In Living Color

June 3, 2009

A picture says a thousand words, but whose words are they?

That’s the question that resurfaced Tuesday, when a compelling graphic popped up on Internet blogs illustrating “what plagiarism looks like.” The graphic shows dozens of instances where a dissertation written by William Meehan, now president of Jacksonville State University, used verbatim passages from another professor’s research. Meehan has denied any wrongdoing, and he's backed by Jacksonville State officials who say they've reviewed the work.

The allegation that Meehan lifted another writer’s work is not new, having surfaced in April as part of a lawsuit that has been widely reported. The anonymously posted graphic, however, does something that journalists across the country have been at pains to do: It visually conveys the extent of the similarities between Meehan’s 118- page dissertation and that of Carl Boening, now a faculty member at Shelton State Community College.

Both dissertations were written when Boening and Meehan were pursuing their doctorates at the University of Alabama, and Meehan made no effort to hide that his 1999 dissertation “replicated” Boening’s research, published three years before. Both doctoral candidates chose to study issues surrounding academic sabbaticals, but Boening focused his research on the University of Alabama and Meehan applied the same methods to study sabbaticals at Jacksonville State.

Meehan, who was Jacksonville State's vice president for institutional advancement when he completed his dissertation in 1999, was named president that same year. His tenure has been disrupted in recent years, however, by plagiarism charges. In 2007, he admitted to using a ghostwriter to write “Town and Gown” columns for the local newspaper. While the practice is probably relatively common for university presidents who use speechwriters, scrutiny of Meehan’s dissertation has no doubt been amplified as a result of the earlier controversy.

Officials at Jacksonville State and Alabama say they’ve looked into the allegations regarding Meehan’s dissertation, but none have said plagiarism took place. As the controversy resurfaced on blogs Tuesday, officials at both institutions cited ongoing litigation as a reason for not commenting further.

Oddly enough, the lawsuit wasn’t even brought by Boening, who said in a Tuesday e-mail that he wasn’t even aware his research had been used by Meehan “until this little scandal broke!” The suit was instead brought by David Whetstone, a former Jacksonville State professor who has a completely different beef with Meehan. Whetstone sued the college president six years ago for seizing some 55,000 plant specimens and claiming they were Jacksonville State property. Whetstone says the plants are rightfully his, and his suit uses the plagiarism charges to bolster the argument that Meehan has a history of taking things that don’t belong to him.

While Alabama and Jacksonville State officials cite the suit as cause for silence on the issue entire, the plagiarism allegations are creating headaches at both institutions. At Alabama, the allegations have forced officials to defend their initial approval of Meehan’s dissertation 10 years ago, as well as their more recent response to allegations of plagiarism.

Clark Midkiff, vice president of Alabama’s Faculty Senate, said the university is in an awkward position. Now a decade after the fact, one of the faculty members involved in the dissertation has died and the chair of the committee is now a professor at another institution. In other words, the problem isn’t just political – it’s logistical. “I would agree probably the university is not chomping at the bit to investigate this,” said Midkiff, a professor of mechanical engineering. “But on the other hand I don’t think it would be a fair or simple investigation given the lapse of time and the nonavailability of the committee.”

Some have questioned, however, whether Alabama officials have made a true effort to revisit the dissertation’s merits. Mike Miller, who chaired Meehan’s dissertation committee and now teaches at the University of Arkansas, says he wasn’t ever even contacted by Alabama officials when they said they looked into the allegations, according to a report in the Tuscaloosa News.

Miller, who could not be reached for comment, stood by the quality of Meehan's work in an interview with the News. Even so, the fact that he was never contacted about the plagiarism allegations has led to further questions about the thoroughness of Alabama's response. Donald Stewart, a lawyer representing Whetstone, told the News he’s unconvinced the university has done a review.

“I’m trying to figure out what they did, but, frankly, I don’t think they did anything,” he said. “I think they are trying to cover it up.”

Alabama officials declined again Tuesday to provide specifics about any investigation they may have conducted, and the university’s provost and a dean are both fighting subpoenas to discuss the probe in court.

"We really are limited in what we could say, " said Cathy Andreen, a university spokeswoman.

While details of Alabama’s investigation are scarce, officials there say they conducted an inquiry about a year ago, following an anonymous complaint, according to a lawyer who examined the charges on behalf of Jacksonville State. Charlie Waldrep, the lawyer, said in an April 23 letter that Alabama’s investigation found the charges were “without merit.”

“We were informed that the University of Alabama would not reopen the investigation…” Waldrep wrote to Jim Bennett, chairman of Jacksonville State’s Board of Trustees.

Waldrep’s firm conducted its own review of the dissertations and highlighted similar and dissimilar passages in both, passing its findings along to Alabama’s legal counsel. Ultimately, however, the firm declined to weigh in on whether plagiarism took place, declaring such judgments to be the responsibility of the degree-conferring institution.

“The University of Alabama has determined that there are no violations of its curriculum requirements in this instance, so that decision should conclude this matter,” Waldrep wrote.

There has been little public outcry from faculty at Alabama about the university’s handling of the controversy, although that may be in part due to the story's breaking toward the end of the academic year, Midkiff said. That doesn’t mean, however, that the university shouldn’t be concerned about appearing not to take the charges seriously, he said. Alabama still suffers reputational damage from the days of segregation, and that makes it all the more important for the university to behave in an ethical manner that is beyond reproach, Midkiff said.

“We live in the University of Alabama in somewhat of a guilty-by-the past status as it is, and perhaps we should be even more diligent,” he said.

The university cites a high standard for doctoral dissertations, noting that candidates must demonstrate the “capability to perform original, independent research.”

“[T]he reputation and quality of the University’s graduate program are measured by the quality of the theses and dissertations developed at this institution,” according to the university’s Web site.

Meehan Has Defenders

Digitally published copies of Meehan’s dissertation leave no question that he used exact language found in Boening’s earlier work. While many would argue that using Boening’s words was plagiarism plain and simple, Meehan has found supporters who are more charitable, viewing him as completely innocent or merely sloppy.

Brent Cunningham, former president of Jacksonville State’s Faculty Senate, said in Tuesday e-mail that he was convinced Meehan had done nothing wrong.

“My personal opinion is that this is a dead issue,” he wrote. “An independent investigation found no wrong doing - done deal. I fully support our president. Dr. Bill Meehan's character and academic integrity is exemplary. I would question the motives of those who continue to bring this subject up.”

A statement issued by the university echoed Cunningham’s sentiments, calling the allegations “false charges … made in an unfair attempt to pressure the university to pay money to resolve a questionable claim regarding ownership of the plant specimens.”

Throughout his dissertation, Meehan describes the work of other scholars with the exact same or nearly the same words used in Boening's dissertation. Quoting from a study by Linda Johnsrud and Ronald Heck, for instance, Meehan wrote:

“The study also revealed that women faculty tended to leave a position more often than their male counterparts and that ethnic racial minorities tended to stay.”

With the exception of two words, Boening’s passage was identical:

“Their study also found that women faculty tended to leave a position more often than their male counterparts and that ethnic racial minorities tended to stay.”

There is one other subtle difference between Boening and Meehan’s discussion of the study. In Meehan’s works cited section, Johnsrud’s name is misspelled.

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