Read ’Em And Weep For Harvard
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
In 2004-2005, and on a few occasions again in 2006-2007, I wrote about ghostwriting done for leading academics, leading doctors and others who commit moral fraud by claiming the work as their own. Ghostwriting done for famous Harvard law professors was the original impetus for this work. To a considerable extent the existence of this ghostwriting at Harvard had to be deduced by logic based on statements made by the “accused,” by parsing statements made by the “accused.”
The subject has now been further pursued in an article by a recent Harvard graduate and former Wall Street Journal reporter named Jacob Hale Russell. The article, called A Million Little Writers, is in the November/December 2007 issue of 02138, which I am told is a new glossy magazine for Harvard alumni.
Russell has obviously done significant legwork and has come up with actual facts on the ground, whereas I had to rely on deductions -- damn good deductions, I think, but mere deductions nonetheless. And, based on Russell’s work, the situation at Harvard is far worse than even I suspected. The situation is shocking, horrifying, sickening, a total disgrace. Heads should roll. Faculty and administrators at the law school, and elsewhere too in the university, should be summarily fired for committing intellectual fraud or for condoning it.
As a matter of full disclosure I should say that, when preparing his piece, Russell spoke to me briefly on the phone -- perhaps for 15 minutes or so -- and received copies of a number of my blogs on the matter. But he has gone worlds beyond what I knew or wrote. Due to the power of his reporting and revelations, I shall have more to say in future about the horrifying -- and, unhappy to say, since 1960 the all too American, since 1960 the perhaps quintessentially American -- immoral fraudulence that has taken place at Harvard, at the school which sets the tone for the American academic world and much else besides in these United States. In the meanwhile, however, I am, with Russell’s permission, appending his article so that other people, who otherwise would have no reason to know that his article exists, can read his description of what has been going on in Cambridge. As we used to say when either bad or particularly good face-up cards were laid on the poker table during the course of a hand, and when the winning hand was shown after the betting was finished, “Read ’em and weep.” Weep for Harvard. Weep for the academic world. Weep for an America where immoral fraudulence is so de rigueur that reports of it don&rsqu o;t even raise an eyebrow among the powerful, but are instead regarded by them as simply the way everyday business is done.
A Million Little Writers
Welcome to the world of celebrity academics–and the behind-the-scenes scribes who help make their fame and fortune possible.
In celebrity-driven academia, "Getting ahead ... means establishing a personal reputation and denying it, to the extent possible, to rivals and even to assistants."
In September 2004, Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, found himself having to admit that his latest book, All Deliberate Speed, contained six paragraphs lifted verbatim from a book by Yale professor Jack Balkin, What “Brown v. Board of Education” Should Have Said. Equally surprising was the fact that Ogletree hadn’t known about the plagiarism, which occurred in a passage about the history of desegregation efforts, until he was told of it by Balkin himself.
“I accept full responsibility for this error,” Ogletree said in a statement. But some readers of that statement might have gotten a different impression: Ogletree attributed the plagiarism to two research assistants: “Material from Professor Jack Balkin’s book … was inserted … by one of my assistants for the purpose of being reviewed, researched, and summarized by another research assistant with proper attribution … Unfortunately, the second assistant, under the pressure of meeting a deadline, inadvertently deleted this attribution and edited the text as though it had been written by me. The second assistant then sent a revised draft to the publisher.”
It was a curious admission. In other words, at least some of Ogletree’s manuscript was sent to his publisher without having been read by the person supposed to have written it. Yet to Ogletree, the crime was not that someone else had written the material, just that it wasn’t the person Ogletree expected to write it.
But check the title page of All Deliberate Speed and the Library of Congress catalog information, and Ogletree’s name stands alone. An impressive total of nine students are listed in the acknowledgements as a “deeply committed group of researchers,” but there’s not a hint that their words appear verbatim in the book—or, at least, there wasn’t until something went wrong.
Derek Bok, one of the two professors appointed by the law school to review the episode, barely raised an eyebrow over the apparent use of uncredited ghostwriters. As he told the Boston Globe at the time, “There was no deliberate wrongdoing at all … He marshaled his assistants and parcelled out the work and in the process some quotation marks got lost”—a description that probably sounded flip to any author who has ever been plagiarized. Ogletree was “reprimanded,” but suffered no tangible consequences.
Which is probably why little seems to have changed with the way Ogletree creates the written work to which he assigns his name; a student familiar with Ogletree’s writing process on a current book, as well as op-eds and briefs for law cases, says that, three years after the plagiarism scandal, Ogletree still parcels out the work to a group of about 10 students on his payroll. The distinguished professor of law will review, but generally leave untouched, the writing of his most trusted researchers. He then puts his name on top of it.
And, to be fair, Ogletree is hardly alone: A growing number of books attributed to Harvard professors are composed in exactly this manner.
When we buy books off best seller lists these days, we almost expect to read the work of more than the named author: his backstage researchers, editors, and agents, maybe even a ghostwriter. Professional athletes admit that they haven’t read the “autobiographies” that carry their names; thriller writer James Patterson has six books coming out this year, thanks to the little-known co-authors who work with him; some popular authors, such as Robert Ludlum and V.C. Andrews, even continue writing books after they’re dead, thanks to the help of hired ghosts.
One might think that the ivory tower should and could resist such commercialism. If nowhere else, the provenance of an idea ought still to matter in academia; the authenticity of authorship should remain a truism. After all, one of the reasons scholars are granted tenure is so they can write free of the commercial pressures of the publishing world, taking as long as they need to get things right. And, whether in the sciences or the humanities, the world of scholarship has always prioritized the proper crediting of sources and co-contributors.
That image of academia may be idealistic, but most scholars still profess allegiance to it, and it is held up to undergraduate and graduate students as the proper way to conduct their own research and writing, reinforced by strict regulations regarding student plagiarism. As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Student Handbook states, “Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, and ordinarily required to withdraw from the College.”
Students—but not professors. Because, in any number of academic offices at Harvard, the relationship between “author” and researcher(s) is a distinctly gray area. A young economics professor hires seven researchers, none yet in graduate school, several of them pulling 70-hour work-weeks; historians farm out their research to teams of graduate students, who prepare meticulously written memos that are closely assimilated into the finished work; law school professors “write” books that acknowledge dozens of research assistants without specifying their contributions. These days, it is practically the norm for tenured professors to have research and writing squads working on their publications, quietly employed at stages of co-authorship ranging from the non-controversial (photocopying) to more authorial labor, such as significant research on topics central to the final work, to what c an only be called ghostwriting.
The issue is hardly confined to the Harvard faculty: Researchers have been blamed in other recent high-profile cases of academic fraud. Roger Shepherd, a former professor at the New School in New York, attributed apparent plagiarism in a 2002 book to a researcher who allegedly inserted verbatim material from another professor’s book; material that Shepherd subsequently forgot to rewrite. Historian Stephen Ambrose was found to have extensively plagiarized one of his books, Wild Blue; the prolific author relied on his five children for research aid. Doris Kearns Goodwin, then a Harvard overseer, was found to have inadvertently plagiarized from numerous other works in her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. And, of course, 2006 saw the much-publicized Kaavya Viswanathan episode, in which the Harvard sophomore with a lucrative book contract was found to have plagiarized her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.
Still, the blurring of authorial lines might be a particular problem for Harvard’s faculty. Harvard professors are, in theory, held to a high standard, but they also have more tempting opportunities for lucrative, popular writing than professors at lesser-known institutions. (And, frequently, larger budgets with which to pay researchers.) The cult of celebrity that Harvard’s high-profile professors often cultivate requires a production line of unnamed accomplices who help maintain the professor’s prolific output—and status as an intellectual star.
“Harvard bears a certain amount of responsibility over and above everybody else,” says Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, who has written about plagiarism on his blog. “Harvard sets the tone for the university world. When you get people at Harvard doing these kinds of things, it sets a horrendous example for other people.”
Former Dean of the College Harry Lewis calls this trend the “atelier phenomenon,” likening it to Renaissance painters whose assistants could mimic their style and thus permit the named artists to increase their output—and profit. “The celebrity professor is a new phenomenon and not a good one,” says Lewis. In celebrity-driven academia, “getting ahead … means beating other people, which means establishing a personal reputation and denying it, to the extent possible, to rivals and even to assistants.
“This surely is not healthy,” Lewis says. “We are supposed to be in the business of creating the future for our students, not using our students as labor to bolster our status in the world.”
Beyond its obvious practical consequences, such as incidents of plagiarism, the research-assistant-driven culture raises questions about the core of the academic enterprise. Outsourced work is partly a response to time constraints; it allows a professor to both produce more—more books, more op-eds—and have more time for non-research work, such as appearing on television, taking on pro bono legal cases, and starting research centers. With such aims, a professor is often pursuing fundamentally different goals than the pursuit of knowledge: The frequent publication of quickly written popular books generally has more to do with the pursuit of fame and material success. Publish the book, land on TV, sign up with a speaker’s bureau for five figures a speech, maybe even get appointed to corporate and charitable boards. Suddenly, your income in the low six figures can double or triple.
A scholarly process thus devalued—emphasizing quantity and sales, not integrity and originality—must change the university’s character. Observers of the ivory tower over the past few decades have consistently remarked on a trend toward corporate values, such as the pressure to monetize scientific research and the use of public relations tactics to buff a university’s public image. Corporatization is equally visible in some professors’ attempts to “brand” themselves—not just by publishing popular books, but by choosing opportunities based on how much exposure they will generate.
Nobody epitomizes the fame obtainable by a professor more than Alan Dershowitz. The Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School racked up 5,778 media mentions between 1995 and 2000, making him the 12th-most-mentioned among both the living and dead, according to Richard Posner’s critical look at the production of popular work by academics, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. (If anything, his visibility has only increased since then.) Dershowitz has published 12 books since 2000, of which only two were for university presses. Last year, he also wrote 13 op-eds and one law review article. He’s big on the speaking circuit and also finds the time to take on high-profile criminal and civil cases, such as that of Harvard do nor Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire financier charged with soliciting prostitution. Dershowitz blogs for the Huffington Post, and he also repackages his own work; Blasphemy: How the Religious Right Is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence, released this year, is his 2003 book America Declares Independence almost verbatim, with a few new chapters tacked on.
Those who work with Dershowitz say he does his own writing—by hand, apparently to protect himself from allegations of plagiarism. That didn’t stop former DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein and Nation writer Alexander Cockburn from accusing Dershowitz of plagiarism in his book, The Case for Israel, an accusation Dershowitz has vehemently denied.
Dershowitz is, however, notorious on the law school campus for his use of researchers. (The law school itself is particularly known for this practice, probably because lawyers are used to having paralegals and clerks who do significant research and writing; students familiar with several law school professors’ writing processes say that Dershowitz reflects the norm in principle, if to a greater degree in practice.)
Dershowitz generally employs one or two full-time researchers, three or four part-timers, and a handful of students who do occasional work—all paid at $11.50 per hour. (Since Dershowitz doesn’t get enough in the $7,500/year research budget the law school accords him, he often has to pay that hourly rate out of his own pocket.) Several students who have worked with him describe his hiring practices as almost arbitrary—barely looking at résumés, hiring anyone who asks him for a job, sometimes having his wife interview applicants, and often forgetting those who’ve worked with him in the past. One long-serving researcher was a local high-school student.
Several of his researchers say that Dershowitz doesn’t subscribe to the scholarly convention of researching first, then drawing conclusions. Instead, as a lawyer might, he writes his conclusions, leaving spaces where he’d like sources or case law to back up a thesis. On several occasions where the research has suggested opposite conclusions, his students say, he has asked them to go back and look for other cases, or simply to omit the discrepant information. “That’s the way it’s done; a piecemeal, ass-backwards way,” says one student who has firsthand experience with the writing habits of Dershowitz and other tenured colleagues. “They write first, make assertions, and farm out [the work] to research assistants to vet it. They do very little of the research themselves.”
When one student couldn’t find a desired source for an HLS professor’s project, a Harvard research librarian commented, “Isn’t that the opposite of how you’re supposed to do it?” Other students point out that Dershowitz has been at the law school for four decades, and thus even his most apparently off-the-cuff suppositions are based on a long career of reading and practicing law. And Dershowitz does acknowledge researchers in his books.
The “atelier” is no longer the privilege of the long-tenured professor, though. One of academia’s up-and-coming darlings is Roland Fryer, an assistant professor in the economics department who began teaching at Harvard just last year. Fryer is a media star: He has appeared on CNN and been written about in the New York Times, Esquire, and this issue of 02138 (see page 34). Fryer’s group, the American Inequality Lab, works on a half-dozen or more major research areas at a time. To do so, Fryer now employs seven full-time “project managers,” mostly recent college alums, and works with dozens of others. The students, generally recent college graduates like David Toniatti, each manage a research project, from designing the methodology to collecting the data and running the numbers. Fryer writes the final papers, for which he is accorded primary authorsh ip. “It’s him casting a vision, us working through the details, and him correcting it,” Toniatti says. “Everyone can run the regression; it’s really the idea that counts.”
Different fields have different customs; what wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in the economics department might raise havoc in English. But across the academic board, the celebrity culture poses a dilemma for young scholars: Should they simply churn out the one or two serious books necessary to get tenure, and then ignore the writing of such books to focus on opportunities that bring more exposure and money? After all, writing scholarly tomes is probably the least glamorous and least lucrative of the many opportunities open to a Harvard professor, and thus one of the easiest to either outsource or abandon.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the natural case study for this question. Gates does hugely significant work at Harvard, running the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, fundraising, and helping to build the department of African and African-American Studies. But he may be even busier on non-university business, whether it’s producing documentaries for PBS, writing for the New Yorker and the New York Times op-ed page, serving as a judge for the Pulitzer Prizes, chairing a foundation, traveling and lecturing around the world, serving on the boards of nine museums and cultural institutions, even helping the United States Postal Service pick its stamps.
As a young academic, Gates wrote two books, Figures in Black and The Signifying Monkey, revered among literary scholars for their theoretical insights on how to study and analyze African-American literature. Those may well be the last important scholarly books Gates will ever write. His literary work now tends to be more cursory—introductions, overseeing the production of an encyclopedia backed by Microsoft, publishing his PBS work. No one seems to care: In October 2006, Gates was named the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor—a university professorship being the highest honor Harvard awards its scholars. The endower of Gates’ chair, Alphonse Fletcher Jr., is also the endower of the foundation that Gates chairs, the Fletcher Foundation.
For better or worse, Gates’ career, and the huge rewards that he has reaped from it, send the message to young scholars that scholarship is not an end in itself but a means to an end—to easier work, better-paying gigs, greater mainstream acclaim. At which point, the tough grind of academic writing can be farmed out to other, more-junior scholars—and possibly lesser minds—pulling their way up the academic ladder.
Many student researchers wouldn’t discuss their research work for this article, even with guarantees of anonymity, because they fear jeopardizing a professor’s future support. This secrecy, combined with the fact that the line between research and writing is often fuzzy, keeps the system obtuse and subject to abuse. Except where it produces outright plagiarism, it’s essentially unregulated by Harvard policy—and even implicitly sanctioned, as Bok’s quote about Ogletree’s case suggested. Yet if the undergraduates doing this research attempted the same outsourcing of written work in their term papers, they’d face disciplinary proceedings, and several student researchers told me they felt uneasy about this cognitive dissonance between expectations for their own work and that of their professors.
What’s perhaps more surprising than professors’ reliance upon student researcher/writers is the general lack of outrage or even concern the habit generates. Even students who work for the most notorious professorial slackers told me that they appreciate the opportunities to work with faculty, to see how a book is written (or, perhaps more accurately, produced), to get paid and receive a recommendation letter. There’s a cachet to putting words in a famous professor’s mouth. “It’s really cool to say, ‘Hey, I wrote that paragraph that ended up in the Times,’” says one student who works with one of the most prominent Harvard faculty members. “I don’t need the byline—I can tell my friends.”
Not only does Harvard not seem to prohibit, punish, or even frown upon the use of academic researcher-cum-ghostwriters, sometimes the university even subsidizes it. The Office of Faculty Development and Diversity—created in the wake of the controversy surrounding Lawrence Summers’ comments on women in science—employs a “research assistant” named Mae Clarke whose publicly available job description sounds strikingly like that of a ghostwriter. The diversity office website says: “Ms. Mae Clarke serves as the primary Research Assistant for Dr. [Evelynn] Hammonds who is working on a manuscript of the history of race in medicine and science in the United States. Ms. Clarke’s responsibilities include organizing, drafting, and editing materials for the preparation of the manuscript and related papers. She … will serve as copy editor for drafts of chapters. Ms. Clarke also supports production of other written works.”
Clarke is on sabbatical and couldn’t be reached for comment, and—through a spokesperson—Dr. Hammonds declined to comment. In other words, Hammonds used a ghost-speaker to avoid answering a question about her ghostwriter. It’s no wonder some students get cynical about the manner in which they research and write their own work.
The quality of academic work often suffers in correlation to the prevalence of ghostwriters and other literary assistants. Many of the books produced in this way just aren’t as good as they could be had their “authors” not fobbed off so much work on research assistants. As appears to be the case with Dershowitz, many scholarly books that are collectively researched and written aren’t designed to last; they hit the remainders table quickly, and are rarely cited in other academic works (a conventional metric of a book’s scholarly significance).
In that sense, these authors are capitalizing on the Harvard brand without respecting its deeper value: They’re using the name as a keyword in their bio to make a book sell better, but they’re ignoring the fundamental mission of a research university—the creation and exploration of significant, durable knowledge. “We [in the academic community] are afraid of making subjective judgments, so page counts and books-per-year provide nice, objective substitutes,” says Harry Lewis. “People are rewarded for writing a lot even if it isn’t very good or even very academic.”
Changes in academic publishing have also contributed to the rise of the research assistant. Over the past decade, academic presses have significantly decreased the number of books they publish, and several have shut their doors altogether, a decline due in part to financial pressures on publishing generally. Much of what professors write these days is published by popular presses and intended to be sold at Barnes & Noble. In contrast to the multiple peer reviews done by academic publishers, these trade presses don’t vet books with much rigor. They worry more about libel than factual accuracy, and so manuscripts are read by lawyers, not fact-checkers, who would be more likely to spot plagiarism and other sloppy work. Trade presses also discourage extensive end matter and footnotes, making it easier for scholars to cut corners on the research. “They are more worried about spelling than about sour ces,” says one Harvard research assistant. Inevitably, mistakes are made.
Harvard professors writing quietly and alone have penned some of the most significant books of the last century. At 538 pages of dense prose, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, first published in 1971, could hardly have been designed to be a bestseller, but his concepts, like a “veil of ignorance,” have permeated modern politics and law. Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, published in 1977, before he left Harvard for the Institute for Advanced Study, is now in its fourth edition and stands as one of the most significant ethical analyses of war.
More such great and lasting books will surely emerge from Harvard. But will we really know for sure who wrote them?
This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at email@example.com. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)
Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.