The University of Toronto is continuing its investigation to determine if Chris Spence, former director of education of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), plagiarized in his 1996 PhD dissertation. The university began its investigation last January, and formally laid charges of plagiarism against Spence under U of T’s Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters on March 12, 2013.
The whirlwind began last January, after the Toronto Star reported that Spence, then the director of education for over 250,000 students, plagiarized parts of editorials published in the paper. After Spence apologized for copying passages and failing to follow TDSB policy, the National Post quickly found more plagiarism in some of his other editorials, including one written about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Other instances were found in blog posts, books, and speeches. Spence subsequently resigned from the TDSB.
Focus then turned to Spence’s PhD in education, which he received from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at U of T in 1996. The Toronto Star found multiple passages similar or identical to other unattributed sources, prompting the university to launch its investigation. That investigation has now gone on for over a year. When additional evidence was found, a hearing scheduled for October of last year was postponed so all evidence could be presented. No new hearing date has since been set.
Jelena Damjanovic, media assistant for the university, responded to The Varsity’s request for an update. “We have no further information on Mr. Spence’s case at this time,” she said, adding, “However, in general, the time it takes to investigate and proceed through the Tribunal hearing process varies significantly based on the circumstances and complexities of each case.”
Spence, whose status with the Ontario College of Teachers could also be threatened, has not responded to any media requests on the status of his dissertation. His last public comment was in an interview to the Star in July 2013. In that interview, Spence apologized repeatedly for his actions, but also blamed his frantic workload for his plagiarism.
“You don’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to start plagiarizing now.’ You are just going through different ideas and you read a lot and you take notes, you’re working on something, you go away, you read something, you write it down…I’m a fairly prolific reader, so sometimes I just read ideas that meshed with my own.”
In recent years, U of T has stepped up its efforts to be tough on issues of academic integrity, which it says are on the rise. The academic code explains an arduous process for students and faculty on allegations of plagiarism. Punishments for guilty students can range from receiving a grade of zero to suspension or expulsion. Grades and degrees are withheld until a decision has been reached, leaving many students in limbo until their cases are determined. Any student can also lose their degree if any future investigation discovers instances of academic dishonesty.
Spence could lose his doctoral degree if found guilty by the university.
With files from the Toronto Star and the National Post.