Premeditated Stupidity

University of South Carolina President Plagiarizes Speech

If you have any doubt about whether stupidity has any relationship to IQ or education, the answer is clearly “no” as exemplified by the University of South Carolina’s president, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, who was outed for plagiarism by local media whose reporting went viral immediately.

Lt. Caslen, formerly Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, unethically pulled one of the strongest quotes in his May 2021 commencement speech from another given by Admiral William McRaven, the man who headed up the operation to take down Bin Laden.  As a veteran, Iwould consider that another form of “stolen valor” and, as such, particularly disgusting.  His plagiarism wasn’t detected until FTISNews in South Carolina outed him after being tipped off by “a source.”  The former Army general compounded the perception of ineptitude by referring to his own students, at the same commencement address, as being from the University of California.

I call this “Premeditated Stupidity.”

Clearly the act of plagiarism was premeditated and, when busted, he copped to it with a lame excuse, “”I was searching for words about resilience in adversity and when they were transcribed into the speech, I failed to ensure its attribution.”  But wait, General Caslen, if you don’t mind this observation from a former Army sergeant, wouldn’t that be more believable if you’d just lifted a phrase, or one memorable sentence, from Admiral McRaven?  But you didn’t just do that, did you? You used this entire 82-word passage almost verbatim from a 2014 McRaven commencement speech that had long since gone viral on YouTube.

“Know that life is not fair and if you’re like me, you’ll fail often,” Caslen said. “But if you take some risks, step up when times are toughest, face down the cowardly bullies and lift up the downtrodden — and never, never give up — if you do those things, the next generation and the generations to follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today. And what started here, today, will indeed change the world for the better.”

Caslen’s lack of judgement through that act of plagiarism was a totally preventable crisis that profoundly embarrassed the University of South Carolina’s leadership, and even the faux pas about the school’s name was completely preventable if he had adequately practiced his speech sufficiently beforehand.  Maybe being nervous about the stolen McRaven passage made him slip on the name of the State whose school he had supervised for two years?

Further, I would frankly be shocked if, right now, there weren’t eager reporters digging into Lt. Gen. Caslen’s past speeches and writings for examples of plagiarism.  Particularly since he’d been in charge of Westpoint in the past, begging questions about what kind of example and leadership he provided, given his apparent lack of ethics when it came to making himself look better.

As with many forms of wrongdoing, plagiarists caught past their student days tend, from what I’ve seen, to have committed the offense repeatedly and just not been caught before.

At the end of the day, if someone’s bitten by the Stupid Bug, they’re going to be the next example of Premeditated Stupidity.  And you really can’t fix stupid but…what does this mean for employers of potentially stupid people?  Well, first of all, you don’t ignore obvious clues about their stupidity, either during background checks or after hiring.

According to NPR, “Caslen’s two-year stint as university president was marked by criticism since the moment he was hired. Many faculty and students opposed his appointment, saying he lacked qualifications. The faculty senate unanimously approved a no-confidence vote soon after he started.”

The answer is that sometimes you can’t detect past mistakes – some people have covered up evidence too well – but other times a better background check than most employers probably use can turn up evidence.  For starters, university professors already use websites that allow them to search phrases from a submitted paper if they suspect plagiarism and those little search engines integrate with Google to quickly out cheaters.  Why can’t someone who does background checks on senior-level executives do that same?  And, for better or worse, the Internet allows fact-checkers and fact-twisters to co-exist – and find each other’s materials.  The only place a secret can exist these days – for now – is if you don’t let it get out from between your ears.

This, then, is the consistent, practically ubiquitous hubris of the wealthy and/or well-positioned, that they can somehow get away with behavior most consider illegal, unethical, or immoral.   Because they’re “special.”  And sometimes they get away with it.  But it’s increasingly high-risk behavior in our Internet-centered lives and when they go down, they often go down hard.  Right, Lance Armstrong?  College admission cheaters?  Lt. Gen Caslen?

Jonathan Bernstein
jonathan@bernsteincrisismanagement.com