Mistakes are big news. Often the apologies are as well.

Apologies are especially interesting since they come in a variety of forms. There are deflecting-apologies (“I’m sorry but if X didn’t do Y then I wouldn’t have done Z.”), anti-apologies (“I’m sorry if you were offended.”) and woe-is-me apologies where the alleged-apologist turns things around to make themselves look like the victim. Some apparent-apologies are hard to put a finger on. Among those, count the one issued by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford for having an affair and lying about it.

It’s fair to say people make mistakes. One particularly big snafu that’s receiving some media attention this week was the work of Toronto District School Board Director Chris Spence. An op-ed he penned for the Toronto Star contained five instances of plagiarism.

Oopsie daisy!

It goes without saying this is terrible; particularly given the position Dr. Spence holds in the education ecosystem. I’ll leave the criticizing to others who I’m sure are having a field day. Instead, I want to exploit the educational value of Dr. Spence’s apology. It’s a model apology. It should be studied and understood for its speed, clarity and commitments by anyone who thinks they may have to apologize at some point.

Unlike public figures who have reason to be embarrassed by their actions (or at least humiliated for being caught), Dr. Spence has taken ownership of his mistake.

In his published apology, Dr. Spence….

  • explains what he did: “I wrote that op-ed and – in no less than five different instances – I did not give proper credit for the work of others. I did not attribute their work.
  • illustrates how easy it is to fail to attribute work when you mix your assignments mixed with other activities: “I did research and wrote down notes and came back at it the next day, and wrote down the notes.
  • highlights the reasons he should hold himself to a higher standard: “There is no excuse for what I did. In the position I am honoured to occupy, in the wonderful job I do every single day, I of all people should have known that.
  • owns his mistake: “I am ashamed and embarrassed by what I did. I have invited criticism and condemnation, and I richly deserve both.

Then he does something particularly important. Dr. Spence notes the consquences assigned to him should be more substantial than those doled out as per the school board’s own policy for students. He details a plan to better himself. The plan includes taking the ‘Ethics and Law in Journalism’ class at Ryerson University.

Dr. Spence has assured something significant. By being quick to acknowledge his mistake, direct and clear in his apology and declaring he will better himself, Dr. Spence is setting himself up for a new and even higher level of credibility. He’s also helping to make sure the issue becomes yesterday’s news today.

The real news will be if he delivers on his commitment.

And then what kind of book deal he gets.

Photo: Rose uploaded to flickr by Aamer Javed.