This an updated version of a commentary published earlier, modified to reflect Crowley’s withdrawal from a position in the Trump administration.
In my course on Crisis Diplomacy at Middlebury College this January, each of my students signed an honor pledge that the work they submit is wholly their own.
Meanwhile, Monica Crowley, the Trump administration’s initial pick for a senior strategic communications position on the National Security Counci–who on Monday said sh has withdrew from consideration for the job –plagiarized some 50 passages in her 2012 book “What the (Bleep) Just Happened?” and significant portions of her Ph.D. dissertation from Columbia University.
My students are what Trump supporters might call the “special snowflakes” of an elite institution of higher learning, but Monica Crowley was slated for foreign policy work in the real world. While the Trump camp would maintain these two worlds have little in common, they are mistaken. Honesty and integrity are as important for national security as they are in the quest for knowledge. If Crowley were to serve in a Trump administration, she, like my students, would have had to promise to maintain the highest ethical standards.
Middlebury’s academic handbook defines plagiarism as “passing off another person’s work as one’s own” and maintains a strict commitment to combating it. All institutions of higher learning must condemn plagiarism if their reason for being is to pursue truth — and the pursuit of truth is impossible when dishonesty is tolerated. Knowledge cannot progress if results are fabricated. The quality of evidence for any argument cannot be evaluated if a scholar does not make the sources for each of the argument’s building blocks crystal clear. The marketplace of ideas that allows the truth to arise through its collision with error cannot function when its participants do not celebrate honesty and condemn lies.
Crowley’s dissertation and book are clear instances of intellectual dishonesty. There are multiple verbatim passages drawn from other sources without quotation or attribution, just as there are paraphrased passages that Crowley passes off as her own.
While charges of plagiarism in an opinion piece or short article can occupy a gray area, where space is at a premium and constant attribution can disrupt narrative flow, those regarding a dissertation or book are another matter. Crowley had footnotes in her dissertation that she could have deployed properly, and while her book had no notes, a book provides plenty of space for giving credit where credit is due. And yet she has not given that credit or acknowledged that, in hindsight, she should have.
The Trump transition team is hardly helping matters, instead painting the charges of plagiarism as “nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.” But we cannot face the real issues if we cannot know the facts clearly. The very idea of honesty, after all, presupposes a belief that facts and truth exist.
Of course, none of the Trump team’s remarks should come as a surprise. Kellyanne Conway’s recent insistence that we judge Trump not by what “comes out of his mouth” but by “what is in his heart” turns the distinction between truth and falsehood into matters of emotions rather than arguments open for evaluation. When emotion is privileged over reason, the truth can be whatever Trump says it is at any given moment. Trump’s serial lies, including that he never mocked a disabled person or believed that he wasn’t going to win, when words from his own mouth indicate the contrary, is wholly consistent with seeing plagiarism as just another point of view.
Unlike President-elect Trump and Monica Crowley to date, Middlebury students must commit to intellectual honesty and the free exchange of ideas supported by evidence. My Crisis Diplomacy course deploys the Council on Foreign Relations Model Diplomacy package to simulate meetings of the National Security Council. In the first two simulations, students will navigate a fact-based world of long-established policy processes to determine what is in the best interests of the United States. In the final simulation, we will role-play a meeting chaired by President Trump and his hand-picked principals. Everyone already fears what we will learn from the exercise, and it’s not because we are special snowflakes.
When the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful nation is premised on disregard for facts, norms and intelligence, it is unlikely to contribute to a more peaceful world.