Spence had no recourse but to quit

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday January 16 2013 in Opinion
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Patrick Hunter

When I first heard the news that Dr. Chris Spence, (now, the former) Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), was being accused of plagiarism, several questions raced through my head. The main one: Was this an attempt to bring the downfall of a Black man from a very influential position in our city – in our province?


This is the Director of Education for the largest Board of Education in Canada. He was appointed with great accolades, having previously been the director of education for the Board in Hamilton. Of course, our society, being what it is, seeing this position going to an African-Canadian, some would not be happy about that.


A main source of my doubt or concern was that at that senior level in most organizations, many would have their communications department ghostwrite opinion pieces, as they do with speeches and other communication, especially when they are seen as embodying the organization’s position.


The invitations to deliver speeches, write papers or essays would be so many that it could take away from performing the role for which one was hired. So, it would not be a leap to suspect that someone – not necessarily deliberately – failed to make the appropriate attribution of a passage from another source. However, since the byline for the written piece was that of the Director, he would have had to take full responsibility for the matter anyway.


And he did. In his statement responding to the first allegation, posted on the TDSB website, Dr. Spence noted:


“I wrote that op-ed and – in no less than five different instances – I did not give proper credit for the work of others. I did not attribute their work. I did research and wrote down notes and came back at it the next day, and wrote down the notes.”


Since that confession, Spence offered his resignation which has been accepted. But that was only the beginning. Now all his writings – books, speeches, opinion pieces; even the dissertation for his doctorate – are being reviewed. Indeed, the National Post, among others, has already identified passages that they claim had been used without the appropriate attribution.


It is difficult to see how Spence will be able to recover fully from this.


There are some who believe that his resignation should have been refused. The argument, in a nutshell, appears to be that he has much more to offer to the Board and education generally that would supersede this “error in judgement”.


Unfortunately, I cannot and do not share that opinion. Much as I appreciate the fact that an African-Canadian holds such a key post; that he would, or could, bring a level of understanding to policy and programming decisions that was frequently absent in our schools, there is an irrefutable principle here.


Drilled into students’ heads from an early stage is the idea that sources used in one’s essays should be cited. Quotations should be identified and properly attributed. The result of not having followed these procedures is sufficient cause for discipline, up to and including failure to pass a course.


In an employment situation, it can be a reason for discipline, up to and including dismissal. One television station, for example, had brief interviews with students following the first allegation against Spence. The students’ reaction was that Spence should resign or be dismissed because they would face similar penalties.


I view Spence’s position as a principal of principals. Therefore, he has to abide by the principles that underlie the role. It is quite possible that if this were a one-time offence, considerations of sloppiness would have entered the discussion. But given his position, it was almost inevitable that investigations into other possible infractions would be immediate.


His almost immediate confession, while laudable, also energized that investigation. With the compounding of additional alleged transgressions, Spence had no recourse but to offer his resignation and the Board Chair had no recourse but to accept it.


I will make no assessment of Spence’s contributions in his role as director of education. I will leave that to persons who are more intimately involved in education in Toronto’s schools. But, as someone from the African-Canadian community – like we always do – we take on these successes and failures as if they were our own. It should not have to be that way, but it is. Moreover, I probably do not have to expand on the reasons why that is.


One report has it that Spence has engaged a public relations firm to begin the process of rehabilitating his image. Meanwhile, he has indicated that he will cooperate with all investigations into other alleged plagiarisms.


This is a tragic situation. I cannot even begin to imagine what Spence is going through right now. One can only hope that he has a cadre of friends and supporters that will help to keep his spirits up as he faces this ordeal over the next few weeks and months.


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