In 2009 Chris Spence was heralded as an inspired choice as the new Director of Education at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). However, just over three years later, the school district and it’s 250,000 students are now scrambling to replace him following his sudden and immediate resignation over allegations of plagiarism.
The allegations of plagiarism began to surface earlier in the week when it was discovered that he had plagiarized passages of a January 5th, 2013 column he had written for the Toronto Star. The plagiarism was verified by the paper’s public editor and Spence quickly issued an apology saying that “I am an adult, and an educator. I should know better.” He also agreed to both correct the record as best he could and to enroll himself in the Ethics and Law in Journalism Course at Ryerson University.
However, the issue would not be so quickly put to rest as additional allegations of plagiarism began to surface against him including other articles and blog posts he had written. Even his 1996 doctoral dissertation fell under attack as The Globe and Mail learned that there were several, unattributed similarities in it to earlier works, in particular a 1991 book in the field.
As the new revelations of plagiarism were coming out, Spence handed in his resignation. He will receive approximately seven months pay, slightly more than what was left on his contract, which is worth $272,000 per year. However, it seems likely that the investigation into his work will be ongoing, in particular in regards to his dissertation, and that further action may be possible.
But even if no further action is taken, the scandal already represents an amazingly fast fall for Spence. The column that sparked the controversy was published on January 5th and, by January 10th, he had turned in his resignation.
Though the scandal may be far from over, it only took five days for it to engulf Spence’s career.
The reason behind the “quick burn” of the controversy can be directly tied to the expectations of integrity that are placed upon school officials, especially high-ranking ones. A breach of academic or journalistic integrity from someone in such a position is a breach of trust with the public and that motivates a quick and strong backlash that can quickly uncover any other misdeeds.
Equally important though, is that such positions, especially at large school districts, are inherently political. This makes such heads both a public figure and, almost always, a controversial one. Such figures are popular targets for scandals of any kind, plagiarism included.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it appears that Dr. Spence likely had a pervasive problem with plagiarism. Though the exact size of the problem is still unknown, to have found so many issues so quickly paints a very bleak picture for Dr. Spence’s body of work.
Still, what happens next is difficult to say. The TDSB has to immediately begin a search for a new Director of Education, a hunt that will be very difficult due to the size of the district, and may take nearly a year.
For Spence himself, there are already calls for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, his alma mater, to investigate and consider revoking his PhD. The school, however, has not commented.
All in all, it seems likely things will continue to get worse for Spence, at least for a while and a job in education seems unlikely for him.
For others, the Spence case is a stark reminder that, while you can build a career on plagiarized works, it’s impossible to tell when and how it will all come crashing down.
As other scandals have shown, you never know when that plagiarism from years ago can be exposed. As such, it is important to follow the best practices of integrity, no matter what your field, rather than create a time bomb that can destroy your career at any time.