Opinion: Four reasons Dean Baker should resign

Would you trust your cancer diagnosis to someone who had cheated on an exam?

This morning, the news broke that on Friday, Philip Baker, Dean of The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry* at the University of Alberta, delivered a speech that was largely plagiarized from a speech given by Atwul Gawande last year at Stanford. Baker has issued an apology, but an apology is not good enough. He should resign immediately, and here’s why.

1. On principle. As Dean, Baker is responsible for the academic integrity of the programs he oversees. Deans are called upon every day to make decisions that impact students and faculty in the most basic ways: hirings, promotions, sabbaticals, grade appeals — it’s hard to think of an important university function that does not involve deans. Baker made a mistake, and he may feel bad about it, but he cannot now be trusted with the grades of students and the careers of faculty.

2. It sets an impossibly bad example. How can the university enforce its rules about plagiarism (for which students can be expelled according to U of  A policies) when one of its own deans has admitted to plagiarism himself? What could a faculty member say to an offending student who points out that what he has done is no different from what his own dean has done? Is a professor of obstetrics supposed to look a student in the eye and say that students have to be held to higher standards than university officials?

3. The scandal may hurt students, the integrity of whose degree might be called into question.

4. “What I stole was really good” is no excuse. According to the Edmonton Journal, Baker’s apology suggested that while he did lift the content of the Gawande speech, it was only because the original oration “inspired me and resonated with my experiences[…] The personal medical traumas which I detailed were wholly genuine and did indeed engender the sense of inadequacy I highlighted.”

Such an excuse, though, is no excuse at all. For one thing, there are well-established ways of using the words of another in an ethical way: paraphrasing and quoting with attribution. If the Gawande speech was so inspiring, all Dean Baker had to do was say, “In thinking about my address today, I recalled a wonderful speech delivered at Stanford last year, in which Dr. Atwul Gawande said…” and so on. Why didn’t Baker do that? Because according to witnesses who read compared the two addresses,  Baker lifted almost the whole thing, and to admit to that would be to look like you hadn’t written your own speech. Which, of course, he hadn’t. So he passed off a counterfeit.

But to do so at a university event, in his capacity as Dean, is to show a shocking disregard for a basic principle of academic integrity: you don’t knowingly take credit for someone else’s work.

Baker’s programs are in obstetrics and gynecology. Would you want your baby delivered by a doctor who hadn’t written her own papers? Ask yourself: would you want your cervical cancer diagnosed by someone who cheated on their oncology exam?

*This post originally referred to Dean Baker with an incorrect title. It has been corrected.