No Fire Escape for the Copyist

Ashley Thorne

This week, Columbia announced its decision to fire Madonna Constantine, a Teachers College professor who in October said she found a noose on her office doorknob. 

At the time of her noose-finding, the university was conducting a two-year investigation to determine whether Constantine had plagiarized the work of two of her former students and a former faculty colleague. The inquest ended in February 2008 with the conclusion that Constantine had indeed lifted passages from others in her published articles and papers at least twelve times. Columbia asked Constantine to resign, but she did not.

Instead, she made sweeping, desperate accusations that this was all a racism-driven conspiracy and “witch-hunt” against her. In a letter to Teachers College, she wrote, “From my perspective, the investigation and the entire process surrounding its outcome are reflective of the structural racism that pervades this institution.” Constantine also made grasping (and false) claims that the three people whose work she had plagiarized had in fact plagiarized her. This was enough to rally a significant number of Columbia’s students to her defense. 

Since Constantine refused to resign, Columbia simply reduced her pay, but allowed her to keep her tenured professorship. 

NAS noted this story when it happened in February. We deplored Columbia’s cowardly response to blatant plagiarism by one of its professors. Constantine threw out the racism charge as a diversion, and Columbia backed down. But now it seems that the university has come to its senses. A Monday New York Times article indicated the tipping point:  

Over the last five months, tensions between Dr. Constantine and the administration grew more strained as she vigorously defended herself, filing not just the appeal but also a grievance against Susan Fuhrman, the college president. Paul Giacomo, Dr. Constantine’s lawyer, said that the college’s move to dismiss his client was “purely retaliatory.” (“Columbia Professor in Noose Case Is Fired on Plagiarism Charges.” The New York Times. June 23, 2008.)

 We are glad to see that under President Bollinger, Columbia is capable of doing something right. It’s too bad, however, that the decision to fire a professor guilty of academic fraud didn’t happen when it should have: at the end of the investigation, when the facts were clear. Why now, in the midst of summer, when most of the students have gone home? The question more or less answers itself, but it leaves an uneasy sense that President Bollinger and company were willing to allow a professor they knew to be guilty of serious misconduct to go on teaching, rather than to face down her misguided supporters.

Meanwhile, the case of the noose remains unsolved.

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