A sin at St. John's When the pursuit of knowledge is sacred, a case of plagarism is a breach of honor. But is it enough to rethink the way students are taught?


ANNAPOLIS -- At St. John's College, education is an act of faith. Faith in the desire to learn and in the Great Books used to gain such wisdom. Faith in the ability to accomplish this task on your own. And faith in a system that puts its faith in students to do so.

The aims at this tiny liberal arts college seem higher, purer than at most schools. Here, knowledge is pursued for its own sake. Great bodies of work are read in order to be poked, prodded and torn apart; ideas that great thinkers have expounded upon for thousands of years are re-examined and turned upside down. Finally, each student uses all those semesters of learning to thoughtfully write, present and defend a major piece of work during senior year.

It's a system that St. John's has taken pride in for more than six decades, since the creation of the school's revered New Program curriculum established it as one of the most prestigious and quirkiest liberal arts schools in the country.

Which explains why, more than a year since one bright, well-thought-of student showed how easily that system could be fooled, and since others who learned of her deception failed to report it, St. John's is still debating what some have termed a "treasonous" act: the plagiarism of a senior essay, an essay awarded one of the school's top prizes.

With a new semester under way, school officials are adamant that their system remains intact. But a school dedicated to tackling civilization's great questions still seems confounded by a few of its own: Why, at a school where grades are not important (they aren't even handed out); where there are no lectures, no tests and no research papers; and where success is determined by abstract and subjective measurements based on participation and analytical ability, would anyone choose to cheat? And what, if anything, should be done to prevent its happening again?

Like a Greek tragedy

Lynette R. Dowty might have gotten away with it. But, like some fatally flawed character in the Greek tragedies she'd studied, she proved to be her own undoing.

She arrived at the Annapolis campus in the fall of 1993, having come thousands of miles from her home in Granite Bay, Calif., to attend St. John's. Almost immediately she stood out among the school's 400 students.

Physically striking, nearly 5-foot-10 with long, wild red hair, she was bright, talented, charming, slightly cynical. She always seemed to be surrounded by people, the kind of person everyone wanted at their parties. There was her signature laugh, loud and piercing at the end. And her ability to tell stories, making even the most mundane episode hilarious. Sure, she embellished, friends say, but it was no big deal.

"She wanted to project strong," says Kamielle Shaffer, who got to know Lynette in her junior year. "She enjoyed being noticed. She liked being the center of attention."

Not an easy task at St. John's.

"This is an unusual place. It is not for everybody," says William Braithwaite, a St. John's tutor -- there are no "professors" here -- for three years. "The students who choose to come here are highly self-selective, creating a richness of conversation going on here that cannot be imitated at any college or university in the nation."

"Johnnies" are drawn by the curriculum known simply as the Program. Created in 1937, it is a unified, all-required curriculum based on classic works of literature. All students read the same books, in the same order. There are no majors, no departments. Just reading and oral and written debate.

It's the Program that attracts thousands of applications every year for the 100 or so freshman class slots, despite tuition and fees of about $27,000 per year. It has helped the little school to rank with famed liberal arts schools like Oberlin College in Ohio, Reed College in Oregon and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

For students, the payoff is an intimate education with class sizes no larger than 20. These 18- to 22-year-olds will tell you, without cracking a smile, that they are here to learn important things from Homer, Plato, Herodotus, Aristotle, Kant and Nietzsche.

It was in this environment that Lynette Dowty decided to commit academia's worst offense.


May 18, 1997. Commencement day for the 90 seniors. Sitting with her classmates in the shade of St. John's landmark Liberty Tree, Kamielle Shaffer found herself crying.

On stage above her stood Lynette Dowty, smiling and waving as she accepted the school's coveted Senior Essay Prize.

"I was horrified. Enraged. Stunned. How could anyone do this and get away with it?" says Shaffer, a soft-spoken, 23-year-old woman. "I was watching this huge wrong that's been done and wondering, 'How do I deal with it?' "

What Shaffer and a handful of others in the St. John's community were dealing with that day was the rumor that Dowty's prize-winning essay was a fraud. The rumor had been making the rounds since April, when Dowty herself had apparently confided in a friend. According to some stories, the news reached at least one tutor, who advised that nothing be said.

That any student would choose to cheat was hard to accept, let alone Dowty, who, by all accounts, was more than capable of writing a prize-winning essay.

Zoe Andriolo, 23, who befriended Dowty in their freshman year, says, "I always knew her as an excellent writer. Everyone did."

Dowty, in fact, won a freshman essay prize in 1994, which helped her get a job teaching younger students to write. She was, her tutors recall, an exceptional young lady.

When Dowty announced in September 1996 that she'd chosen "Moby Dick" as the subject for her senior essay, few were surprised; Herman Melville's tale was her favorite. She told friends she had spent six weeks over the summer studying the novel, even drafting the first pages of her essay. By the essay deadline at the end of January, she had gone through several drafts with her tutor.

Meanwhile, Kamielle Shaffer struggled with her paper, also writing draft after draft, only to see her completed paper rejected. She had to start all over.

"I was floored. I was crying," Shaffer recalls. She thought: "What am I going to do? Doesn't this only happen to bad students? ... I thought I was going to die," she says.

That spring came the whispers about Dowty. And then commencement day and the prize. Despite her tears that day, Shaffer left school without saying anything.

"Was it my right to say something?" she asks. "I wasn't so sure then and I'm still not. I left it all behind."

Louder whispers

The whispers finally reached school officials the next winter, after tutor John Verdi learned of the Dowty rumor. St. John's quickly launched an investigation. After two months, it was determined that Dowty's essay was "essentially identical" and "unmistakeably copied" from an essay by 1976 graduate David E.R. Clement.

"We take a lot of things seriously here, and cheating is one of them," says Dean Harvey Flaumenhaft. "To take another

student's work and appropriate it that way is a massive violation. It took time to get to the matter, but it didn't take a long time to know what to do about it."

The college's Board of Visitors and Governors revoked both Dowty's degree and essay prize this past spring. She also was formally expelled, in order to prevent her graduating by submitting a new essay. Students and alumni were officially told of the incident and its outcome through a one-paragraph notice in the June edition of the twice-yearly college bulletin.

(Seeking to protect her privacy, school officials have not identified Dowty in any public notices or interviews.)

At a different school, the incident might barely have registered. At St. John's, it brought a flood of telephone calls, letters and complaints.

"I can't help but feel that it cheapens my diploma to have the same awarded to a cheater," one alumnus wrote. Said another: "It indicates ... a complete lack of respect for the person whose work she stole, for her classmates and for the principles of this school. I would imagine that cheating of this magnitude would be grounds for immediate expulsion from any school, but i think it is a particularly egregious crime at St. John's."

Others expressed sadness for a young woman who clearly made a bad decision, and confusion over why she did.

Says Shaffer, "I feel very sad and disheartened about the whole thing. Sad for the school. Sad for Lynette. ... I guess I feel like we just need to be aware. To let people know that they are destroying the fiber of St. John's if they do something like this."

"I'm very sad about it," tutor Braithwaite says. "I have no theory on why this happened because I don't think it is a question that can be answerable by a theory. This is a human being."

In hindsight, friends say, Dowty does seem more vulnerable than the image she projected. For all her energy and drive, she rarely spoke in class, rarely seemed prepared to participate in seminars. And while everyone still describes her as a "truly excellent writer," none could recall ever reading anything that she'd written.

Whatever their feelings about Dowty's actions, though, few at St. John's are willing to label them more than an aberration. It seems it's not possible to view them otherwise and still believe in a learning system based on trust.

There are little in the way of rules and restrictions at St. John's, and officials say that is how things should be. So for now, nothing has changed. Seminars will still consist of discussion and debate. Once-a-week lectures will still end with the speaker enduring rigorous rounds of questioning from students. And essays still will not require footnotes or extensive research.

To change that would irrevocably alter the essence and spirit of St. John's, school officials say. Perhaps to learn for yourself and by yourself, a person needs the freedom to make mistakes and bad decisions, the school's defenders say. And to perpetuate such an atmosphere, a person must trust that everyone else is also honestly exploring ideas.

"The personal, emotional and psychological cost of setting something like that up -- to monitor students -- is not worth the cost to pay," Braithwaite says. "We are not in the business of trying to prevent people from cheating. We're in the business of helping people to learn. You can't borrow or steal understanding. It matters to know things and it matters to do things yourself. I'm sure our graduates go away feeling that deep in their bones."

No comment

The one person who might bring the most understanding to the plagiarism incident is not talking. At least directly.

According to her father, Jimmy Dowty, Lynette Dowty has decided not to appeal her expulsion and loss of degree. She "has written her letters of apology," he says. "She has told them she was sorry. We want to move on." He says she probably doesn't want to talk, but that she's reachable by phone.

The woman who picks up the phone at Dowty's number identifies herself as Lynette's sister. She says only that "Lynette is more concerned about how this will affect the school than she is about herself. She wants to talk about this. She wasn't trying to just fool the school."

Dowty, the caller later learns, doesn't have a sister. A second call turns up the same woman, who, with a laugh, this time identifies herself as Dowty's sister-in-law.

"She just wants to move on now," the woman says. "She's working and has an opportunity to travel. ... You know," the young woman adds finally, "I don't believe St. John's is worried about her at all."

While that may not be true, back on the campus where great ideas are discussed daily, it is the soul of the school rather than that of a wayward student that is up for debate.

As they unloaded blankets, coffee makers, computers and laundry baskets from their car on the day they returned to school this fall, sophomore James Inzeo and junior Gretchen Anderton took a moment to discuss the issue.

"What is truth? What is beauty? What is justice? Machiavelli wanted beauty. When you lie, it defeats the purpose, correct?" says Inzeo, an 18-year-old New York transplant. "Maybe we need to limit our freedoms. Tighten a loose honor system. I am ashamed of the individual. It tarnishes our image."

Says fellow New Yorker Anderton, 19, "We put rules on children not to eat too much for their own good. Perhaps safeguards are needed to protect what we have. But do we all lose our freedom because of what one person did? She obviously missed the point. But we can't have it both ways, can we?"

"Plato would say we're in pursuit of truth," Inzeo says. "And I believe Jefferson would say 'The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.' "

"It's a Greek tragedy," he adds.

"A St. John's tragedy," Gretchen quips.

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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