The Dean of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry is stepping down because he plagiarized a commencement speech. In his address to this year’s graduates, the dean repeated several passages verbatim from a speech Atul Gawande gave to Stanford Medical School students in 2010.
There’s been no explanation for why the dean plagiarized the speech. In my experience as a classroom teacher, plagiarism becomes a temptation if the assignment is ill-defined, the timeline for producing it is too short, or the writer is unable to grasp the material. In the case of the dean, it’s not likely that a commencement speech assignment caught him by surprise or that he lacked understanding of the occasion.
More likely, it’s the vague role of a commencement speech that motivated him to look to other models. These speeches have to be memorable yet anodyne, uplifting yet realistic. Gawande does seem to have a knack for the pithy platitudes (as evidenced by his address this year at Harvard Medical School). Even if a dean can’t match Gawande’s wisdom, it’s always better to deliver an honest speech and one that reflects the values of the particular institution.