Plagiarism and the President

September 4, 2007

Facing allegations that he plagiarized sections of his doctoral dissertation in the 1980s, the president of the Southern Illinois University system announced Friday that the department that awarded his degree would evaluate the charges – a plan complicated by the fact that the department of educational administration and higher education is based at Southern Illinois’s Carbondale campus.

Southern Illinois’s student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, reported that at the Friday press conference in which President Glenn Poshard announced his intentions, he indicated that he “never considered submitting his dissertation to a committee outside the university for review.” Poshard, a former U.S. congressman and Democratic nominee for Illinois governor, holds three degrees from SIU – a university system that's been beset by plagiarism scandals in recent years and is still recoiling after the former Carbondale chancellor was forced out less than a year ago for a plagiarism scandal of his own.

Poshard stands accused of copying or improperly citing up to 24 sections of his 111-page dissertation on education for gifted children, according to the Chicago Tribune, and has denied any intention of plagiarizing, telling the Tribune that his dissertation committee did not require quotation marks to indicate source material if it was otherwise cited. “The issue," the student newspaper quoted Poshard as saying Friday, “is about me being a student here 24 years ago in this department.”

"President Poshard is neither a student or an employee of SIU Carbondale, yet he has chosen to voluntarily submit his dissertation to the review policies of the campus he received his degree from 24 years ago. The suggestion that this process, led by a tenured faculty chair, would somehow treat him differently than any other student, albeit 24 years later, is a cynical viewpoint supported without facts," David Gross, an SIU spokesman, said via e-mail Monday. "Some critics have argued that the dissertation should be reviewed by outside 'experts' -- but what 'experts' and to what end?"

But some experts on academic misconduct say outside experts are needed for the inquiry to have credibility.

“It’s very strange that he would ask people that he basically supervises to adjudicate the matter,” said Ron Robin, an associate dean for academic affairs at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the author of a 2004 book about academia’s seedy side called Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy (University of California Press). “In my mind, no matter what verdict the faculty would reach, it would be tainted – because it’s an internal review of the president," Robin said.

Asking for the input of the original department that granted a degree is common practice in response to plagiarism allegations, but several plagiarism experts agreed Monday that it would be difficult for any such department to avoid at least the appearance of impropriety when evaluating the writings of its own university president. Some experts (including Robin) indicated that an external review is the fairest approach when it comes to such high-profile cases, while Gary Pavela, a consultant on academic integrity issues and the past president of the Clemson University-based Center for Academic Integrity, said that, with certain checks in place, an internal review can be appropriate, given the university's interest in this case in maintaining the integrity of its degrees.

“The institution, independent of the president, has its own interests in fairly and comprehensively resolving this,” Pavela said Monday. “No institution wants to give up its authority to manage its own degrees, its own academic criteria.”

Pavela said though that three main checks would be needed to ensure the integrity of an internal review at SIU: First, the presence of an outside reviewer on the otherwise internal panel (nominated by the national scholarly association for the applicable discipline to prevent any claims of cherry-picking); second, the need for the president to sign a privacy waiver so that the resulting report could be made public and the rationale behind the review panel’s findings can be scrutinized and; third, the need for the president to delegate any authority for accepting the panel’s recommendations to the board of trustees.

Other experts, however, felt any resolution reached by an internal committee would be fraught with complications, regardless of the panel's diligence or transparency.

“I plead for a group on the regional level to whom such high-profile cases can be referred to,” said Wilfried Decoo, a professor of French at Brigham Young University and of education at Belgium’s University of Antwerp. The author of Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct (MIT Press, 2002), Decoo argues in a chapter he wrote for an upcoming book, Student Plagiarism in an Online World: Cases and Solutions, that there's a need for an independent and knowledgeable arbiter.

“Perhaps we should consider the need for a system in which someone who discovers (or thinks he/she discovers) plagiarism is obliged to refer his/her findings discreetly to an official body, without having it trumpeted to colleagues or other insiders,” he writes (the discretion necessary to avoid, Decoo explained in an interview Monday, the sometimes career-ruining consequences that misplaced or unsubstantiated plagiarism allegations can cause). “This official body could be a local or regional 'Office of Plagiarism Allegations' which can conduct the investigation according to established protocols. In the academic world, allegations of plagiarism could be referred to independent and permanent commissions well-versed in the subject, who can act consistently with precedents established in previous cases.”

“It should not be questionable, because we can trust and we should trust an internal department to be objective,” Decoo said of the president's plan for the internal evaluation of his dissertation at Southern Illinois. “However, in view of the situation that you have now, referring it back to the original committee or department will not stop the accusation because then the accusers will say, ‘Of course, it’s referred to people who will defend him and who will protect him and who will protect the reputation of the university.' So it will not stop the controversy.”

“In all likelihood, any department with tenured faculty involved would probably do an honest and credible job,” said Pavela. But, he said, “the appearance of impropriety is going to be a challenge.”

“I do not believe that Dr. [Brad] Colwell, his review, will be influenced by his position in the organization relative to Dr. Poshard’s position in the organization,” David Worrells, the secretary of the Faculty Senate for SIU Carbondale and an associate professor of aviation management, said in reference to the chair of the department of educational leadership and higher education (who did not return an e-mail message seeking comment Monday). As a tenured department chair, Colwell “is secure in his position, so I don’t think he would be influenced," Worrells said.

At the same time, however, Worrells said that he doubted the full Faculty Senate would have recommended the course of action the president proposed, had it been given the opportunity to consult on the investigation. President Poshard canceled his meeting with the Faculty Senate leadership at the last minute Friday and made his announcement on how to proceed at a press conference without their input. “We had planned on meeting with the president, and I wish we would have been given that opportunity before he made the decision,” Worrells said.

The president of the Carbondale Faculty Senate, Ramanarayanan (Vish) Viswanathan, a member of the engineering department, added that he hopes faculty will still have input regarding who will sit on the committee that will evaluate the dissertation, “so that we can conduct an unbiased review.”

"It's not proper for Poshard to decide his own fate," said Joan Friedenberg, a professor emeritus of linguistics who considers herself to be associated with Alumni and Faculty Against Corruption, a group that exposed a number of allegations surrounding academic dishonesty at SIU after a faculty member was fired in 2004 for allegedly copying another professor's teaching statement (Friedenberg also recently settled a lawsuit against the university charging that it retaliated against her for speaking out and helping to start a faculty union). "If you let him do this, what are you going to do to all the other people who are accused of plagiarism? People are treated differently....That is the real scandal," she said.

"It's the Board of Trustees' job to take care of this and they're not. I think they're largely non-academics who don't understand the seriousness of this."

The chair of the Board of Trustees, who supported the president in an earlier statement released to the media, did not return an e-mail message seeking comment Monday. For its part, the editorial board of the student newspaper points to the university’s own student code of conduct for guidance.

“According to the SIU Student Conduct Code, punishment for a student committing plagiarism can range from simply failing an assignment to expulsion. And coming before the Judiciary Committee to determine one's fate is common practice," the Friday editorial says. "We wonder if forming such a committee is a step in the right direction.... A committee should be created, preferably with members unaffiliated with SIU.”

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