01/09/2013 12:35 EST | Updated 03/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Chris Spence's Plagiarism Under Investigation By Toronto School Board

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TORONTO - A plagiarism scandal has forced Canada's largest school board to consider taking action against its top educator as public outrage over the incident prompted some to call for his resignation.

The Toronto District School Board said Wednesday it will discuss possible disciplinary measures against its education director, Chris Spence, after he admitted to plagiarizing parts of an opinion piece published in a major Toronto newspaper.

The board's chair, Chris Bolton, said Spence's confession came "as a great shock and a surprise" and trustees have not yet had the chance to formally weigh their next steps.

"I haven't had the opportunity to discuss it with them as a group and I need to get a sense of what they're thinking to know how to go forward at this point," he said.

Word of the infraction spread quickly Wednesday after Spence posted a letter of apology on the board's website, saying he was "ashamed and embarrassed" by his behaviour and vowing to make amends.

A spokesman for the school board said Spence would not comment further.

Many condemned his actions on social media, pointing to his duty as an educator to uphold the rules of academia. Some praised him for taking responsibility for his actions, while others pushed for his resignation — or his termination.

"Of course Chris Spence must be fired from TDSB," read one message posted on Twitter.

"Academics who plagiarize generally get fired," read another.

Laura Murray, an English professor at Queen's University and an expert on plagiarism issues, said Spence's misconduct is unacceptable and "undermines the values" that educators try to instil in students.

But while the school board must speak out strongly against it, she said firing Spence — or demanding he step down — does nothing to prevent plagiarism from recurring.

"The school board might decide that because academic integrity is a central value of their organization, that he can't be considered to be doing his job if he plagiarizes — that's the debate that they'll have to have," she said.

Toronto students caught plagiarizing automatically receive a failing grade on the assignment, but Murray said there isn't a clear equivalent for adults found guilty of the same breach.

"Something should happen, but what? I don't know," she said.

In his letter, Spence said the punishment imposed on students isn't nearly strict enough in his case.

As an educator, he said he "should know better" than to cite other people's work without attribution — something he said happened five times in the op-ed he penned for the Toronto Star.

"I can provide excuses for how and why this happened – that I was rushed, that I was sloppy, that I was careless – but that’s all they would be: excuses," he wrote.

"There is no excuse for what I did," he added.

He pledged to take "real and meaningful steps" to learn from and make up for his misbehaviour, including taking a journalism ethics class and ensuring his apology is permanently displayed.

But it's unclear whether there will be consequences beyond his self-imposed penance.

"I think that Dr. Spence has put forward what he sees as being his own sort of specified personal program of discipline or re-education or whatever you want to call it," Bolton said.

"But is that appropriate, is that enough? I don't know," he said.

The board planned to hold a meeting Wednesday night but Bolton said the agenda was already set in stone. He said there may be a chance to discuss the issue at the end, when trustees are allowed to introduce new business.

Spence's article ran on Jan. 5 and focused on the importance of extracurricular activities, which have been cancelled in many schools due to the ongoing labour strife between teachers and the province.

The newspaper said the plagiarized material came from several sources, including a blog belonging to the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, an online encyclopedia and a 1989 New York Times op-ed.

The Toronto board isn't the only one to deal with plagiarism this week.

The University of Waterloo said Tuesday it has suspended a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering who plagiarized a research paper published last fall.

In a statement, the university said Dongqing Li will be suspended without pay for four months beginning April 1.

During that time, Li will be allowed to visit the campus but otherwise relieved of his duties and privileges and unable to use university resources.

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