A medical school dean plagiarized Atul Gawande in his commencement speech

Recently, Dr. Philip Baker, Dean of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine, gave a speech to the graduating class at the convocation banquet held in Edmonton.   Now, there are accusations that Dean Baker lifted much of his June 10 speech from a commencement address given by famed physician and essayist Dr. Atul Gawande at Stanford’s School of Medicine in June 2010.

As Baker gave his address last Friday, medical students in the audience began to recognize words.  One phrase – velluvial matrix – stuck in their minds, because it was invented by Gawande for his commencement address at Stanford.

It gets worse.

According to the Edmonton Journal, one person who attended the speech said his brother located Gawande’s speech on The New Yorker website and “was following along on his iPhone as Baker was reciting it”.

“We were embarrassed and disappointed to find that Dean Baker had given a wonderful speech at our graduation banquet without attributing it to the original author,” Brittany Barber, president of the University of Alberta graduating class told the Edmonton Journal.  “People should know that we do not stand for academic dishonesty and our deepest wish is that this incident does not reflect poorly on the integrity of our class, the medical school, and ultimately the university.”

Darned right it does.

On June 12, Dean Baker sent an email headed “Faculty of Medicine dean Philip Baker’s letter of apology to U of A med students.” It was also published in the Edmonton Journal.  In it, Dean Baker writes “When I was researching for the speech, I came across text which inspired me and resonated with my experiences.  The personal medical traumas which I detailed were wholly genuine and did indeed engender the sense of inadequacy I highlighted.  I also used a medical case of Dr. Gawande’s to further make my point.  I offered a sincere written apology to Dr. Gawande and subsequently spoke with him; he was flattered by my use of his text, took no offense and readily accepted my apology.”

Further down in his apology, Dean Baker writes:  “Throughout my professional career and private life I have I have (sic) held myself to the highest ethical standards possible.  The talk was intended for a private audience, nevertheless, my failure to attribute the source of my inspiration is a matter of the utmost regret.”

To me, the preceding sounds like an admission of plagiarism.

According to the University of Alberta’s Code of Student Behaviour, Section 30.3.2(1), “No Student shall submit the words, ideas, images or data of another person as the Student’s own in any academic writing, essay, thesis, project, assignment, presentation or poster in a course or program of study.”  A note that accompanies the above code, states “This definition does not include intentionality; it’s plagiarism whether it was intentional or accidental!”

The University of Alberta’s Library website is replete with resources on how faculty can catch students who plagiarize!

According to the Edmonton Journal, Deb Hammacher, a spokesperson for the University of Alberta, said the university is aware of the incident and will be investigating.  For now, the offenses are regarded as alleged.  However, Dr. Baker’s quick apology suggests that he’s aware that what he did was wrong.

If found guilty, what should his punishment be?

Suppose a medical student stood before Dr. Baker charged with plagiarism?  One would rightly expect Dean Baker to investigate thoroughly and judge the student accordingly.

If Dean Baker gets off, then the door to plagiarism at the University of Alberta will be flung wide open.  “I’ll have what he’s having,” future plagiarists will say.

Therefore, if these allegations against Dean Baker are true, he will have no choice but to resign.

The Deanery is no place for plagiarists, no matter how accomplished they are.

Editor’s note: Dr. Baker has recently announced his resignation as dean of medicine.

Adapted from a blog post that appeared on White Coat, Black Art.

Brian Goldman is an emergency physician and author of The Night Shift: Real Life In The Heart of The E.R., published by HarperCollins.

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  • Joe

    This all would be hilarious if it was not so sad. That being said, it sheds light on the type of leaders we have in academic medicine and who these ethically challenged leaders listen to.

    The posts on Buckeye Surgeon’s blog now seem prophetic.

  • jeffmchpn

    I think the moral outrage is considerably beyond the true nature of the offense. A commencement speech is a far cry from academic work, let alone the rigors of peer-reviewed research. A commencement speech is often a hodgepodge of ideas and quotes from years of administrative and clinical work, untold conferences, and many other commencement speeches. I do not know who observed that a truly original thought is rare in our Western, technologically advanced and hyper-stimulated societies.

    While I respect Dean Baker for his extended mea culpas, and his ultimate sacrifice of a position which reflected a life of intellect, dedication to serving and educating others, and the art and science of healing seems disproportionate to his offense. And there seems to be an almost tyrannical obsession with citing greater and greater references in lists of footnotes which can number over 100 in complex or extended article — in accord with APA editorial standards, which spiral beyond reasonable accountability. There is a fear of NOT providing all the possible citations of other articles, books, assessment instruments, even software program(s) employed in tabulating and analyzing data.

    It reminds me of the dark humor in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Stranglove”, in which one of the characters refers their obsessions with “gaps”. The “bomber gap, the missile gap, and now the ‘Doomsday gap’”. Admittedly, if Dean Baker had made a simple acknowledgement and expression of appreciation for Dr. Gawande’s article and its insights, there would be no issue.