Best Defense

How not to handle plagiarism: An example from the Naval War College

There recently was a case of plagiarism at the Naval War College.

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By “Morty Fied”

Best Defense guest columnist

There recently was a case of plagiarism at the Naval War College.

The transgression, committed by a U.S. Navy officer, was reviewed and evaluated by several faculty members. Their findings that plagiarism had occurred were sent up the chain of command.

But then something happened. Either the college president, Rear Admiral P. Gardner Howe III, or the War College’s Provost, Dr. Lewis Duncan, or the two of them together (it is not clear who: which in of itself is a problem, albeit one for another time) chose to reject the faculty recommendation that the student be given a zero for the assignment. That action would have caused him to fail the joint qualification course (JPME Phase I which is required for career progression).

Rather, the student’s grade was adjusted so that he could pass the course, and receive his joint qualification. Failing the course is generally seen as a minimum punishment, reserved for lesser instances of plagiarism caused more by sloppiness than by an intent to represent someone else’s words as one’s own. Word around the campus is that the student’s career was preserved because he is slated for a significant command.

There are several problems with this situation, but I will focus on three.

First, if what is rumored is true, then this is unethical. This also comes against the background of the Services being very keen to point out how ethical they are by insisting the teaching of ethics is done at the Services’ schools, largely in response to ethical problems such as the ongoing “Fat Leonard” scandal.

Second, if a student has been allowed to pass the course because a senior leader has chosen to disregard the evidence, what does this mean for the integrity of the course as a whole? Professional military schools issue master’s degrees for which the schools are externally accredited. The service schools also claim rigor, but this type of behavior by senior leaders undermines that.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, overturning a failing grade to pass a student who was caught, in essence, cheating, sends the message that cheating is OK. That is unfair to the vast majority of students who do things the right way. It also undermines efforts to fix some of the fraud and waste that has occurred over the last 15 years of war.

Two years ago, Senator John Walsh made the front page in 2014, as well as this blog, when it turned out his master’s thesis from the Army War College was plagiarized. After the scandal erupted, the Army War College reviewed the case and revoked his master’s degree. One can only hope that, as the recent case at the Naval War College becomes better known, that the Navy will correct its own course and do the right thing.

“Morty Fied” is a veteran of PME and has an office on the same deck as you.

Image credit: U.S. Navy



Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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