The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Duke student’s graduation speech mirrors some language in Harvard address

The Duke University campus in Durham, N.C., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Gerry Broome/AP)

As she addressed her fellow graduates in Duke University’s class of 2022, Priya Parkash said she was thankful for her time at a place that offered so much — an endowment larger than the GDP of many countries, a culture that made Duke feel like its own nation, a bookstore that offered all the apparel she needed to let immigration officers know she was a Blue Devil.

But as many critics soon pointed out, themes of the Sunday speech are strikingly similar to a 2014 commencement address at Harvard University. A YouTube video comparing the speeches shows portions of Parkash’s address largely resemble language used by Harvard’s Sarah Abushaar, according to the Duke Chronicle, the first to report the story.

Now, Parkash says she takes “full responsibility” for an incident that the university is investigating. In a statement provided through crisis public relations firm Red Banyan, Parkash said she was so thrilled and honored that Duke selected her to speak at the graduation ceremony that she “sought advice from respected friends and family about topics I might address.”

“I was embarrassed and confused to find out too late that some of the suggested passages were taken from a recent commencement speech at another university,” she said. “I take full responsibility for this oversight and I regret if this incident has in any way distracted from the accomplishments of the Duke Class of 2022.”

Dave Quast, senior vice president of Red Banyan, told The Washington Post on Thursday that “Priya’s statement hasn’t changed” and that she has nothing more to say at this time.

Responding to a request from The Post, university officials declined to comment on Thursday. Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld told the student newspaper that the university had launched an investigation into Parkash’s speech.

“We are aware of and concerned about these allegations and have initiated a process to understand the facts of the situation,” he said. “Duke expects all students to abide by their commitment to the Duke Community Standard in everything they do as students.”

It’s unclear whether Parkash could face any discipline. The Duke Community Standard for student conduct says that students “will not lie, cheat, or steal” in their academic endeavors and that those found guilty of plagiarism “may be suspended.” The conduct code does not list whether a student found guilty of plagiarism faces discipline if they are graduating.

Accusations of people plagiarizing speeches in the United States have popped up for decades — including Joe Biden and Melania Trump. The appearance or acknowledgment of plagiarism has impacted higher education in recent years. Bob Caslen resigned last year as president of the University of South Carolina after he delivered a commencement address that included a significant passage from a Navy admiral’s 2014 speech without attribution.

University of South Carolina president resigns after plagiarism incident in commencement speech

Duke put out a public call in February for graduating seniors to submit applications to speak at commencement. The university’s selection committee “put an emphasis on the student perspective,” asking those wanting to deliver an address to their classmates to turn in a 250-word outline of their proposed speech. It’s unclear how much vetting went into the selection process.

Parkash, a statistical science and economics major from Pakistan, delivered a draft of her speech to the selection committee about how she had embraced her “Duke citizenship” in her four years on campus, the Chronicle reported. After she was selected to give the student address, Parkash said in a news release that has since been removed from the university’s website that her “motivation is to help everyone see that campus is the people and the perspectives, not just the space.”

“The fact that someone like me, who came from a completely different part of the world, has had such a meaningful experience here, shows that recognition and appreciation of diverse perspectives is ingrained in the Duke fabric and makes it truly special,” she said.

When Parkash walked up to the lectern at Wallace Wade Stadium, the themes in her speech sounded much like that of another address delivered eight years earlier and nearly 700 miles away at Harvard. In 2014, Abushaar delivered an address called “The Harvard Spring,” which paid homage to the Arab Spring of 2010 and reflected on the everyday freedoms that university students take for granted. During her speech, Abushaar talked about one of the things she learned at school after growing up in Kuwait, according to the Harvard Crimson.

“If Harvard shut its gates, it could be its own country — just like the Vatican,” she said in 2014, adding that she viewed the school as “the Harvard Nation.”

Parkash had a similar thought Sunday in addressing Duke.

“If Duke were to dig a moat around its perimeter and fill that with water, it could be its own tiny island nation, like Cuba or maybe even Sri Lanka,” Parkash said. She went on to call the imaginary country “the Duke Nation.”

Abushaar made reference to the statues on campus and Harvard’s embassies and clubs abroad, which Parkash appeared to echo in regard to what Duke has to offer. Years after Abushaar noted how Harvard had “an endowment larger than more than half the world’s countries’ GDP,” Parkash made reference to Duke’s endowment in a similar way.

“We also have the equivalent of the federal reserve, DUMAC, which manages an endowment larger than the GDP of one-third of the countries in the world,” the Duke student said.

Another part of Abushaar’s 2014 address touched on how immigration officers would question her whenever she returned from the Middle East. Abushaar was ready for it, she said, which was why she “made sure I dressed like our overly proud Harvard dads.”

“Harvard hat, Harvard shirt, Harvard shorts and Harvard underwear,” she said to laughter from the crowd. “And as soon as they saw I was a citizen of Harvard — ‘Oh, you go to Harvard. Surely you must not be a national security threat! Welcome to America!’ ”

Abushaar concluded the story by saying, “And suddenly, all the gates to the American Dream opened wide.”

On Sunday, Parkash recalled a similar experience with immigration officers who she said was “not Pakistani enough.” And she had a plan of her own for when this happened.

“I would be sure to raid the Duke store like our overly enthusiastic moms and dads,” she said. “Yes, we’re talking Duke cap, Duke sweatshirt, Duke sweatpants, Duke sunglasses, Duke slides and even Duke underwear. As soon as immigration officers saw that I bled blue — ‘Oh, you’re a Duke national. National security threat? No, not you! Come on in!’ ”

Parkash ended her own story by saying, “And all of a sudden — in a jiffy, as I like to put it — the doors to this whole new world of possibilities flung wide open.”

On Monday, videos started to appear on social media comparing the Harvard and Duke commencement addresses eight years apart.

Abushaar said in a statement to The Post that said she hoped Parkash could move past what the Harvard graduate described as “a serious error in judgment.”

“The goal of my address was to inspire young people, and especially young women, from all backgrounds to break barriers in striving for their aims and to have the courage to use their voices to share their stories and serve as forces of good,” said Abushaar, who is now studying at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “I hope that this incident was a serious error in judgment and that the student can take this opportunity to learn and grow from it.”

Parkash plans to move to Austin to “pursue a career in management consulting before going on to graduate school to study energy policy and international relations,” according to the since-deleted university news release.

“There’s so much that we can bring to the world, and there’s so much that the world can offer us,” Parkash said earlier this month. “And I just hope we go out into the world with an open mind.”