St. John's College revokes student's degree Plagiarism charge results in woman's expulsion and loss of prize, officials say

June 18, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang and Andrea F. Siegel | Dan Thanh Dang and Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

St. John's College in Annapolis, known for teaching liberal arts students to think creatively, has revoked a student's 1997 bachelor's degree for plagiarism in what college officials say is the only such incident in recent memory.

The student also was expelled and her senior essay prize taken away, college officials said. One of three senior essay prize winners last year, the student copied substantial portions of a prize-winning senior essay that was written about 20 years ago on the same work of fiction.

The college began its investigation after the May 1997 graduation -- at which 93 undergraduate and 27 graduate degrees were awarded -- when a member of the St. John's academic community alerted school officials.

"It's the highest crime of academia," said Christopher B. Nelson, president of the college. "We take plagiarism seriously at any and all levels. It is just not tolerated."

The 300-year-old school requires every senior to write an essay about one of the more than 100 "Great Books" that comprise the small and prestigious college's unique curriculum.

The graduation requirement is designed to highlight original thinking and expression. Books range from the Greek classics to the modern classics, from the Bible to Renaissance philosophies.

The tradition has each student, in cap and gown, giving a formal presentation of his or her essay in January before other seniors and three college instructors, who also are in academic garb.

Officials would not disclose the student's name or essay topic yesterday, but school alumni identified Lynnette R. Dowty of Granite Bay, Calif.

Efforts to reach Dowty yesterday were unsuccessful, but a family member confirmed that it was she.

According to last year's commencement program, Dowty was one of three essay winners for her work titled "Melville's Communion in 'Moby Dick': The Breaking of the Godhead into Pieces."

Without naming her, Dean Harvey Flaumenhaft, who conducted a probe that lasted nearly two months, described Dowty as "bright" and said he was uncertain why she cheated.

"It is not entirely clear to me," he said. "I am not sure it is clear to the student, either."

The action was taken against Dowty this spring by the college's Board of Visitors and Governors. A two-paragraph announcement, which did not name her, appeared this week in The Reporter, the twice-yearly college bulletin.

Expulsion -- though Dowty graduated the previous year -- was necessary to block any attempt she might make to meet graduation requirements simply by submitting a new essay.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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