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A President Retires, and Plagiarism Probe Ends

January 21, 2009

When the president of the University of Texas-Pan American announced her retirement on Tuesday, something else was retired too: an investigation into allegations that her dissertation contained dozens of instances of plagiarism.

In her announcement, Blandina (Bambi) Cárdenas made no direct reference to the plagiarism allegations. “The pressures of the last several months have seriously taxed my health and well-being and impaired my ability to lead the university with the intensity and focus I believe necessary. It is time for me to move on,” she said.

Cárdenas, president at Pan American for four and a half years, has had heart surgery and she referred in a longer letter to the campus to her need “to take greater care of this somewhat battered, mended heart.” She will leave office at the end of the month.

Her presidency, however, has also been battered by embarrassing allegations of plagiarism – allegations that will now not be investigated. In October, packets were sent to several reporters in Texas and also to University of Texas officials, charging that there were numerous examples of plagiarism in the dissertation that earned Cárdenas her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It was never clear who produced the packets, although notes attached said that they came from anonymous faculty members at Pan American.

Reporters who wrote about the packets said that the examples of allegedly plagiarized phrases included some statements of historical fact, but also appeared to include statements of others without attribution. Cárdenas referred all questions at the time to the University of Texas System, which announced that it would conduct an investigation of the allegations.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst said at the time that it would not investigate the dissertation as no complaint had been filed with UMass about it, and the known complaints were anonymous. A spokesman for UMass said Tuesday that nothing had changed -- no formal complaints had been filed, and so no inquiries had been made.

Immediately following the announcement that Cárdenas would be leaving office this month, the chair of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas released a statement praising her as an “inspirational leader” who had helped advance Pan American.

UT made no public announcement about the status of the plagiarism investigation. But David Prior, the system’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said that the inquiry has been called off, and no results would be released. Prior said that the review was stopped as soon as officials learned that Cardenas planned to retire, and that since there was no final report, there was nothing to release. “I don’t believe there is any purpose to be gained in further talking about the review given Dr. Cardenas’ decision to retire,” he said.

The plagiarism allegations were not the only controversy during the Cardenas presidency. In 2007, Cardenas paid the university $7,000 for various charges she had made, including landscaping service, a sprinkler system and an alarm for her home. System officials determined that, while the charges were inappropriate, she did not know that at the time she made them.

Cardenas had several clashes with faculty leaders while serving as president. But faculty leaders have been restrained in pushing the plagiarism issue, largely because the allegations against her were anonymous.

Kenneth Buckman, president of the Texas Faculty Association at a professor at Pan American, said that professors were reluctant to draw conclusions based on the limited information available.

“Anonymous attacks are often foisted on faculty from either colleagues or administration,” he said. And the Texas Faculty Association “puts no stock in anonymous allegations” and argued for their removal from faculty personnel files whenever anonymous charges make it into such records. This time, he said, “the shoe was on the other foot,” but the principle was the same when a president found herself accused anonymously.

Buckman also noted that, despite disagreements over various issues, Cardenas has “largely changed the tone” on campus, promoting “a more collegial and transparent atmosphere.”

 

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