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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Negligent Supervision

Ernie the Attorney writes that nobody is responsible for their own work anymore.

In the context of discussing the recent plagiarism charge against one of Harvard Law School's celebrity law professors. Charles Ogletree explained that the plagiarism was not intentional, but was a by-product of his not closely supervising his assistants. Hmmmm, okay.

So what lesson can we take away from the Ogletree affair and its ilk? Well, one thing is that since plagiarism is an intent crime you can easily avoid responsibility. First, hire some assistants and try to guide them (if you can make the time). If you don't have time to guide them, and you are charged with plagiarism you can always defend yourself by pleading 'negligent supervision.' Especially if you are a superstar. No one expects superstars to do their own work anymore. And apparently no one even expects them to closely supervise, or even train, the underlings who do it for them.

Of course we should not be surprised that someone with a finely trained legal mind can find ways to evade responsibility for anything. (Some politicians on both sides of the Atlantic spring to mind.) It is also well-known that people find incompetence easier to forgive than deliberate malfeasance. (See my note on Hanlon's Razor).

But we trust professional people to be competent, and to be diligent in the exercise of their competence. A law professor should be competent in at least two things: Law, and Being a Professor. (Among other things, being competent as a professor means the ability to train and supervise your research assistants.)

Perhaps Ernie the Attorney is being ironic when he calls Professor OgleShrub a superstar. Real superstars have integrity. Think of great musicians, film directors. What they produce is special, and what is produced under their leadership is special. You may not like the latest release, but you can tell that it was produced with intent.

Integrity links back to trust. The negligent supervisor trusts his assistants to take the rap for the *rap. That's a degraded form of delegation, but one which is sadly prevalent in modern institutions.

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