After Chance Hill, who sits on the University of Colorado’s governing board, wrote a Facebook post that contained multiple clauses taken verbatim from the writing of pundit George Will, a University of Colorado professor thinks Hill is “now very well placed” to take part in a public discussion of how to “face up to our missteps when we confuse the boundaries of intellectual property.”
Here’s Will’s writing, from an essay called “The Conservative Sensibility,” and the relevant part of Hill’s post, which was titled “Memorial Day Prayer and Observation:”
Original (Will): “Most Americans are not merely patriots; they are nationalists, too. They do not merely love their country; they correctly believe that its political arrangements, its universal truths, and the understanding of the human condition that those arrangements reflect are superior to other nations’ arrangements.”
Hill: “Traditionally, most Americans are not merely patriots, but nationalists too. We do not simply love our country; we believe that its aspirations, its political designs and structures, and the understanding of human nature that those arrangements reflect are superior to those of other nations.”
“I think that Regent Hill is now very well-placed to… [discuss] how we are to navigate in a world where quotable words are pouring into our minds at a great rate, and how we are to face up to our missteps when we confuse the boundaries of intellectual property,” said Professor Patty Limerick of CU Boulder’s Center for the American West, after reviewing Hill’s post.
In a comment to the Colorado Times Recorder, Hill says he credited writers who influenced his work. At the end of his 700-plus-word essay, Hill named his sources, including Will, but in the body of his Facebook post, Hill did not credit Will for multiple strings of words that Hill took verbatim from Will’s work. In other cases, Hill directly swapped Will’s words for synonyms.
“In borrowing from several ancient and current influencers,” Hill wrote in response to questions about his writing. “I added my own words and thoughts and used my unique arrangement to offer my sincere sentiment, writing as a private citizen, about Memorial Day and its meaning.” “Short of entering line-by-line parenthetical footnotes (which would be odd for an informal social media post),” he said, “I could not have been clearer with my references.”
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, thinks it would have been “appropriate” for Hill to have credited Will, even though Hill’s writing appeared in a social media post.
“He and Ken McConnellogue [CU’s vice president for communication] through this response to you seem to be suggesting that the ‘rules’ are different for social media posts,” wrote Kirtley. “Although social media posts are by their nature usually more informal, in this case, Mr. Hill appears to have taken the time to have written a heartfelt statement that presumably he hoped would have an impact on others.
“It would have been appropriate for him to provide credit to George Will.”
While the regent takes exact words from Will in his essay, Hill cited and quoted some of his other sources, including Tocqueville, in other paragraphs of his Memorial day essay, raising questions about why he didn’t treat Will’s work the same way.
For example, in one paragraph of his essay, Hill wrote, “Tocqueville warned of a soft tyranny, which springs from excessive reliance on government, that ‘makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower company, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.'”
“It is often difficult to explain to journalists and to students how serious plagiarism is,” wrote Kirtley, who teaches a course on plagiarism at Poynter, a school for journalists. “In this case, Chance Hill says that he did acknowledge George Will in a general sense, but it appears he didn’t link to or cite to the specific column. His phrases are very similar to those in Will’s column. Facts aren’t something you can plagiarize (or copyright, for that matter), but the essence of commentary is about the writer’s unique expression of those ideas. Appropriating someone else’s ideas and how they are expressed, without attribution, is problematic.”
Hill Says He Acknowledged His Sources
In his response to the Colorado Times Recorder, Hill points out that he listed the “thought leaders” mentioned in his online essay.
“I explicitly mention the terms ‘influenced by’ and ‘BORROWING FROM’ (emphasis added) with regard to several thought leaders, including George Will,” Hill said in an email response, referring to the passage below, which appeared at the end of his essay.
“Although I serve as your elected CU Regent representing Colorado’s 5th congressional district, I offer this particular perspective as my privately held opinion (influenced by and borrowing from intellectuals and thought leaders ranging from John Locke to Thomas Sowell to George Will to Barry Goldwater to Antonin Scalia and so many others),” wrote Hill in his essay.
Hill’s acknowledgment that he was “influenced by and borrowing from intellectuals and thought leaders” was “an interesting one” to Limerick, who believed it opened “the door to a dynamic exploration of that odd word, ‘borrowing.’ If a person ‘borrows’ something from another, the expectation is that she will give it back.”
A Call for a Discussion
“I looked at Regent Hill’s bio, and I am impressed by his public service and his military service,” Limerick said.
His resume includes degrees from Dartmouth University, Georgetown University and the University of Michigan in addition to military service and a stint with the Central Intelligence Agency.
“His record convinces me that he will indeed be a valuable participant in a discussion of the proper way to note when we are in debt to others for finding the words that express our convictions exactly but are still not words that we can claim as our own,” Limerick said.
Limerick says CU students would likely benefit from learning more about how to correctly combine quotations with paraphrasing.
“There is clearly some paraphrasing in the picture, but also some pretty substantial passages of uncited direct quotation,” Limerick said, referring to Hill’s passage with the phrases taken verbatim from Will.
“Professors are always telling students that they should avoid lengthy block quotations, and to interrupt quoted words with paraphrasing in their own words,” she said, but it’s rare for an instructor to “take 10 minutes to show what this combination of quoting and paraphrasing means in practice.”
“Since there are no quotation marks in Regent Hill’s text,” Limerick said, “it doesn’t actually represent that combination of quoting with paraphrasing.”
If Hill Were a CU Student, He Would Get A Warning, Says Instructor
If Hill, who represents the area around Colorado Springs, was enrolled at CU as a student and handed in his post as an assignment, he would receive a warning in his transcript and be forced to take a writing seminar, said an un-tenured instructor at the University of Colorado who has assigned and graded hundreds of student papers and is familiar with the university’s honor code. They did not want to be named for fear of consequences at work.
“I think the honors office would give this student a warning, put it in their transcript, and make them take a seminar on the importance of citations and whatnot,” the instructor said. “I don’t think it would escalate past that.”
“I believe that the vast majority of students who violate the honor code (or at least get caught) do so unknowingly,” the instructor said. “I suspect this would fall into that group (especially since he listed them as ‘influences’ at the end).”
CU, of course, is no stranger to plagiarism. The Board of Regents fired former CU Ethnic Studies Prof. Ward Churchill in 2007 for academic plagiarism and misconduct. He later won a civil wrongful-termination lawsuit against the university but didn’t get his job back.
Plagiarism has also played a role in Colorado politics, accusations of which contributed to the implosion of U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis’ run for Colorado governor in 2010.
Hill: “This Story Is Unreasonably Distorted”
Limerick appeared sympathetic to people like Hill.
“I am constantly aware of how our thoughts (sometimes when they seem most original!) are mosaics of words and ideas we acquired from others, and sometimes our ‘contact tracing’… is more conscious and deliberate than other times,” she said.
Still, she seemed unsatisfied with the conclusion that the regent was entirely unaware of what he was doing.
“Even if George Will said something that perfectly captured something I believed, and I then settled into memorizing it, if I ended up typing this passage into an essay that would appear under my name, I would still be very aware that I didn’t write the words I had memorized,” Limerick said.
It’s not clear if Hill, who’s insisted in the past that he wants to “improve upon the lack of intellectual diversity on campuses,” is open to Limerick’s call to begin a dialogue.
“This story is unreasonably distorted,” he said of this article which was not yet written at the time. “Thank you for the opportunity to respond.”
“The Best Possible Example for Students”
Hill’s response falls short of what you’d expect from a leader of a university, according to Kirtley.
“As an educator, I’m particularly concerned here because Mr. Hill is a regent,” wrote Kirtley. “He should understand, better than many, that plagiarism is a serious matter, and constitutes academic misconduct. It seems to me that a regent would want to set the best possible example for the students at the University of Colorado. When in doubt, attribute. Sometimes plagiarism happens by accident, rather than by design. When it does happen, the only recourse is to own the mistake, and correct it.”
Hill and McConnellogue, requested that Hill’s response be published in its entirety:
“This story is unreasonably distorted. Short of entering line-by-line parenthetical footnotes (which would be odd for an informal social media post), I could not have been clearer with my references. I explicitly mention the terms “influenced by” and “BORROWING FROM” (emphasis added) with regard to several thought leaders, including George Will. In borrowing from several ancient and current influencers, I added my own words and thoughts and used my unique arrangement to offer my sincere sentiment, writing as a private citizen, about Memorial Day and its meaning. That said, I believe in freedom of speech, and I respect your right to print articles of all kinds. In fact, I have fought for that principle both in military service and as an elected representative who champions free expression. Thank you for the opportunity to respond.”