The politics of redemption

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”

PART I

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeIn 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.

4 thoughts on “The politics of redemption”

  1. There are different types of plagiarism. The most common is when someone like a thief steal other people ideas and claim them as their own and don’t give credit where credit is due. It is the most common form of flattery, I like your idea it is so good that I am taking credit for it.

    Then there is the most common form of plagiarism in the business world. A team in Germany work hard to design and build a complex machine, it took years of dedicated work. Then the item is purchased in Japan or China. The item is plagerised by a company taking that one machinery ripping it apart and sending small bits to the chemist to figure out the composition of the material. Then the time go through each part and come up with a simpler better design.

    Then there is the Prime Minister who stole an article written by a fellow Tobagonian and did not give credit to his fellowman. That is called political plagiarism. It happens so often it may surprise some. All politicians have “ghost writers”, these people scour through famous speeches and “adopt” the language. Sometimes the poor politician just read the script and go before an audience. Without realising that his or her personage is Maggie Tatcher (one of my favourite speaker). Anyways we embrace Foster as the alter ego of balisier child, deep in the bowels of the bush.

  2. At the entrance gate at a university in South Africa, the following message was posted for students to contemplate in their academic pursuits. “Destroying the nation does not require the use of Atomic bombs, or the use of long range missiles …..it only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing students to cheat on exams”.

    It goes on further “ Patients die at the hands of such doctors, Building collapse at the hands of such engineers. Money is lost at the hands of such economists and accountants. Humanity dies at the hands of such religious scholars. Justice is lost at the hands of such judges. The collapse of education is the collapse of a nation.”

    If you had the choice to be operated on by an A+ doctor as opposed to a plagiarism A+ doctor what would be your choice. Obviously the one who studied and excel in academia. Today the government has gotten rid of the scholarship program and implementing their own program. Perhaps taking C students and turning them into Scientist. The education system in Trinidad is no longer being constructed on meritocracy, rather it is reverting to favouritism. A dangerous precedent. And it must be vigorously opposed.

  3. The news came as a shocker as 19,000 students wrote the SEA. And 9,000 made less than 50%. Why such a high percentage of failures?
    (1) Could be that some children had no laptops to study with. I was shock when an Indian girl topped SEA using her father cell phone to study.
    (2) Could it be some children got cutoff from the school feeding program. Food is fuel for the brain.
    (3) Could it be that talks about ending SEA became a
    de motivator for children.
    (4) Could it be the long commute to schools when schools in the neighborhood remain incomplete.

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