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Victim, Victimizer or Both?

February 21, 2008

When The New York Times ran a profile of Madonna G. Constantine in October, she told the newspaper that by the time she had earned tenure, in 2001, she had published 30 articles. "Most people may go up with 15 or 20," the paper quoted her as saying. "I figured as a black woman, I needed to at least double that." That same article quoted Susan H. Fuhrman, president of Teachers College of Columbia University, as saying that she had heard "nothing but accolades" from Constantine's students.

The article in October was prompted by a noose found outside Constantine's office -- a discovery that shocked many at Teachers College and led to rallies, discussions and vows to improve the climate for minority students and professors.

The comments from both Constantine and Fuhrman may be read differently now. For the reality is that some of Constantine's students in fact had filed complaints against her a year before the noose incident, charging her with publishing their work as her own. A professor (who has since left Teachers College, in part because the situation) filed a similar complaint.

This week, Teachers College announced that an investigation had backed up the complaints and found "numerous instances in which she used others' work without attribution in papers she published in academic journals over the last five years." An outside spokeswoman handling questions about the case said that there were 24 such instances documented in a report prepared for Teachers College by a law firm, and reviewed and approved by four current and former faculty members. The spokeswoman said that when Fuhrman spoke of "accolades," she meant only what she heard about Constantine's classroom performance.

Teachers College confirmed that it "sanctioned" Constantine but would not describe the form of that punishment, which she has the right to appeal. Both the college and Constantine's lawyer confirmed that the tenured professor remains a professor there. The spokeswoman said that to her knowledge, Columbia had not informed publishers of the situation, and that no articles or books by Constantine had been withdrawn or amended. The spokeswoman also declined to name the journal articles that the college believes contain the work of others.

Brent Mallinckrodt, editor of the Journal of Counseling Psychology, where Constantine has published at least seven articles and serves as an associate editor, said he knew nothing of the charges against her. Asked if he was concerned about having as an associate editor someone found by her college to have repeatedly used the work of others, he said he would consult with the American Psychological Association, the journal's publisher, to find out its procedures for such a case.

A lawyer for Constantine, meanwhile, charged that Teachers College was on "a witch hunt" and conducted the investigation in a way that assured it would find against her. Specifically the lawyer said that because Teachers College told some of those bringing complaints that it would handle their legal expenses should Constantine sue them, the college tainted the inquiry. "The findings of plagiarism are entirely false," said her lawyer, Paul Giacomo. Teachers College sought and obtained "a predetermined result," he said.

And in a statement Constantine sent to colleagues Wednesday, published by The Columbia Daily Spectator, she also used the term "witch hunt," called the actions against her "premature, vindictive, and mean-spirited," and said she doubted that a white professor would be "treated in such a publicly disrespectful and disparaging manner."

At Teachers College, the latest development was a shock to many. While some professors (estimates range up to a quarter) knew about the investigations of Constantine during all the events after the noose incident, many did not and learned of questions about her scholarship only after receiving word from the university Tuesday night.

Constantine is a professor of psychology at Teachers College who has written extensively on counseling-related issues, in particular as they relate to race and ethnicity. When she announced that she had discovered the noose outside her office in October, there was an outpouring of support from students and faculty members, many of whom praised her.

Others, however, haven't. Few details about the specifics of the plagiarism allegations are public. But Christine Yeh, who left a tenured Teachers College position in part because of her concerns about the situation, confirmed that she was the former faculty member whose work, the investigation found, had been used without permission or credit. Yeh, who moved to the University of San Francisco, said that the allegations involved a mix of work published by Constantine using material that had been written by others, and in some cases the material hadn't yet been published by the original author, and thus couldn't be published after Constantine allegedly used it.

Yeh said that she never filed a complaint herself, but confided in a faculty colleague, who had heard similar complaints from students, and who took the concerns to college officials. In the end, two former students and Yeh said that their work had been used. Other students had also complained about the situation, but didn't agree to formally make statements to investigators. Yeh said that she and others received letters from Constantine in which she said she had heard about the allegations and considered them to be defamation. Yeh and the two former students were promised by Teachers College that it would handle any legal expenses should they be sued by Constantine.

Teachers College then turned the investigation over to an outside law firm, which reviewed the various documents and found Constantine's explanations for the similarities "not credible." That report was then reviewed by four current and former faculty members -- whom the college declined to identify -- before sanctions were imposed. But first Constantine has the right to appeal to a faculty committee, which her lawyer indicated she would do.

Giacomo, the lawyer, said that Teachers College handled the inquiry just the way one would "to control the process." He said that the university "gave one half of the equation immunity" by indemnifying those bringing the complaints. "People who are telling the truth don't need to be indemnified," he said.

He said that the passages in question are indeed similar, but that Constantine was the original author and that her accusers copied her work. He said that the university's evidence was "so clearly refutable as to be ridiculous" and that Teachers College had "tried to blackmail" his client. He declined to say how, or to release the report from the law firm.

As an example of how wrong the charges are, he noted that in one case an institutional review board memo for some work in dispute lists Constantine as the primary researcher and one of her student accusers as an assistant. How then, he asked, could Constantine be copying the student's work?

As to the noose incident, he said, "I don't think anything that has happened there has been a coincidence. The fact that a noose was planted on her door does not surprise me."

The spokeswoman for Teachers College said that the IRB form had no relevance on who wrote the work in question, that Teachers College had never offered Constantine money in relation to the case or in any way tried to blackmail her, and that the noose incident was totally unrelated to the plagiarism investigation. (A spokeswoman for the New York City Police Department confirmed that no arrests had been made in the noose incident, which has been classified as a possible bias incident and is considered an open investigation.)

Fear of Lawsuits

Several sources familiar with how the case has been handled said that Teachers College officials have been extremely nervous about handling the charges without being sued. That explains, they said, why the college turned to a law firm rather than a faculty panel to investigate.

Lambros Comitas, professor of anthropology and education at Teachers College and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, said that he could think of only one other allegation of plagiarism against a faculty member in the many years he has been at the college, and that charge was nearly 30 years ago, so "we don't have much precedent to go on." He said that professors were "doing homework" on procedures and the case. He said that many faculty members felt strongly that it was important that appeals be handled -- as Teachers College has indicated they would be -- by a panel of professors. "This is ultimately a faculty matter."

Experts on plagiarism cases and legal issues said that they weren't surprised by concern over a suit in this case -- and generally said that it was appropriate for Teachers College to have offered to pay legal costs to those filing the complaints.

Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and author of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower, said that "a crescendo of litigation has made everybody more nervous and more cautious."

Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom and governance issues for the American Association of University Professors, said that he had never heard of a college offering to indemnify complainants before a suit has been filed, but he said that the approach was generally consistent with AAUP guidelines, which recommend that colleges have policies to handle legal expenses for faculty members who are sued for performing professional duties.

The more typical case might be where someone who is denied tenure sues those who voted against the promotion. While Knight said he had never heard of a case like the one at Teachers College, he said it did not strike him as a problem for due process, as Constantine's lawyer charged.

Sheldon E. Steinbach, a lawyer at the postsecondary education practice at the law firm Dow Lohnes, said it was "a total stretch" for Constantine's lawyer to suggest that the investigation was flawed because of the indemnity offered to those bringing complaints. Such offers are "not that unusual" and give people the security they need, Steinbach said.

He added that even with indemnity, it wouldn't be possible to just invent a plagiarism case. Said Steinbach: "Evidence of plagiarism rises and falls on its own merits."

 

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