe HDS was not the most appropriate place for him to be, given his intellectual bent and theological inclinations. I encouraged him to apply to Yale Divinity School and wrote a recommendation to support his candidacy.
Not only did Charles receive a Master’s in ethics at HDS, a doctorate in religious studies from Yale Graduate School, and a law degree from George Washington Law School in Washington, DC, he also obtained a Master’s in law from University College, London. An island scholarship winner in languages, Charles also took an honours degree in classics from University College, Dublin, Ireland, and a Master’s degree at Gregorian University in Rome.
Charles also taught theology and ethics at St Louis University, Missouri, and at The University of the West Indies. The Catholic News described him as “one of the finest minds in the Caribbean Catholic Church… He had a unique gift for friendship and used his wide-ranging talents to explore critically many aspects of life which made his homilies and lectures life-giving”. (December 18, 2014.)
In spite of his enormous talents and impeccable reputation, he was brought low by a simple mistake: he was accused of and confessed to plagiarising from two articles that appeared in The New York Times and the National Catholic Weekly (USA), using them in his weekly columns in the Trinidad Guardian.
On May 6, 2009, Charles was forced to resign as chairman of the Integrity Commission for that transgression. He accepted responsibility for his actions and stressed “that he had gone public with his error in his last column in the Guardian and had told President George Maxwell Richards about it before his appointment to the commission”. (May 7, 2009.)
When Charles died on January 15, 2013, he was the parish priest at St Mary’s, Mucurapo. Lisa Chang wrote on her Facebook page: “Trinidad dog the man till he get a heart attack now you all want to play you all sorry… sad, we hold up our heroes when they dead, but never let them enjoy one day in the sunshine of success.”
I was reminded of Charles’s fall from grace when I read of a similar breach Foster Cummings committed at The UWI. The Express headline blazoned: “Unofficial UWI transcript reveals why Foster forced to withdraw from Master’s programme: PLAGIARISM”. The story opens with the remarks: “As a university student, Foster Cummings was prohibited from registering for a Master’s degree programme at The University of the West Indies (The UWI) not because of any mistake or oversight but for plagiarism.” (June 19.)
Cummings claims he was prevented from continuing his education at The UWI because of “an oversight of not referencing quotations in the footnotes, although the book was cited in the bibliography”.
Any undergraduate knows plagiarism consists of using someone else’s work without giving that person the necessary credit. Cummings would have been better off admitting his error and apologising for this breach unequivocally. Charles apologised unreservedly for his transgression and thereby redeemed himself in the eyes of fair-minded people.
Prof Patrick Watson was correct when he said “plagiarism is perhaps the most serious crime you can commit in academia”. I don’t agree with the unnamed lecturer who says: “When somebody accuses you of plagiarism that’s like somebody accuses you of murder in the university.”
Plagiarism is a serious academic transgression, but we ought to keep things in perspective when we judge those who transgress these academic conventions.
In 2004, Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard Law School (HLS), was accused of plagiarising parts of Prof Jack Balkin’s book, What Brown v Board of Education Should Have Said. Elena Kagan, dean of HLS then and associate justice of the US Supreme Court, set up a two-man committee (Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, and Robert Clark, a past dean of HLS) to examine the matter. The committee found that Ogletree made “an honest mistake”.
Dean Lawrence Velvel, dean emeritus of the Massachusetts School of Law, condemned Ogletree’s lapsed judgment while the Weekly Standard called for the revocation of Ogletree’s tenure.
Ogletree took full responsibility for his transgression. He apologised publicly “for serious errors I made during the final days of the research and production process for my recent book… The errors were avoidable and preventable, and I take full responsibility for them”. (Harvard Crimson, September 25, 2004.) Ogletree remained a close adviser to President Barack Obama, whom he mentored when he was a student at HLS.
I don’t know Foster as well as I knew Charles. Looking at Cummings’s transgression, I wonder if it holds any redemptive possibilities for him, a young black man who lifted himself out of a difficult beginning to make himself somebody in our society.
Despite the snares, can he go forward triumphantly in this generation? I will examine that possibility next week.