'Distinguished' No Longer

February 22, 2008

Fallout continues from a plagiarism saga at Ohio University that has clouded the reputation of the university's engineering college. Earlier this month, Roderick J. McDavis, Ohio's president, for the first time in the institution's history rescinded the title of "distinguished professor," a high academic honor that had been given to engineering professor Jay S. Gunasekera years earlier for his research, teaching and service.

Gunasekera is at the center of the controversy, the subject of charges that he failed to adequately monitor graduate students who went on to copy others' material in theses they submitted under his watch.

(CORRECTION: A previous version of this article indicated that charges of plagiarism against Jay S. Gunasekera played into the university’s decision to remove “distinguished” from his academic title. Its decision was, in fact, based only on a faculty committee’s conclusion regarding failures in his advising duties. Inside Higher Ed regrets the error.)

What began in 2005 as a former engineering graduate student's effort to show dishonesty among his colleagues has ballooned into a university-wide investigation. A review by two university officials found "rampant and flagrant plagiarism" by graduate students in the mechanical engineering department, as well as a "failure to monitor" those students.

Gunasekera didn't respond to messages for comment Thursday. He is suing the university for defamation and has said the report misstates his role.

Several other committees have looked into the work of students, many of whom Gunasekera advised. Already, Ohio has revoked the master's degree of a former mechanical engineering student whose thesis it determined contained unoriginal work.

Gunasekera was chair of the department at the time the allegations surfaced. He was removed from that position, and also had a named professorship taken away. This year, he's on assignment and not teaching or advising students.

In November, a panel of fellow "distinguished professors" who looked at Gunasekera's work and that of some of his students, voted to recommend that the university remove "distinguished" from his title.

"It's supposed to be an honor for people whose records have brought acclaim to the university and to themselves," said Steven Grimes, a distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, who chaired the committee and voted to rescind the title. "He clearly had done that, but obviously now it doesn't look like he's helping the reputation of the university."

McDavis, himself the subject of much faculty criticism for his leadership of the university, followed the group's recommendation.

David Drabold, a distinguished professor of physics, who voted in favor of removing the title, said he was surprised that the decision took as long as it did. “I think the case was fairly clear," Drabold said, adding that he was swayed by the examples of unoriginal work from theses that were approved by Gunasekera.

Those who have heard Gunasekera's defense say the professor argues that as an international professor (he taught in Australia and Sri Lanka) he didn't understand the prevailing American citation standards.

Drabold said he can understand how that could have been the case initially -- Gunasekera joined the Ohio faculty in 1983. But, as Drabold and others on the distinguished faculty committee note, his defense wouldn't explain later allegations that he allowed his graduate students to routinely copy others for years after he started at Ohio.

Said Gar Rothwell, a distinguished professor of environmental and plant biology: “There are standards of scholarship that we all have to follow. They aren’t secret.”

Greg Kremer, chair of the mechanical engineering department and an associate professor, said while he didn't feel comfortable commenting on what Gunasekera's future at Ohio should be, he offered that "the level of proof and the level of seriousness it takes to remove a distinguished professor title is very, very significantly different than anything that would result in the de-tenuring process."

Kremer said the department is waiting for the university-wide investigation of student theses to finish before it decides whether to take action.

Several of the distinguished professors interviewed referred to Gunasekera as affable and successful in parts of his professional life -- saying he brought in significant external funding for engineering and technology projects.

"This is a decent man who has been through a lot of unpleasantness," Drabold said. "This was an active, productive person. He was trying to be a good citizen and was simply doing too much."

Grimes agrees that Gunasekera likely didn't have bad intentions, and that "it's not at all obvious to me that what he did rises to the level of firing." Yet he said that he'd still “seriously consider" voting for de-tenure.

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