Arizona State faculty members question handling of plagiarism allegations
Last year, several senior faculty members of Arizona State University’s history department accused a colleague, who had been promoted to full professor over their objections, of plagiarism. They said that Matthew Whitaker, a professor in the department who is the founding director of the university’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, had lifted passages from other books, Wikipedia, and a Washington Post article and used them in material he had published and in a 2010 speech about Arizona’s immigration law.
The university appointed a three-member committee, and the allegations were investigated. Earlier this year, the group concluded that there was no "substantial or systematic plagiarism" by Whitaker, but said that he had been careless in some cases. As a result, the committee did not recommend any institutional actions.
This outcome has further aggrieved faculty members, who said they were astounded by the decision and questioned the committee’s work. Monica Green, a professor in the department, resigned from her post as the chair of a committee on tenure in protest after the results of the investigation were announced.
The investigative committee constituted of two Arizona State professors -- Eduardo Pagan, an associate professor of history at the ASU-West campus, and Jane Maienschein, a science historian at the university’s School of Life Sciences -- and John Lombardi, who was recently let go as the president of the Louisiana State University system. (Lombardi has occasionally blogged for Inside Higher Ed.)
The group found that a book by Whitaker called Race Works: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West had two passages that “seemed to follow (though not exactly copy)” passages from a book called Minorities in Phoenix by Bradford Luckingham. The committee concluded that Whitaker credited the author of the book in his footnotes, acknowledged his “intellectual debt” to the author in his introduction to the book and made it clear that he was "drawing from (and citing) Luckingham's work.” “Thus a review of Race Works in its totality reveals that he did acknowledge his sources,” the committee said.
The committee found sections of another book– African American Icons of Sport – to be “problematic.” “Here was clear taking of the words of others,” the committee members said. But the group noted that the introduction to the work specified that it was “derivative,” and it was meant for the young and such works “do not include references or notes as a matter of course.”
“…[W]e concluded that these instances were not significant nor that they constituted a preponderance of evidence of a systematic intent to deceive,” the committee said. They said one manuscript called Over Jordan was not included in their investigation because it was listed on Whitaker’s resume as a “work in progress.” It is currently listed on Whitaker’s website as “forthcoming.”
These findings have not gone over well with senior faculty members of the history department. Brian Gratton, a professor in the department, said the complaints against Whitaker focused not only on “textual copying” but the “copying of ideas, logic and primary sources.”
Minorities in Phoenix
Race Work by Matthew Whitaker
For example, off-duty black soldiers from the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed at Papago Park frequented the Phoenix ‘colored neighborhood.’ On the night of November 26, 1942, in a café at Thirteenth Street and Washington, one of them struck a black female over the head with a bottle following an argument. A black military policeman tried to arrest the soldier, but he resisted with a knife. When the military policeman shot and wounded the soldier, black servicemen protested.
On one such occasion, off-duty African American soldiers from the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed at Papago Park in Phoenix were involved in a violent incident in a ‘colored neighborhood’ they often visited. On Thanksgiving night 1942, one of the black soldiers struck a black woman over the head with a bottle following an argument in a Phoenix café. An MP attempted to arrest the soldier, but he resisted with a knife. When the MP shot and wounded the soldier, black servicemen protested.*
* Footnotes in this paragraph credit the Arizona Republic
Gratton said he was mystified as to why the committee decided to exonerate Whitaker. He believes there was no full investigation and “what was supposed to be an exhaustive, several month analysis, lasted one week.”
Whitaker refused to comment on specifics of the case, but said he was relieved that Arizona State had found him not guilty of plagiarism. “Charges were levied against me regarding my scholarship and integrity. These allegations were reviewed, at length, by an independent committee of three renowned historians, who concluded that I engaged in no misconduct,” he said. He refused further comment and did not discuss an allegation he had made previously -- that the tenured faculty members were against him because he is black. According to an article in The Arizona Republic, Whitaker sent a letter to Arizona State authorities amidst the investigation saying that the senior faculty members were "out to get me" because of his race and they disagreed with his promotion to full professor.
Another forceful dissent to the committee’s findings came from a faculty member who submitted a memorandum to the university’s Office of Research Integrity & Assurance. The professor called he investigation “deeply flawed” and said the investigation “exonerates serious and extensive plagiarism,” in the memorandum, a redacted copy of which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed.
He questioned what he called an apparent failure by the committee to consult “many of the specific sources that were identified as having been uncredited or improperly credited by the respondent.” And he criticized the committee for, in his view, making no effort to investigate Whitaker's defense that some of the Wikipedia passages found in the African American Icons of Sport book were inserted by a freelance editor. “Who was that editor? Did that editor do what the respondent has alleged?” the professor asked.
Sharon Keeler, a university spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the committee appointed to investigate the plagiarism allegations “was composed of historians with excellent reputations but not part of the history faculty in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies" and the committee had looked at multiple items in the course of their investigation.