Plagiarism Mystery

Wesley trustees to let president keep job, as external panel says it can't determine who misappropriated work.
June 5, 2006

"An unknown individual" with "an ax to grind" against the college's president creates plagiarized documents and affixes the president's name to them. Later, the "ax grinder" posts the articles on the president's Web page without his knowledge and then waits, patiently, for years to "spring his/her trap." Only years later -- when critics attacking the president in ways that are "unworthy of a Christian, church-centered institution" find the plagiarized documents in an archive of decommissioned Web pages -- do they come to light.

In language that could have been drawn from an academic cloak and dagger novel (and a not very good one at that), an external panel appointed by trustees at Wesley College confirmed Friday that President Scott D. Miller's name appeared on at least three documents in the late 1990s that were clearly plagiarized from the work of others. But the committee but said it was impossible to know without "a skilled forensic scientist" whether Miller or someone "out to get" the president had been responsible for creating and posting the fraudulent articles. Based on the committee's report and recommendations (courtesy of the Wilmington, Del. News Journal), Miller apologized to the victims of the plagiarism and to Wesley's students, staff and alumni Friday (while insisting he did no wrong), and trustees said the president would keep his job.

"The board is confident that this is a very self-contained set of events," said David Wilks, a lawyer who represents the Dover, Del., liberal arts college, and to whom Miller referred all questions. "Nothing like this has repeated itself in the last six years, and given the undeniable success and achievement the president has had in every area of his performance, the board is satisfied that this matter is closed."

If Friday's events do indeed represent the end of a years-long saga at Wesley, the conclusion is in many ways a strange and unsatisfying one, in large part because of the questions left unanswered by the report commissioned by the Board of Trustees. The board asked for it at a meeting last month after a group of professors said they had uncovered several speeches or articles apparently written by Miller that drew directly and in some cases heavily from other college administrators and, in one case, a columnist for The New York Times. The charges followed a 2000 case in which Miller had apologized for a 1998 speech that was strikingly similar to one given previously by the then-president of Connecticut College, Claire L. Gaudiani.

In that case, which was first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000, Miller said that a staff member at his previous institution, Lincoln Memorial, had written the speech. In the wake of that controversy, and because of some problems in Wesley's information technology department at the time, that and thousands of other documents had been stripped from Wesley's Web site in 2000.

Last month, E. Jeffrey Mask, a professor of religion and philosophy who acknowledges having clashed with Miller over the years, confronted the president with a copy of the college's management philosophy statement, signed by Miller, that mimicked almost word for word a comparable statement on Samford University's Web site, which Samford's former president told Mask he had written 25 years ago. Mask said he took the document to Miller, who told him that he had inherited the statement from previous Wesley presidents and insisted that he had not plagiarized that or any other document.

Mask then spent some time on the Internet Archive, a digital library of no-longer-operable Internet pages, and came across a speech purportedly given by Miller on the "practicality gap" in the liberal arts that closely mirrored an earlier article by Richard H. Hersh, former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Mask said he approached Miller again with the second document and urged the president to resign, and then brought the documents to the attention of the chairman of Wesley's trustees. "He didn't seem to want to discuss the issue with me," Mask said.

Mask and several colleagues then presented the documents at a specially called faculty meeting early last month at which professors deadlocked 25 to 25, with one abstention, in a vote of no confidence in Miller. On May 5, at a trustee meeting, the board issued a forceful statement saying that the plagiarism charges had "no merit" but that they would appoint a team of former college administrators to investigate the accusations and to review Miller's overall performance.

The review team, whose members were James V. Koch, president emeritus and Board of Visitors Professor of Economics at Old Dominion University, George A Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College, in New Jersey, and Kenneth A. (Buzz) Shaw, chancellor emeritus and University Professor at Syracuse University, interviewed scores of faculty and staff members, trustees, students and others and cast a wide net in terms of what they explored. Their 36-page “institutional assessment” has sections on and offers recommendations about such assessing student learning, faculty salaries, and intercollegiate athletics.

But the overarching theme of the first half of the report is that Miller took over a college on the verge of failure nearly a decade ago and has turned it around. “When all is said and done, there [is] little debate over the proposition that Wesley College has become a vastly better institution under the leadership of President Miller,” the report says. “Even his detractors agree the improvement has been dramatic. Setting aside the specific issues of contention between some faculty and the President, it is fair to say that Dr. Miller is in the midst of one of the most successful college presidencies in the nation.”

The second half of the report focuses on what the review panel calls the “plagiarism issue,” and while much of it focuses on the facts of the “serious” plagiarism that clearly occurred, the dominant subtext is that an unnamed group of “accusers” have made it their mission to undermine Miller, whom the panel paints as a victim.

“Many individuals we interviewed believe that President Miller has been abused repeatedly and unprofessionally by some of his accusers, some of whom have exhibited behavior quite unworthy of a Christian, church-centered institution,” the report says. “Some of his accusers have manipulated the institution’s rules and procedures, attempted to intimidate colleagues and have subjected the President to a constant stream of invective, rumor and opposition over the past few years, despite the marvelous progress of the college.”

It continues: “If the reports we received from multiple individuals are correct, then the major interest of some of his accusers is simply to destroy Dr. Miller, by whatever means possible, rather than to support academic verities. Then, the plagiarism discussion often appears to be a struggle over power rather than academic values. This is a why a member of the college community commented to us that, ‘This is foolishness and sour grapes.’ Other faculty supporters of Dr. Miller have labeled recent events as a ‘public lynching,’ ‘an act of treachery,’ and ‘a flawed process.’"

And yet, despite that inflammatory language, the review committee notes that the plagiarism charges against the president cannot be “casually dismissed,” given their seriousness. And despite the panel’s clear admiration and support for Miller, it acknowledges that the evidence it lays out – while offering alternative theories -- does not clear the president of the charges against him.

The panel considers six specific accusations of plagiarism, and essentially discards three of them. The first was the speech borrowed from the president of Connecticut College that got Miller in trouble in 2000, and the committee accepts Miller’s statement that a staff member at his old institution had drafted the speech. “Dr. Miller accepted responsibility for using this material inappropriately and apologized for President Guadiani [sic], but did not admit to plagiarism because he said the occurrence was unintentional,” the panel wrote.
The review committee concludes that the statement of management philosophy that appeared to have been borrowed from Samford University had, in fact, been “been prepared and approved” by Miller’s predecessor as Wesley’s president, Reed Stewart. “Our observation here is that it is common practice for university presidents to revise or even wholly adopt the policies and statements of their predecessors and then issue them under their own signatures,” essentially creating “executive orders,” the panel writes. “Given the very common nature of this practice (all three members of this team have done the same, probably without even knowing it at times), this incident cannot usefully be regarded as plagiarism.”

The panel also rejects a third charge of plagiarism: that a journal article co-written by Miller and James L. Fisher, the former president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and a consultant to the Wesley board, duplicated sentences contained in a law review article by James Koch, the former Old Dominion president who is also one of the members of the review panel. “This allegation is easily addressed,” the panel writes. “Dr. Fisher had the permission of Dr. Koch to utilize these passages…. A citation might have been provided; however, both Dr. Fisher and Dr. Koch have utilized similar terminology several times in a variety of publications, several of which they have written together. Hence, this allegation does not involve Dr. Miller and there is no plagiarism.”

The three other charges, which Wesley faculty members brought to the panel’s attention once its investigation began, are “much more troubling,” the panel writes. Besides the article that mirrors the one written by Richard Hersh, the other two include a speech on “sense and sensitivity” that was placed on Miller’s Web site in November 1998 that “duplicates a commencement speech given by President Judith Rodin of the University of Pennsylvania in 1997” and a 1998 speech on higher education and race that “is an almost exact duplicate of an editorial page column written by Anthony Lewis of the New York Times” in May 1998.

In all of these cases, the panel says, Miller insisted that he did not deliver these remarks as speeches (in some cases he produced timelines showing that he was elsewhere), and that he had no idea how the material ended up on his Web site attributed to him.

The review committee offers three possibilities for how the plagiarized documents were created and then wound up on the president’s page of Wesley’s Web site in the late 1990s: (1) that “an individual from the college’s media relations area who felt under great pressure to produce an excellent speech” for the president “under a tight time line” produced the work and then posted the materials to the Web site without his knowledge; (2) that “Miller himself did the editing and plagiarizing;” or (3) the “ax grinder” theory, in which “an unknown perpetrator, bent on embarrassing the president, could have placed the material on the Web site,” as the panel explains it. “Certainly the profound absence of security on the Wesley College Web site in the late 1990s make this possible. Still if such a perpetrator does exist, then he/she was content to wait until 2006 to exploit” the illicit postings.

Although the committee in one or two places describes the latter possibility as “unlikely,” its members leave it “to the readers of this report to judge which of these possibilities is correct.” “It is beyond our ability and the scope of this institutional evaluation to answer those questions, which would require the services of a forensic scientist with strong computer and Internet skills.”

Still, the offenses are “significant,” the panel writes, “and provide a most unfortunate example for Wesley College students and, for that matter, Wesley College faculty. Whatever the causes of these events, they strike at the effectiveness of President Miller and the viability of the college. In our view, any reasonable academic viewing these facts would conclude that something is rotten in Denmark (to quote Shakespeare!). Too many allegations exist for them to be dismissed. Confronted with similar facts, nearly any faculty member would penalize an offending student.”

The panel concludes that Miller must apologize “on behalf of Wesley College” to those whose “work was misappropriated;” that he must offer “plausible explanations” for the more egregious cases involving the work of Rodin and Lewis to the faculty and the Board of Trustees, and he “comb his biographical materials to ensure that no other suspect items exist there.”

On Friday, Miller spoke with the trustees and the faculty and reassured them, Wilks, the lawyer for the college, said in an interview Saturday. Although he repeatedly denied committing plagiarism, the president also sent letters to those whose work had been plagiarized, and “scoured his resume and the Web site, to ensure there are no other questionable items listed that would be considered plagiarism,” Wilks said.

The age of the allegations, and the fact that there has “not been a single allegation that there's been any problem since” 2000, when the college altered its policies to more closely control who can post information to its Web site and to more closely monitor what appears on it, “suggest to the board that this is no longer a problem,” Wilks said. The college is ready to move on, he said.

Mask, the faculty member who brought forward several of the charges against Miller, said he found aspects of the panel’s report troubling. “If you had a faculty member who was outrageously popular with students, unquestionably an excellent teacher, and it was found that she or he had committed plagiarism, their career would be over, and I don't know why it should be different for a college president,” he said. “What was called for here was an investigation into plagiarism, and what we have is that close associates of Dr. Miller’s have found there were three serious new instances of plagiarism for which there has been no explanation.”

Mask said he, too, was ready to move on -- “ the trustees are apparently happy with Dr. Miller, and reasonable people can disagree” -- but he took issue with what he called the review panel’s “ad hominem” criticisms of him and other faculty members.

“They finish their section on plagiarism, after saying these are three serious instances of plagiarism that need credible explanation, by saying that some on the faculty are mean, vicous and have gone over the line. When I brought these charges forward, I went through channels, to Dr. Miller. I gave him an opportunity to respond. I called the chairman of the Board of Trustees…. I think at every step of the way I have done the right thing, and I think that’s doing my job. I don’t think that’s mean. I don’t think that’s vicious.”


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