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Opinion: Commencement choice is inconsistent with Ohio State’s values

Journalist and author Fareed Zakaria will be Ohio State’s spring commencement speaker come May 5. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Fareed Zakaria will be Ohio State’s spring commencement speaker come May 5 when students, friends and family fill Ohio Stadium to gather for graduation.

Zakaria is certainly accomplished; he hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS (Global Public Square) for CNN Worldwide, while also working as a columnist for The Washington Post, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, and is an author of three New York Times best-selling books.

“An award-winning journalist and best-selling author, Dr. Zakaria is a leading voice in our national discourse on global and domestic affairs,” University President Michael Drake said in the announcement of Zakaria as commencement speaker. “His extensive knowledge of our broader world will enrich and inspire our graduates as they embark to make a meaningful difference in communities near and far.”

But also looming in Zakaria’s past alongside those three best-sellers is a suspension in 2012 for plagiarism. Zakaria admitted to lifting part of a New Yorker article for use in his own column published by Time Magazine and CNN and was subsequently suspended by the two organizations.

Zakaria apologized for the transgression and took full responsibility and since then has produced plenty of legitimate work. One mistake in an individual’s past should not define their entire life, but in this instance, it should act as a disqualifier to being a commencement speaker.

Plagiarism is not taken lightly when students are found at fault and that same ethos should be applied to picking a commencement speaker. If a student can face reprimand as severe as dismissal from Ohio State for plagiarism, then the act should disqualify an individual from serving as commencement speaker.

According to the Committee on Academic Affairs website, plagiarism qualifies as academic misconduct with the following possible repercussions: “Sanctions vary from the relatively light (an “informal reprimand”) to severe (dismissal from the university) and typically involve both a grade sanction (a grade of 0 on the assignment, for example — regardless of the overall weight of the assignment or the extent of the compromised work within the assignment — or a failing grade in the course) and a disciplinary sanction (disciplinary probation until graduation, for example).”

Plus, according to a review of public records by The Lantern in September, cases of academic misconduct in today’s technologically expanding world are on the rise.

Drake and the committee responsible for picking the speaker, however, see this issue as in the past.

“The committee and I believe his issues were a long time ago, that they were a mistake that was corrected, and he’s one of the nation and world’s most active political thinkers, and he’ll give a stirring and exciting talk and that’s why he’s coming,” Drake said in an interview with The Lantern earlier this month.

Zakaria’s transgression might have occurred in 2012, but higher education and plagiarism will never mix well. Zakaria deserves the accolades he has earned, and one incident shouldn’t strip him of everything, but speaking at commencement is a privilege that should not be afforded to him. With such strict rules and possible punishment hanging over students for the same act, it sends the wrong message.

Not to mention that having a journalist as Ohio State’s commencement speaker is a rare opportunity, and inviting one that had not committed the industry’s cardinal sin would be preferred.

There are plenty of stellar journalists doing work similar to Zakaria’s — some are even Ohio State alumni — that would have risen to this occasion just as well.

Unfortunately, it seems the Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee views it is a non-issue altogether.

“We look at the total body of work of the individual,” Ryan Schmiesing, the convening provost on the committee, said. “And in this case, it would be the same for Fareed Zakaria or anybody else that is selected. It’s not a moment in time that it’s selected or based on whatever has happened.”

According to the Office of Academic Affairs, one of the guidelines in picking a commencement speaker is someone who represents qualities consistent with Ohio State’s “mission, vision and values.”

Plagiarism is inconsistent with those values. And pushing it to the side as merely an issue of the past is not good enough.

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