King dissertation has plagiarisms, panel says

October 11, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

A panel of scholars at Boston University has decided that the doctorate earned there by the late Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 should not be revoked even though his dissertation contains plagiarisms that were disclosed last year, shocking admirers of the slain civil rights leader.

Instead, the Boston University committee, in a report released yesterday, recommended that a disciplinary letter noting the scholarly improprieties be attached to the official copy of King's theology dissertation in the school's library.

The controversy began last November when Stanford University history professor Clayborne Carson, who was appointed by Dr. King's widow to edit his papers, disclosed the plagiarism.

"There is no question but that Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation," the Boston University report declared, while also stressing that the dissertation had enough original material to uphold the degree from the graduate school's Division of Religious Studies. In addition, the four-man panel said, revoking the degree of a dead man, with no opportunity for him to defend himself, "would have no basis in accepted academic or scholarly practice."

John H. Cartwright, who was on the review panel, said the group was aware its inquiry was politically sensitive. But he maintained that it resisted outside pressures.

Speaking from Stanford, Dr. Carson said that the Boston decision "is what anyone familiar with the evidence and familiar with normal academic procedures would have expected."

According to Dr. Carson, Dr. King's dissertation, "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman," presented some of Tillich's ideas in some passages nearly identical to Tillich's own writings and did not attribute them in footnotes.

Worse, in the view of most academic standards, was King's appropriation of works by other writers about Tillich, including a 1952 doctoral dissertation by another Boston University student.

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