Tuesday, April 06, 2010

For shame

Ateneo and plagiarism. These 2 things I feel very strongly about are at the center of an ongoing controversy, and it's got my (blue) feathers all ruffled. While I was out of the country over Holy Week, I checked my Twitter account and a tweet led me to a blog post by The Professional Heckler mocking the commencement address delivered by prominent Ateneo alumnus and benefactor Manny V. Pangilinan during last week's graduation ceremonies for Ateneo de Manila University's sesquicentennial batch. Apparently, the head honcho of PLDT and Smart Telecom had plagiarized chunks of his speech from pieces penned by US President Barack Obama, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, TV host Oprah Winfrey, and comedian Conan O'Brien.

In an email to ADMU president Fr. Ben Nebres, MVP has apologized and offered to resign from the Ateneo Board of Trustees, which I believe is the only honorable thing he can do under the humiliating circumstances. However, ADMU president Fr. Nebres seems far too forgiving in his response posted on the Ateneo website:
...this does not diminish our admiration and respect for your person and for your care and accomplishments for our country and for the Ateneo. In fact, your acceptance of responsibility and apology command our utmost respect.
I'm sorry Fr. Nebres, but this diminishes my admiration and respect for YOU as a member of the academe and head of one of the foremost universities of our country. I realize MVP is Ateneo's single biggest donor, and the school has benefited a lot from his significant financial contributions, but how can such a blatant act of deception not earn anything but censure from an institution that's supposed to mold the minds and morals of upstanding Catholic citizens?

In the first place, MVP didn't even make the effort to write his own speech-- where's the Magis in that? Sure, one could argue a busy bigshot like MVP can't find the time to scribble down a few lines of oratory, but did he even sit down with his speechwriter to discuss what he wanted to convey to his audience? If so, then what a neat coincidence that all his points had been touched on in previous commencement addresses by such popular figures. The significant amount of plagiarized text tells me that the speechwriter just Googled "graduation speech" and went at it like a buffet, sampling snippets from each piece and piling them onto the clueless MVP's plate.

As the notorious Scourge of Plagiarism, I've spotted far too many examples of patchwork plagiarism not to know and understand how the method works. Whoever wrote-- or I should say assembled-- MVP's speech was lazy, unscrupulous, and obviously had no concept of real authorship. And it's bad enough to rip off other people's work, but to spoonfeed them to an unwitting mouthpiece is just unconscionable.

But back to MVP. People (Ateneans, of course) defending him are saying it doesn't really matter that his speech contained words that aren't his own, what matters is the "message" that MVP wanted to impart to the graduates. But what kind of message is Ateneo imparting to its students exactly? That it's ok to deliver subpar, dishonest content as long as the intent was pure? That it's fine to compromise academic integrity in favor of convenience and accomplishment? That it's alright to pass off someone else's work as your own as long as you're rich and influential and cough up enough money to construct new buildings on campus and subsidize the basketball team?

No wonder kids these days can't grasp why plagiarism is wrong. Not only is it way too easy for them to copy-paste stuff off the Internet, but even the grown-ups are doing it, and getting away with it with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. We are raising a generation who does not comprehend something as basically correct as giving credit where credit is due, young men and women too lazy and complacent to churn out original work, future leaders who will become desensitized to and expert at cheating.

This is why I'm severely disappointed with Fr. Nebres' statement. It ostensibly absolves MVP of all wrongdoing, and makes it sound as if there was no shame in what had happened. As an Atenean, I for one feel very much ashamed that a fellow Blue-blood-- one of our most successful and prolific alumni, no less-- was involved in such a disgraceful incident, and I am outraged at how the good name of my alma mater has been tarnished by it.
And as a former teacher, I lament the poor example and the low standard this sets for academic honesty and intellectual creativity.

I'm willing to give MVP the benefit of the doubt and believe that he had no idea he was reciting stolen lines. I'm willing to accept his apology as sincerely remorseful. And yes, his acceptance of full and sole responsibility for the plagiarized speech is admirable. But to say that this incident has not tainted his reputation and diminished respect for him is to trivialize the gravity of the deed committed, even if it hadn't been committed by him personally.

There is absolutely nothing to respect, much less commend, about the theft of intellectual property.
MVP is acknowledging that by resigning from the Board of Trustees; I say let him. It will deliver the right message, a stronger, better message than the one he had attempted to share in his commencement address.


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