Ivy League redemption

Observations on plagiarism

With naked ambition, large sums of money, sharp-eyed law students and a slavering mini-media present on campus, it was inevitable that America's Ivy League colleges should have their own version of The Bonfire of the Vanities. In October, readers noticed "similarities" between drawings by Kathleen Breeden, political cartoonist for the Harvard Crimson campus newspaper, and work collected on Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonists Index. Breeden was fired, and fellow students rushed to denounce her as "immature", "morally bankrupt" and, worst of all, "Kaavyarific".

The cryptic insult was coined in the defining Ivy-League scandal of 2006, when Kaavya Viswanathan - a Harvard undergraduate whose first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, was about to be published by Little, Brown - was accused of plagiarising Megan McCafferty's teen stories Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. The ensuing media frenzy revealed that Opal Mehta drew on everything from The Princess Diaries to Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The novel was withdrawn, the DreamWorks film deal cancelled, and Kaavya fled to an internship in Africa.

This was not an overreaction. In the wired-up Ivy League towers, where everyone who's anyone has a professionally designed personal website, no one can escape the electronic rumour mill. Inspired by the cynical New York gossip site Gawker, students created the in-house gossip blogs IvyLeak and IvyGate, tagline "You just spent 40 grand. Treat yourself."

Their first victim, the "new Kaavya", was Aleksey Vayner. An Uzbek Yale undergraduate looking for an entry-level position on Wall Street, Vayner sent UBS a video resumé whose fantastical contents included stints as CEO of an investment firm and a professional athlete, and the authorship of Women's Silent Tears, a "unique gender-focused perspective on the holocaust in eastern Europe." When it was posted on YouTube, Vayner became the victim of global derision. IvyGate helpfully added that he also claimed to be "one of four persons in the state of Connecticut licensed to handle nuclear waste".

Vayner and Viswanathan's crime was not, as the Huffington Post pointed out, so much their moral failing as their "conspicuous pre-professionalism". But all is not lost for the "Kaavyas". Advertising executive Donny Deutsch declared on MSNBC that he would hire Vayner "sight unseen"; Viswanathan is back at Harvard and writing again; and Breeden was strenuously defended by Daryl Cagle himself. Unlike the original Bonfire, the Ivy scandals could yet prove to be tales of redemption.