Stupidity, Malice, and Michael Bellesisles

Most semesters, about half of my course load is Freshman Composition, and even in my lit-focused classes, there’s obviously a lot of writing. As it happens, a significant portion of my students are underprepared — Mondoville is a small town, in a state not noted for its public schools. The combination of these factors means that I see an alarming quantity of writing that rises to the level of actionable plagiarism.

How I deal with it depends on several factors, but the most significant factor is whether the offense is seemingly accidental (e.g., mishandled citations due to carelessness or ignorance) or malicious (an actual attempt to sneak someone else’s work past me or otherwise commit intentional fraud). If it looks like the latter to me, the offender is guaranteed a flag for the course and probably a chance to experience the joys of the college’s judicial system. It can get ugly.

This brings us to Michael Bellesisles, who was the central figure in what some consider one of the more spectacular cases of academic fraud of my lifetime, and certainly of my professional career. For those of you who don’t follow this sort of thing (We call you “the sane, happy people”), here’s a quick recap. Bellesisles had a posh gig as a history prof at Emory University. He wrote a book, Arming America, which contended that Americans in the pre-Civil War era were less well armed than was popularly believed. The book was quite successful and won a prestigious award. However, because it was believed that the book might provide arguments for gun control supporters, gun rights advocates asked Bellesisles to show his work.

And here’s where the trouble came in. Bellesisles couldn’t do it, claiming some of his evidence was lost in a flood, and denying other errors outright. Even more damning, however, were his claims that he used evidence that is now known to have been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, and that he “found” evidence in wills that proved never to have been written. In short, Bellesisles’s opponents made a strong case that Arming America was a case of academic fraud. His prize was rescinded, and although a panel at Emory didn’t quite accuse him of fraud, he resigned from the university.

The case was a cause celebre, with a number of folks claiming that Bellesisles had escaped initial scrutiny because his ideas were palatable to the gun-control left. Honestly, I believe the affair was a significant part of the decline in respect for academic findings, and wonder if it may even be a contributing factor in climate change skepticism.

To sum up, l’affare Bellesisles looked very much like a case of what I’d call malicious fraud if I found it in a student paper, and one might think that, like one of my offending students, Bellesisles would have received the boot, in this case from academia in general. One would be wrong.

Bellesisles has continued to write, as is his prerogative, and has taught recently at Central Connecticut State University as an adjunct. While I wouldn’t have wanted to be on his hiring committee, that’s their business. But while at CCSU, he published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed Review in which he recounted the tale of a student who lost his brother, a soldier in the Middle East who was killed by a sniper. When the piece appeared, some readers noticed statements that didn’t seem to make sense. Those readers investigated military records and discovered that this piece again bore the marks of fiction (again, a fiction that suits a certain political agenda seen as popular in academia.) This time, the blame has been pinned on Bellesisles’s student, casting the professor in the role of victim, or if one feels less charitable, dupe.

At this point, one might be tempted to think that Bellesisles is either the unluckiest man since Joe Btfsplk, or a serial fabulist, with the latter appearing more likely. However, the good folk at the Chronicle seem to differ, and ran an extremely sympathetic article on Bellesisles — written by a professor at his Ph.D. institution, no less.

At this point, I just have to wonder (and so do many of the Chronicle‘s readers, judging from the comments section) if academia’s hometown paper has some vested interest in rehabilitating this guy. I understand second chances and forgiveness — I’ve received my share of both over the years. But what we have here appears to be the case of someone who has acted with malice, and perhaps has done so twice.

As I’ve noted previously, one of the few things we in higher ed have to have is the trust of our audience, and we’ve lost a significant amount of it due to the shabby practices of the Bellesisleses and Ward Churchills of the world. Why has the Chronicle picked this guy as the hill they want to die on, and why does he deserve a better break than the kids I flunk every semester?

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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