A few weeks ago, the manager of a New Orleans art gallery told me a story that I wish had surprised me.
When he was a senior at Tulane University, he took a Political Science class about the British Political System. For his term paper he wrote about the functions of the British Cabinet. The night before the final he got a phone call. It was from the Tulane honor board: He was charged with plagiarism. He was devastated, and did badly on the final.
The next semester a hearing took place. At the hearing, he listened to a tape of his professor’s testimony. The professor recommended that he be expelled: Not only had he plagiarized, the professor said, he had flunked the final. The supposed plagiarism was that he had listed ten functions of the British Cabinet without giving a source. He had believed that this was common knowledge, such as saying the sky is blue, and thus did not need a source. He had not copied word for word — he had paraphrased his source. The honor board gave him an WF for the course — withdrawal with an F.
The charge of plagiarism is absurd. It isn’t even obvious that the student did anything wrong — he is correct that you don’t need to reference “the sky is blue.” The telling part of this story is not that an individual professor was cruel and stupid — it is that a committee of professors backed him up.
Another case — this time at Memorial University of Newfoundland — where a committee of professors did exactly the wrong thing with awful consequences for an innocent person. The current Memorial administration now defends this!
A website about how IRBs (institutional review boards) abuse their power. IRBs are university-wide committees that oversee research. They consist mostly of professors.
So you can see why I wasn’t really surprised.