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Differing Standards on Plagiarism

July 20, 2006

Welcome messages written by presidents, chancellors and deans on university Web pages aren't generally considered great intellectual works. They aren't typically controversial, either.

At Southern Illinois University, some passages are being scrutinized by a contingent of young alumni, and current and former faculty members from both the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses. The informal group, Alumni and Faculty Against Corruption at SIU, is calling on trustees to respond to their allegations that a number of administrators have plagiarized material that appeared on these campus Web sites -- and in university addresses.

The group's campaign to expose cases of what it calls academic dishonesty is a direct response to what members say was an unfair firing in 2004 of a former faculty member for allegedly copying another professor's teaching philosophy statement. Chris Dussold, once an assistant professor of finance at the SIU-Edwardsville campus, has said that persisting rumors of an affair with a former student, not plagiarism, led to his dismissal.

Among the charges made by Alumni and Faculty Against Corruption at SIU are that:

  • Edwardsville Chancellor Vaughn Vandegrift lifted from other sources part of a speech he delivered as part of a 2006 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration.
  • Carbondale Chancellor Walter Wendler, in his 2005 State of the University speech, borrowed an anecdote from a book by author Roger von Oech without citing sources.
  • Business School Dean Gary Giamartino changed little from the previous dean's institutional mission page, which included wording identical to that on a USC Marshall School of Business page. 

Joan Friedenberg, a linguistics professor at the Carbondale campus, said the above cases are proof of the university's hypocrisy. “When you are the chancellor or president of the university, you can’t plagiarize. Our business is words and ideas; we are judged by them," she said. "Why is Walter Wendler still in a job when Chris Dussold isn’t? That’s the question.”

But, in some of the cases, the university doesn't agree with Friedenberg and other members of the group on their definition of plagiarism. Michael Ruiz, an SIU spokesman, said that the online welcome letter on the office of the president's page was created by university staff several years ago, and that words have remained "relatively unchanged" as presidents have come and gone. "In many of the other form letters that the university uses, it is common for the names and titles to change, but for the content of the message to remain the same. Since university staff create these letters, we do not believe that this practice is improper," Ruiz said in a statement.

The charges against Giamartino and Wendler are well documented on campus. Wendler’s speechwriter accepted blame for the incident, and Wendler himself apologized for unitentionally leaving out the source of the anecdote in his speech.

In Giamartino's case, information that was copied from the USC business school site was removed after the story came to light in a newspaper.

The Poshard and Vandegrift allegations have received less attention until now. Greg Conroy, an Edwardsville campus spokesman, said he wrote the welcome material for Vandegrift and tweaked the statement used by the previous chancellor. He said the information is the institution's intellectual property, so the practice doesn't constitute plagiarism. 

On the MLK speech, Vandegrift said in a statement: "I will be investigating this matter when I return to campus. But I will say now that my integrity and the integrity of this university are very important to me. How the phrases were included in the MLK birthday celebration opening remarks is immaterial. I approved the speech and I take full responsibility for its content. If mistakes were made, we will take steps so that it doesn’t happen in the future."

Dussold, the fired professor, is suing Southern Illinois for wrongful termination. He is now a full-time faculty member at nearby McKendree College. Because of pending litigation, he declined to comment on the case. But he said in an e-mail that he still has aspirations of returning to SIU, and is looking to clear his name.

Tyson Giger, a 2004 SIU graduate and former student of Dussold's, said the firing still upsets him. He has written letters to the university complaining of a double standard and asking for the reinstatement of Dussold. Giger said he doesn't consider the borrowing of philosophy statements to be plagiarism.

“I’m not trying to get everyone fired," said Giger, who is tangentially involved in the Alumni and Faculty Against Corruption at SIU. "If you are going to set a precedent, which is what they did, you have to make sure everyone is following the rules.”

David S. Worrels, president of SIU's Faculty Senate, said the alleged cases of plagiarism by top administrators are "a valid item for discussion."

"A chancellor should know better. Period," he said. "It's not that difficult -- we need to set rules that apply to everyone."

Still, Worrells said that the issue has been overblown on campus.

Friedenberg disagrees. She said some interesting discussions have emerged from these case studies. “The best aspect of Dussold’s lawsuit is that it opens up good dialogue about plagiarism. Some of it is gray,” Friedenberg said. “You can find a little plagiarism in all of us. We need to get this out into the open."

 

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