Email #66, Subject: our new Secretary of Education

I teach at Washington and Lee University, your alma mater. As you know, our school has a tradition of championing honor. We hold our students to a high standard. And you have told me that you believe elected officials should be held to the “highest standard.” So then can you explain to me why the new U.S. Secretary of Education is being held to a lower standard than the students in my first-year writing seminar?

Betsy DeVos wrote on her Senate confirmation questionnaire: “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, thrive, and grow.” Vanita Gupta, President Obama’s  head of the Justice Department civil rights division, wrote in a 2016 press release: “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow.” That’s plagiarism. 

There are a variety of rules about the limits of verbatim language, some as strict as three consecutive words, some as lenient as seven. Indiana University, for example, identifies “word-for-word plagiarism” when “seven or more words are copied from the source, and quotation marks are missing.” DeVos more than doubled that limit. Her statement shares fourteen words with Gupta’s, the first eleven consecutively. Regardless of verbatim word choice, she also and more importantly did not acknowledge the source of the words.

As you know, any Washington and Lee student who submitted a paper that contained the uncited and verbatim passages that DeVos used would be brought before our Honor Council and likely expelled. And yet Secretary DeVos now oversees the department of Education.

As a former student of Washington and Lee, do you agree with her appointment?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University where teaches creative writing, contemporary fiction, and comics. He has published two novels, Pretend I'm Not Here (HarperCollins 2002) and School For Tricksters (Southern Methodist University 2011), and two nonfictions, On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa University 2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury forthcoming 2017).

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