The Castle Herald
Every Picture Tells A Story

Plagiarism, part III: The thieves of creativity

This is the third in a series of posts about plagiarism. Here are Part 1 and Part 2

The Courage to Create

Rollo May copyrighted his book The Courage to Create in 1975. May wrote about the courage that each creative person, whether they were a writer, artist, a designer, or a scientist, must find if they are to create a new thing.

But it wasn’t just the courage to work at their art or in their field in order to bring their new creation into being; they also needed the courage to go against that which already existed. The creator had to reject the current solution to a problem. The creator must find his own solution and then complete the process by creating something new.

In 1996 and 1997 I learned some hard truths about the courage and risk that creativity requires.  I had created a form for use in colleges — the Stop Form – for my employer, a state college. I’d created something innovative and useful; a product that filled a need.

But because my managers wanted to use the Stop Form without giving me any payment, benefit, or even the credit for having designed it, my world turned upside down.

For me, the problem began on November 20, 1996 when I presented my preliminary design for the Stop Form at a college staff meeting chaired by someone I’ll call Dean Joey.

Dean Joey had previously been the college registrar and my manager before her promotion to dean. She now headed the committee that included “Ryan” — the new registrar and my current boss — along with several other college staff and faculty members. The committee’s purpose was to find a new way to retain students. Our community college had a high dropout rate. We needed to keep students on their educational track instead of having them register, receive financial aid, take classes for a few months, and then drop out without having completed their degree program.

The challenge to Colorado community colleges: Improve student retention

Improving student retention at the community college where I’d worked as the Information Operator for several years had recently become high-priority.

The challenge to find new methods to improve student retention had been extended to all Colorado community colleges in a state-wide meeting several weeks before. Each college was to create a solution for student retention and present it at a follow-up conference in a few months.

From that first statewide meeting there was an atmosphere of competition among the colleges. Each institution wanted to be THE team to present an effective student retention solution.

Thinking outside the box didn’t come naturally to my peers

After our team returned to campus, we broke out into small subcommittees to begin work on our college’s solution. We were urged to think outside the box and take inspiration from the student retention challenge.

However, when it came time for our subcommittees to propose ideas to each other, it became apparent that there weren’t many out-of-the-box ideas from these people, most of whom were long-time college faculty and staff.

We heard restatements of current procedures and then the sound of silence. The nagging question loomed over the staff:  what in the world were we going to present at the statewide meeting? No one wanted to look bad.

More rounds of meetings were held at my school. Although my boss and the dean seemed unenthusiastic about my attendance; I continued to attend the meetings because I was intrigued with the problem of retaining students.

In 1996, before online college registration was the norm, the majority of students enrolled, added, or dropped classes in person at the admissions office.

It seemed to me that people who had spent years registering and dropping students from classes should be able to see the obvious: what the college needed was an easy step to actually STOP a student from dropping his classes.

We needed to intercede and help the student reconsider before dropping the class.  Before a student filled out the drop form, we had a chance to change his mind. In order to do this we could add a step to the procedure for dropping a class.

If he paused before dropping his class and talked to an advisor, he might decide to transfer to another class or find another way to continue his education. If he did drop, at least he had made a more thoughtful decision about his future.

I played with that thought. At home the night before the next big meeting, I came up with my solution. From a flash of insight and inspiration that we call creativity, I designed The Stop Form alone and on my own time.

The “Eureka!” moment


The Stop Form was inspired by a straightforward idea: a simple form that students were required to complete before dropping a class.  My concept had a large red stop sign on the right side of the form. Below was text reading, “Before you drop or withdraw from your class, please consider your options,” followed by a short list of resources, such as tutors, advisers and instructors, students could use to resolve whatever issues made them want to drop the class.  Requiring students to fill out a Stop Form before dropping a class made it easier for the college to connect with them, provide guidance, and perhaps even stop them from leaving our college.

I thought the idea through. I edited it. And then I wrote a short explanation about the purpose of the Stop Form, how it would work, and how the registration and advising offices could use it.

Burned before by higher-ups

This was a very creative time in my life; I loved designs and systems. I loved seeing the possibilities of how things could work together. However, that night I thought long and hard about what I might be giving up by presenting my Stop Form idea to the committee. I had a good reason to do so.

I had lost ideas to my bosses before, and one of those ideas had been truly innovative: a brand new degree program my college could offer. The idea was simple at first, but it had grown in my mind until I got really excited by the possibilities.

My concept combined the college’s writing, theater and film classes, along with its television channel, into an entire program of study that complemented and interacted with itself. With the courses the college already had in place and the film classes offered on a satellite campus, my college could offer students degrees in film and television production, and our teachers could even offer some courses to distance learners via the college’s television channel.

I played with the idea, asking the creative questions: how else could we use this program? What more could we do? It was a favorite daydream of mine as I cleaned my house and got ready for work in the morning. Eventually, I decided to turn my daydream into a proposal.

I shared my exciting and complex plan in detail with a team of managers at my college. Everyone listened carefully.  Then they took my well-thought-out, carefully explained idea and presented it to their managers without saying a word about it to me. To put it bluntly, they stole my concept and presented it as their plan.

I didn’t know until weeks later, when someone (who also must have attended the meetings) placed a newsletter with an article about a new college program developed by Sally Beal (not her real name) in my letter box. Sally had attended every meeting where I proposed a film and television production program. I hadn’t noticed her taking notes because I was busy pitching my idea. She and the other managers were busy too; they were stealing everything that came out of my mouth.

The college administration liked the ideas those managers and faculty members presented so much they accepted the program. As weeks went by they moved forward and created a film production department.  When I finally read about the new degree program, it was as if I had given them my words and ideas by dictation.

No member of the committee I’d presented to ever mentioned the program, or my part in it, to me. When I read that newsletter, I was sick at heart. I knew that it was no good making accusations because everyone would deny that it was my idea and that they had stolen my plan.

The kicker? In 2012, the degree program I conceptualized is recognized as one of the top ten film programs in the United States. I am sure whoever took the credit was rewarded handsomely.

If I had been a manager or a member of the faculty who was on the committee, they probably wouldn’t have been so bold; the consequences for their actions would have been severe. But I was a lowly member of the classified staff. I hadn’t known my ideas had been stolen until the program had been claimed by others and adopted by the college. Why would anybody believe me? I knew that nothing would be done.

How could I keep unscrupulous people from stealing again?

Once again I had done good work. The Stop Form was a good design. I imagined that it could be printed and used statewide, possibly nationwide by thousands of colleges and universities. This was a product that had dollar value. The college purchased thousands of Drop Forms every year. The Stop Form was also a business form; it had the potential to be very profitable and I couldn’t afford to lose it.

I decided to wait until the very end of the next meeting of the large committee before showing and presenting the Stop Form. I knew that a roomful of people, both management and staff, would not protect the Stop Form; there had been a roomful of witnesses when I’d lost my last great idea.

This time, I would wait till the minute the meeting was breaking up so that no one could claim that the Stop Form was the work of the committee. If they liked my idea, or even if they didn’t say that they liked it, I was going to follow up. I was going to ask questions. I was going to inquire about the results of the meeting. I was going to keep asking about what solutions for student retention they were considering.

This time, I was staying involved. I wasn’t going to be quiet. I wasn’t letting anyone else have the credit, or receive the benefit for my work. Nobody was going to steal my creation.