The former leader of Canada’s largest school board says he takes full responsibility for the plagiarism that led to his abrupt departure this year – but also says his research assistants are partly to blame.
In his first interview with The Globe and Mail since he stepped down as director of education of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Spence addressed the explosive allegations of plagiarism that date back 17 years to his time as a graduate student at the University of Toronto.
“I never ever sat down to take someone else’s ideas. It was unintentional. I also had some support … research assistants and things like that. But I approved everything, I signed off on everything. I put my name on it, so I own it. I take full responsibility for that,” Dr. Spence said in an interview Thursday. “But it is complicated and there are some layers to it, some mitigating circumstances, if you will, not to point the finger at anybody else.”
Dr. Spence said he was coming forward now, six months after resigning, as part of a healing process, and to slowly rebuild his reputation. He spoke about being in “deep depression” after losing his job and how he began seeing a therapist. He felt it was time to answer questions about the plagiarism scandal, with the hopes that he return to the education field.
“I want to be in education. I’m an educator and that’s what I want to get back to doing,” he said.
Dr. Spence resigned in January after allegations of plagiarism pertaining to everything from his personal blog to newspaper opinion pieces began piling up. The University of Toronto initiated an investigation into whether Dr. Spence plagiarized parts of his 1996 PhD dissertation.
“The review is still in progress and we have no further information to share at this time,” a U of T spokeswoman said Thursday.
Dr. Spence said he is co-operating with investigators.
Of the plagiarism accusations during his time as TDSB director, he said: “I think I was just trying to do too much. I had too much going on. I relied on some people to help me with content and stuff like that. It just went off the rails.”
In one blog post, Dr. Spence writes about telling his son about the massacre in Newtown, Conn. The exchange was very similar to an account published by a U.S. journalist a few days earlier.
Asked about it Thursday, Dr. Spence said: “The exact same thing that was written happened. I went to my son’s school to pick him up. We had the conversation. I was doing some research … and that meshed with what I was going through, what I was dealing with my son. It was in fact what happened with me.”
The accusations of plagiarism first surfaced when a Toronto Star reader alerted the newspaper that an article written by Dr. Spence appeared to be plagiarized. The Star investigated, and Dr. Spence confessed to copying the work of others in an opinion piece. That drew attention to his other work.
“My biggest regret is just the way everything ended. I believe that I was on my way to a pretty good legacy in terms of the work that I’d done … I really felt that we were changing the trajectory, the lives of kids and then this all went down,” Dr. Spence said.
Dr. Spence was often described as an inspirational, charismatic leader, who had a natural ability to connect with students. He was wooed to the TDSB in 2009 from the Hamilton-Wentworth school board, where he was director. During his time at the TDSB, he first proposed the idea of a boys’ academy as part of a strategy to help struggling students and he was a key advocate for the board’s first Africentric school. His sister is the principal.
Replacing Dr. Spence will not be easy. The school board has started its search for a new director, and trustees will have to determine whether they want another innovative leader, like Dr. Spence, or someone more operations-minded to shepherd the $2.9-billion organization.
It has been a difficult year for the TDSB. Canada’s largest school board has faced widespread criticism for the way it spends on construction projects, and a $10-million budget overrun at Nelson Mandela Park Public School prompted the Ontario government to cut off funding for new TDSB building projects in October. That funding was recently restored in exchange for trustees promising to sell off unused school land.
But problems persist. Just recently, the government initiated an investigation into the board’s “financial management practices” at the request of the board’s acting director of education, Donna Quan. The results of that investigation are expected in the fall.