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Southern Illinois President Cleared of Plagiarism

October 12, 2007

He made citation "errors" and "mistakes" that require immediate correction. But Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University, did not intentionally plagiarize a doctoral dissertation he completed as a graduate student there more than 20 years ago, according to a faculty panel formed by the institution's chancellor to look into the charges of academic dishonesty.

Those allegations first surfaced this summer after the university's student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, followed up on a tip that dozens of passages that appeared in Poshard's dissertation without proper citation had appeared verbatim in other sources. The latest findings come less than a year after the then-chancellor of Southern Illinois's Carbondale campus was forced out amid accusations that he had copied content from another university's strategic plan.

The seven-person committee of senior faculty, whose report on Poshard was unveiled Thursday, recommended that the university take no action against the president. It calls for the dissertation to be withdrawn from the university library and be replaced with a corrected copy prepared by Poshard, and for the president to write a statement that expands on why his errors occurred and speaks more broadly about the "culture of integrity" at the university. (The panel noted that allegations of Poshard plagiarizing his master's thesis follow the same pattern as those in the dissertation, so it chose to focus on the latter.)

Still, the report is far from a ringing endorsement of Poshard's past work. The committee notes that there are many cases in the dissertation in which “the words of others are present in a continuous flow with Student Poshard’s own words, so that readers cannot distinguish between those sources.” Given the modern-day definition of plagiarism at Southern Illinois's Graduate School as "representing the work of another as one's own work," the report says the allegations against Poshard would be "sufficiently supported," were it not for the historical context of the case.

But that context is vital, the report notes. At the time when Poshard was a graduate student at Southern Illinois, the graduate school's student handbook lacked a definition of plagiarism. The panel found that Poshard had used an "informal style" of citing sources that was commonly embraced by other graduate students. Faculty members advising him on the dissertation approved the style then, and no one asked him to clarify anything at the time of submission, the report finds.

The mistakes were most likely products of "carelessness" and fall into the category of "inadvertent plagiarism," according to the committee.

Poshard has denied the allegations of intentional wrongdoing but left open the possibility that he made accidental errors. During a meeting with the faculty panel, the president said his dissertation committee had no qualms with his style of citation, which often included scant inclusion of quotation marks.

"Even though the Review Committee says these mistakes were unintentional and inadvertent, they are my mistakes. And I take full responsibility for them," he said at a news conference Thursday. "They are not the fault of my committee, my department, my college or my university." He added that "whether one wants to argue whether what I did constitutes plagiarism depends on how you feel about me."

Poshard teared up during his emotional address. "This just happens to be one of those moments when I feel a sense of relief that this is finally coming to a close," he said. "It's been difficult for my family and me."

Roger Tedrick, chairman of SIU's Board of Trustees, said Poshard has the board's full support. "The report says no intentional plagiarism, and the board stands behind it."

The case has raised questions about who is suited to review cases of academic dishonesty. Southern Illinois's department of educational administration and higher education, which awarded Poshard’s degree, turned down the president’s request to review the material. Many criticized the president's move, citing the inherent conflicts of interest. Fernando M. Trevino, chancellor of the main Carbondale campus, assembled the seven-person committee instead.

While both Tedrick and other speakers said they don't see a need for an external review, some still disagree. Robert Ware, a professor of philosophy at the university's Edwardsville campus, has circulated a petition signed by 30 professors and 9 anonymous faculty members calling for a panel outside the university to look into the matter. He said it is unethical for an internal group to have the only say.

"I'm deeply embarrassed and appalled by the committee's findings," he said. "They have not only sharply diminished the academic standards of the university, but they've undermined the mission of SIU as well. If this is to be the standard of the university -- and I don't see how you can hold students to a different standard than the president -- I can't give writing assignments anymore." He explained that students will be able to cite inadvertent plagiarism any time their work is questioned.

Joan Friedenberg, a professor emeritus of linguistics, also criticized the committee's decision. “It sends the message that the consequences of plagiarism are determined by who you are more than anything else”

Ware said the committee had produced a document that isn't establishing whether plagiarism occurred but rather "is excusing whatever did happen."

But R. Gerald Nelms, an associate professor of composition and rhetoric who accepted the president's request to look at the allegations against him independently from a university panel (given Nelms' research on plagiarism), agreed with the committee's main findings. He said that while he found violations including poor citations and "bad judgment," "most of the passages alleged to be plagiarized were not technically plagiarized and ... all of the infractions amount only to minor failures to conform to academic citation conventions in place at the present time."

Nelms said in his written comments that colleges face serious dangers "if we allow such an overzealous prosecution of citation infractions to outweigh our students’ genuine engagement with the learning…. Such overreaction multiplied could have a chilling effect on scholarship generally. The most important lesson that I draw from the scholarship on citation and plagiarism is this: We must always balance our high standards for research and scholarly publication with our need to not impede the free exchange of ideas. The world can withstand a few unprosecuted citation infractions.”

 

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