True Crime in Academia:

The Plagiary of Robert Caslen

By Mary DiPipi

This week I thought I would take a step back from murder and talk about something less violent, but still abhorrent: plagiarism. Now, plagiarism isn’t a crime that typically involves a police response and lengthy trials (however there are some exceptions, depending on how and where the plagiarism occurs) but it is a crime that occurs more in the academic world. In a lot of cases, plagiarism is committed unintentionally. We’ve all done it. You write a really awesome piece or assignment, and your fingers beat feverishly on the keys like you’re playing a beautiful symphony–and you forget to cite one of your sources.  In most cases, your professor just asks you to add it in, and you double check that your sources are properly sorted next time. It’s no big deal–unless it’s intentional. Then the consequences are more serious, like a failed grade or even suspension. In the professional world, plagiarism can lead to legal action taken against the person who plagiarized. 

On May 7, 2021, the graduating class of the University of South Carolina gathered for that moment when all of their years of hard work had paid off-graduation day. The university president, former Lt General Robert Caslen, stood at the podium to give his commencement speech. The university had struggled this academic year–just like many (if not all) others–due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tighter restrictions and increased online learning took a huge toll on universities and schools all over the country–and the world–but here they were finally at graduation day.

As Caslen spoke, some of the student’s realized that this speech sounded a bit familiar. It wasn’t until Mr. Caslen said “the new alumni of the University of California” that they realized that their school’s president had plagiarized his commencement speech. The whole audience flew into laughter over their president’s severe blunder (I would have too, while also wondering: WTF?). Caslen remained calm and collected and even joked with the audience about owing them push-ups for the embarrassing mishap. 

The retired Lt. General of the United States Army may have won the forgiveness of the graduating students for using direct parts of a 2014 Commencement Speech that was given by Admiral William H. McRaven to the graduating class of the University of Texas. McRaven later turned the expanded the commencement speech into the book Make Your Bed. Where Caslen got ‘University of California’ I’m not sure, and no other sources can confirm why he said that, but the faculty were not as forgiving. As I mentioned before, plagiarism committed by a professional has harsher ramifications. It is quite literally stealing. Stealing someone’s intellectual property. 

As the countless videos of Caslen’s plagiarism was spread around the internet, the State of South Carolina decided to review the footage and enforced consequences for the school’s president. Representative Kirkman Finlay (R-Columbia) was particularly upset with President Caslen’s actions saying ““He’s brought a lot of negative attention to the university. That is how he will be judged. We are the laughingstock of the nation. Perhaps it’s time to cut our losses.”

Initially, Robert Caslen gave the Board Chairman, Dorn Smith, an offer to resign as the university’s president, but Smith rejected it. One of the trustees, a man named Eddie Floyd, urged the other trustees to take their time in deciding, and to really look into Caslen’s case. Floyd was very impressed with the former Lt General’s handling of COVID-19 and feels that he was the “right person at the right time.”

On Wednesday, May 12, 2021, the board decided to accept Caslen’s offer to resign. Robert Caslen has expressed his remorse over his plagiarism saying “I am sorry to those I have let down. I understand the responsibilities and higher standards of senior level leadership. When those are not met, trust is lost. And when trust is lost, one is unable to lead.”

Currently no legal action is being taken against Caslen, and it seems that his resignation will suffice as punishment (along with a bruised reputation). Since Caslen’s resignation, which became effective the following day, the acting president for the University of South Carolina is Caslen’s predecessor Harris Pastides. 

What he did was wrong, and he got caught (under some pretty embarrassing circumstances). Personally, I find it hilarious that he read off the name of another college. I’m still wondering how that happened since the speech he stole was read to the University of Texas. I doubt we will ever know. 

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