King's Honors

November 13, 1990|By Garry Wills

Chicago. THE WALL STREET Journal has revealed a crisis that has tortured the editors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project for three years, eating up their research time and funding in an apparently vain attempt to extenuate what is clearly a scandal -- evidence that while a doctoral student at Boston University, King committed plagiarism.

By the testimony of the very editors Mrs. King chose for publishing her husband's papers, King borrowed in heavy and unattributed ways from other scholars and students while writing his dissertation. There is no excuse for this, though semi-excuses are naturally being offered. We are told that his second reader was dealing with his first dissertation; or that King's lax standards were culturally conditioned; or that he must have thought what he did was acceptable (since he offered his papers to Boston University).

But no code is more explicit or important to higher education than the standards on plagiarism. These are well-known and enforced even from undergraduate days. In graduate schools, the standards are promulgated in arenas like the course King took on writing his dissertation. Procedures for attribution were spelled out there, and he got at least one warning on failure to follow those procedures in an early stage of writing his dissertation.

Graduate schools are essentially meant to credential scholars. Faking one's credentials is thus the ultimate educational sin. This undermines the whole rationale of the procedure. No school can go easy on this offense without disqualifying itself as a serious institution of learning.

King is not alone on trial. So is Boston University. If, as some suggest, standards were lowered because he was a black preacher who might not teach at higher levels, then the charges brought against affirmative action take on a new appearance of validity.

I honor King. His courage and compassion led the whole nation into a new era. The early Christian church held that martyrdom sanctified, no matter what the martyr's previous sins. But this insight gives no warrant for lying about those previous sins.

I also believe deeply in affirmative action, which means the aggressive search for qualified members of the minorities to be leaders and role models and contributors to our national life. I think, as well, that credentials are of various sorts, experiential as well as scholarly.

But there is nothing in a sound approach to affirmative action that can excuse or cover up the faking of academic credentials. Even for the editors of the King papers to have hesitated for three years over the revelation of what their research was turning up looks suspicious and contrary to the spirit of scholarly inquiry.

For the good of King's reputation, for the future of affirmative action, for those who are most determined to honor our greatest recent martyr, there is only one healthy and moral course -- full, open, candid inquiry into just what King did as a putative scholar, author and academician. If this means that the university should rescind his doctoral grant, that should be done. Nothing can take from him honors more important than a Ph.D.

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