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Kansas college leader accused of plagiarizing May commencement speech

Compare 2004 Hampton University valedictorian's speech to KCKCC leader's May address

In 2004, Hampton University valedictorian Tim Lee used the poem “The New ABC’s,” by Sherri ScottNovoa, in his commencement speech without attribution. In May, John D. Rios, chairman of Kansas City Kansas Community College, gave an eerily similar c
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In 2004, Hampton University valedictorian Tim Lee used the poem “The New ABC’s,” by Sherri ScottNovoa, in his commencement speech without attribution. In May, John D. Rios, chairman of Kansas City Kansas Community College, gave an eerily similar c

Graduates this May at the Kansas City Kansas Community College heard a powerful commencement speech from the leader of the college’s board of trustees, John D. Rios.

The two-minute speech also was almost word-for-word identical to a section of an address delivered by a student 13 years ago in Virginia.

That former Hampton University student, Tim Lee, wants Rios to apologize for plagiarism, although ironically Lee admits lifting a part of his speech from a poem.

Rios did not return calls made to him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But the acting president of the community college says future commencement speakers will be warned about attributing others’ words.

Lee was the 2004 valedictorian at Hampton, a historically black college. His dynamic commencement speech — about the ABCs of life — quickly became popular among college students and went viral online.

A YouTube video of Rios’ May speech shows that it repeated, nearly verbatim, a segment of Lee’s address.

“A part of me takes it as a compliment,” Lee said when reached by The Star on Thursday. “But in the academe there are standards, and plagiarism is considered breaking those standards. He is the chairman of the board of trustees. He is not setting a good example.”

Rios’ stint on the college board ends this year, and he is registered to run for the at-large seat on the Wyandotte County Commission this fall.

Rios, a former assistant superintendent with Kansas City, Kan., schools, was elected to the KCKCC board in 2005. This spring, he ordered an internal investigation into complaints made against KCKCC President Doris Givens. She has since been put on administrative leave with pay.

During the May speech, Rios said it would be the last commencement address he would give at the college.

“I have prepared a few remarks,” Rios began. The theme, structure and the words of the two-minute speech that followed were nearly identical to a portion of the six-minute speech at Hampton by Lee:

Lee: “We cannot stop striving yet.”

Rios: “Graduates, you cannot stop striving yet.”

Lee: “But when life’s complexities confuse us, when the paradoxical ironies of existence surprise us and when we are troubled by the uncontrollable external entities — both spiritual and physical, we must remember our ABCs.”

Rios: “When life and its complexities impede us, when the twists and turns and curves of existence surprise us, when we are troubled by the uncontrollable external entities — both spiritual and physical, we must go back to the basics of our ABCs.”

Lee: “No, not the alphabet — English majors of reading and writing. But the ABCs of life. And once we’ve learned them, we should take them with us as we let our lives do the singing.”

Rios: “No, not the alphabet, but our ABCs of life. For once we have learned them, we must keep them with us and let our lives do the singing.”

Lee: “Take the A — and accept the challenge.”

Rios: “Take the A — and accept the challenge.”

Lee: “The B — and believe in ourselves.”

Rios: “The B — and believe in ourselves.”

Lee: “The C — convert our thoughts into hopes.”

Rios: “The C, and convert your thoughts into hopes.”

“The New ABC’s” is a poem written by Sherri ScottNovoa. Neither Lee nor Rios in their speeches gave credit to the original author.

“I should have given her credit, but I didn’t know,” said Lee, who was 22 when he graduated. “I was the original plagiarizer.”

Since his speech went viral, Lee and ScottNovoa have been in contact and have a binding agreement that whenever he uses her poem, he gives her full credit.

Lee, now 35 and a minister at Fernwood United Methodist Church on the south side of Chicago and the director of housing at Chicago State University, is often called on to speak to various groups.

“Whenever I use the ABCs and money is involved,” he said, a portion goes to ScottNovoa, an author, actress and inspirational speaker living in Atlanta.

But Lee says Rios’ speech is plagiarized. Lee wrote the lead-in to the ABCs portion of the speech he gave. He said Rios copied his lead-in.

KCKCC Acting President Jackie Vietti said, “It was not the intent of Mr. Rios to pass off Ms. ScottNovoa’s original thoughts as his own. His sole purpose was to impart her powerful message to the graduates for application during the next steps on their life journeys.”

Rios failed to give credit, Vietti said, because he is not a professional speaker and was not aware of how professional speakers give attribution to others.

“The college will ensure that its future commencement speakers are fully apprised on how to attribute others’ work during their addresses,” Vietti said.

Author ScottNovoa said Vietti’s explanation “is not acceptable.”

“I learned in high school English that if you do not know the author, you still acknowledge that it is not your material,” ScottNovoa said. “He knew what he was doing was wrong. An apology is in order, and I would like one. But he owes Tim an apology, too, because he also stole Tim’s material.”

Lee agrees. “It is one thing to be inspired by someone else’s words. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to be so uninspired that you take someone else’s words as your own.

Student body president Gary Enrique Bradley-Lopez said he and other students have watched both speeches.

“As a student, we are taught that plagiarism is wrong,” Bradley-Lopez said. “I feel that Mr. Rios tried to pick a speech that would connect with the students.”

He said students on campus were talking about the similarities between Rios’ speech and Lee’s speech.

“He gave that speech without giving credit,” said Bradley-Lopez, who said he recently talked with Rios about the speech. “I think he forgot. I think he had good intentions, but he didn’t go about it the right way.”

Bradley-Lopez said Rios told him he had “put his own spin” on the speech.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

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