Straight Talk
MICHELE MANDEL - Serial plagiarist Spence didn't even try to cover his tracks

Credits: Toronto Sun

MICHELE MANDEL | QMI AGENCY

Even the most delinquent student at one of his schools wouldn't have been this, well, stupid.

And now Chris Spence has been outed as a cheat. A fraud.
The disgraced former head of the Toronto District School Board turns out to be a serial plagiarist who may even lose his PhD from the University of Toronto after it was exposed that huge tracts of his 1996 dissertation were lifted word for word from other peoples' work.

Word for word, that's the mystifying thing. He didn't even try to cover his tracks. Even the feeblest student cheating on an essay knows to paraphrase. Insert some original thought. Rearrange the sentences. Put it in your own words. Better yet, vet it through one of the myriad of websites that will scan your work for plagiarism.

University students have to do it all the time.

But not Spence. It was almost as if the 50-year-old overachiever was pathologically testing the limits, like some starlet who shoplifts in full view of the security cameras. How long did he think he could get away with it -- the head of the country's largest school board continually publishing inspirational columns and blogs and speeches that were moving and thought-provoking -- but not at all his own?

For those of us in the writing business, it's a constant fear that something we've read in the past will innocently turn up under our own byline. When you are voraciously researching a topic on the web and begin to craft your own piece, it's frightening how easy it is to find you may have unintentionally borrowed a turn of phrase or an idea.

That's not what happened here. These were not innocent mistakes, but the deliberate and wholesale ripping off of other authors. This was blatant theft. Bad enough for anyone to do, but how much more egregious that it was committed by Toronto's top public school educator, someone hired to lead by example and demonstrate the most rigorous of academic integrity. Someone who puts Dr. before his name and for his lofty credentials has commanded a lofty salary -- more than $1 million paid out to him over his almost five-year contract.

It's always sad to find your heroes have feet of clay. When Spence was drafted back to the city in 2009 to become the saviour of Toronto's battered educational system, he had such an inspiring story -- an immigrant kid from Britain who went from being bullied on Toronto playgrounds to playing running back for the B.C. Lions, a teacher and then principal who worked in some of the toughest schools and brought hope and success to the most vulnerable of students.

He was compared to Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love, the lovable teacher who works miracles in inner-city London. He was hailed as a skilled orator and motivator who energized his teachers, a bit of an old-town preacher whose eloquence could lift hearts and inspire minds.
But now it turns out that eloquence wasn't really his, but just another thing Spence borrowed and passed off as his own.

The question is why Spence did it. Was it simply the laziness of a busy man? Or, forgive the amateur psychologist, was it from a deep-seated sense of insecurity he could mask only by appropriating the words and even the experiences of others?

We'll likely never know now that he's hired a public relations firm to speak on his behalf.

What is certain is that Spence's sterling career will now be forever tainted by this plagiarism scandal. The former director of education may have done a lot of good for Toronto students but in the end he'll be remembered as a cheat branded with a scarlet grade of F for the rest of his days.

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