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Suffolk University in Boston. February 2013 file photo.
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How an allegation of plagiarism shed light on racial discrimination

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After a Suffolk University undergraduate's blog account of the incident went viral, support poured in from others, indicating discrimination in academia is widespread.

The first thing Prof. Prudence Carter says she would do if she met college student Tiffany Martinez is “give her a big hug.”

That’s because Prof. Carter, an African American woman who has scaled to the top of the academic ladder, says she has felt the same sting of racial discrimination that Ms. Martinez says was behind a professor’s recent accusation that she committed plagiarism.

For Carter, today a professor at Stanford University, the accusation came from a professor in her PhD program at Columbia University in the 1990s. She says he wouldn’t let her take an exemption exam for a statistics class she was overqualified for, while an overseas student, from Israel, was allowed to take it simply by asking. Eventually, Carter says, another professor stepped in and allowed her to take the exam, which she passed with flying colors.

In Martinez’s case, her professor at Boston’s Suffolk University handed back a paper without a grade, only the words: “needs work.” In a blog post detailing the event that went viral, Martinez showed a photo of her paper where the professor had circled the word “Hence” and written next to it, “This is not your word.”

Martinez, a participant in a federal fellowship that prepares undergraduates for doctoral work, describes herself as an “aspiring professor” who has consistently made the dean’s list and will graduate next spring. She said she was humiliated in front of the class when the professor handed her the paper and said, “This is not your language.”

In an interview, acting Suffolk president Marisa Kelly agreed with Carter that such incidents of discrimination have long been widespread on college campuses. The problem, she and others say, is the difficulty of quantifying such examples, but that does not diminish the urgent need to help college staff better understand the increasingly diverse student populations they serve.

Carter acknowledges plagiarism is an issue on college campuses, but says an allegation should never be handled as it was in this instance.

“We read these stories, they go viral, and they feel like they're anecdotal, but they’re not,” says Carter, a professor of education and sociology whose work has focused on equal opportunity in education. “To get to this point where she's been empowered through the McNair Program [the federal fellowship] and others, and then to have a teacher presume you wouldn't know how to use 'hence' in a sentence is just painful.”

In her blog, Martinez explained how she felt after the incident.

“Their blue pen was the catalyst that opened an ocean of self-doubt that I worked so hard to destroy,” she wrote. “In front of my peers, I was criticized by a person who had the academic position I aimed to acquire.”

Martinez has received a flood of support. Carter’s kind words for Martinez were echoed by a historian, Dr. Yesenia Barragan, a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College who says she also has experienced academic racial discrimination. In a BBC interview, Dr. Barragan told Martinez: “You’re not alone, we’re so proud of you, we love you, we’ve got your back.”

Suffolk’s President Kelly says the incident with Martinez gave her a greater sense of urgency.   

Since last year, Kelly says her university has held a range of events aimed at increasing understanding and respect among students and faculty. At some, both groups shared stories in which the words of a professor or student cut deep.

“Students are very different than they were 20 years ago, [and from] a much broader range of experiences and backgrounds,” she says. She adds that, in the wake of Martinez’s experience,  the college is finalizing plans to run campus-wide training for faculty in recognizing “micro-aggressions," casual exchanges or slights that, intentionally or unintentionally, direct hostility toward minorities.

Still, for Carter, such training programs are not likely to generate the kind of shift required to stamp out discrimination in academia.

“What our society needs is actually more of a critical mass of different kinds of students and teachers in these universities so that folks like this professor can be exposed and would be compelled and motivated to interact more," she says.

Federal data back up Carter’s claims. A Washington Post analysis of National Center for Education Statistics figures shows that while the number of African Americans awarded PhDs between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 grew by 43 percent, the number of black faculty at public universities increased only 1.3 percent over the same time. 

Asked what Carter would do after giving Martinez a hug, she’s affirmative: “I'd definitely want to encourage her not to give up.”