The Copyist: The Plagiarist and the Noose

Ashley Thorne

"No more nooses, no more nooses!" chanted students from the steps of Teachers College, Columbia University. Holding signs that read, "intolerance is intolerable," and "not on our campus," they hived around Professor Madonna Constantine.

On October 9, 2007, Constantine reported a noose hung on her office doorknob, access to which could only be granted to someone with a Teachers College ID. Her public statement the next day provoked the audience to its fervent cheers and chants.

"Hanging the noose on my office door reeks of cowardice and fear on many levels," she said. "I will not be silent."

An African-American woman, Constantine is a tenured professor of psychology and education at Teachers College. She is known as an expert on race relations and is co-author of the book Addressing Racism: Facilitating Cultural Competence in Mental Health and Educational Settings. In 2001 the American Counseling Association gave her its Research Award.

The noose on Constantine's door made national news and seemed to compound Columbia University's difficult fall semester. Two weeks earlier, the University had been plunged into controversy first by extending an invitation to Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then by President Lee Bollinger's public upbraiding of his official guest. Columbia University in recent years has gained a reputation for PC belligerence and over-the-top histrionics. But nooses? Morningside Park didn't seem like the kind of place where the Ku Klux Klan was likely to have many adherents, and Professor Constantine seemed an especially out of the way target.

The NYPD hate crime unit, however, went to work, searching for evidence to identify the perpetrator. They requested tapes from the building's security cameras, but Teacher's College refused to comply without a court order. Yet the College's president Susan Fuhrman has insisted on its commitment to solving the case, saying, "There was no desire to hinder the investigation -- far from it. This was a despicable act ... and we are doing everything we can to find out who did it and prevent such occurrences in the future." None of the security cameras monitored the hallway of Constantine's office. After nearly five months, the police have found no suspects.

But in an entirely separate investigation Constantine herself is a suspect.

More than a year before the noose incident, two Teachers College doctoral students, Karen Cort and Tracy Juliao, and a former professor, Christine Yeh, lodged separate complaints that Constantine had plagiarized their writing. The College hired a law firm, Hughes Hubbard & Reed, to investigate the allegations. The inquest started in 2006 and was completed in February 2008, with the conclusion that Constantine had indeed lifted passages from others in her published articles and papers about twelve times, without citing her sources or acknowledging the actual authors.

The College sanctioned Constantine -- sort of. As a Columbia spokes-person put it, "Teachers College takes academic plagiarism very seriously, and must take appropriate disciplinary action when it is uncovered. Such misconduct is completely at odds with the ethos of our institution, our faculty, and our students."

How seriously? Teachers College asked Constantine to resign. She declined.

Whereupon she was fired for cause? No. Columbia University doesn't take plagiarism by a senior tenure professor who has preyed upon her own students and colleagues that seriously.

Since Constantine refused to resign, Columbia simply reduced her pay. She kept her tenured professorship -- and her secrets. Neither she nor the University has divulged the details of the sanctions.

The story of the noose inevitably looks different in this light. Perhaps it was, as it first appeared, a racist incident. Perhaps it was something else. To believe the story as it was told, we have to rely on the word of Constantine herself. The words of a plagiarist necessarily come at a discount. Moreover, the noose on Constantine's door at this point calls to mind a growing list of phony racist incidents, stretching back to Tawana Brawley's false claim in 1987 that she had been raped by six white men, some of them police officers. The Brawley case wasn't a campus hoax, but it does curiously have a Columbia University connection. Columbia Law School professor, Patricia Williams, weighed in years after the Grand Jury had demolished Brawley's fabrications to declare that Brawley "has been the victim of some unspeakable crime. No matter how she got there. No matter who did it to her -- and even if she did it to herself."

Williams, a proponent of "critical race theory," wrote that in 1991. In a way, it enunciated a principle that numerous others have followed. Critical race theory apparently means that "even if she did it to herself," it -- an imaginary gang rape, racist graffiti, a doll hanging from a tree-still counts as evidence of endemic racism. The Brawley case is most directly echoed in the phony rape charges against the Duke lacrosse players, but we shouldn't lose sight of the pattern. In 2003, racist writings found on dorm walls at the University of Mississippi turned out to be the work of some African-American students. In 2004, a professor at Claremont McKenna College complained of racist slogans spray painted on her car, which, it turned out, she herself had sprayed.

There is no evidence that Constantine staged the noose on her door, but it is hard to escape the thought that, faced with the final stages of an investigation of plagiarism of which she was guilty, Constantine had something to gain from ginning up a furor among students by painting herself as the victim of a hate crime. Did she cross that line? We can't tell, but we can certainly get an idea of her character by her subsequent actions.

Some students at Teachers College were shocked to learn of the plagiarism charges against Constantine, which, of course, became public only this month. Many said Professor Constantine was "well-loved" and "highly respected." One student, Amanda Luterman (quoted in the Columbia Spectator), criticized the College's disciplinary stance toward Constantine: "I honestly don't understand the priorities here anymore when I see the good guys under siege." The good guys?

Constantine fuels this view by claiming in a letter that the plagiarism charges "point to a conspiracy and witch-hunt." She wrote, "I have been specifically and systematically targeted."

There seems no evidence of this at all, although perhaps it fits with Professor Williams's "critical race theory."

"I am left to wonder whether a white faculty member would have been treated in such a publicly disrespectful and disparaging manner," Constantine wrote in a letter to Teachers College. "From my perspective, the investigation and the entire process surrounding its outcome are reflective of the structural racism that pervades this institution."

One of those who complained about Constantine stealing her work was Karen Cort, a black student. Another, Christine Yeh, is Asian-American.

The New York Post printed a "smoking gun" of two eerily duplicate passages that Constantine stole from Tracy Juliao.

The Post also compares this incident to the episode at Columbia in 2006, in which representatives from the anti-illegal immigrant Minuteman Project were invited to speak on campus. Student protestors booed during Founder Jim Gilchrist's address and chanted, "Minutemen, Nazis, KKK, racists, fascists, go away!" While Gilchrist was still speaking, they rushed onto the stage with a banner reading, "No one is illegal." The onslaught prompted a fistfight, which included a kick to a student's head, and broke up the event. Gilchrist never got to finish his speech.

Though the attack was an obvious assault on freedom of speech, the agitators defended themselves as the good guys challenging racism. University administrators waffled when asked about discipline for the students responsible. For most of the academic year, nothing visible happened, leaving observers to wonder if Columbia assumed that the whole affair would be forgotten. Ultimately, a handful of the students who rushed the stage received a wrist-slapping reprimand.

Add the Gilchrist affair as one more feather in the many-plumed cap of President Bollinger, the man who virtually defined the role of PC college president. Or consider one more entry in Columbia's bid to have the worst record in the Ivy League for defending intellectual freedom. Or ponder the sensibility that acquiesces to bullying by anyone who can assemble a "not-on-our-campus" mob. Patricia Williams asked us to think about the "unspeakable crime" that befell the fabulist Tawana Brawley. Maybe what's unspeakable here is simply the truth.

Follow-up Articles: 

"No Escape for the Copyist" June 25, 2008

"Noose Professor Cites NAS in Lawsuit" April 24, 2009

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