Is It a Sin?

As a small Christian college in St. Paul, Minn., Bethel University seems like the kind of place where sharing would be commonplace. A recent plagiarism case on the campus, however, has plunged the college into a debate over the difference between collegial exchanges of course materials and the outright stealing of fellow professors’ ideas.

June 2, 2010

As a small Christian college in St. Paul, Minn., Bethel University seems like the kind of place where sharing would be commonplace. A recent plagiarism case on the campus, however, has plunged the college into a debate over the difference between collegial exchanges of course materials and the outright stealing of fellow professors’ ideas.

The case dates to 2008, when a computer science professor at Bethel began sharing unpublished lab exercises and course materials – he calls them an online textbook – with other professors in his department. Benjamin Shults says he was perfectly satisfied with the way one of his colleagues used the materials, but he was stunned to find that another professor, Brian Turnquist, had erased any trace of Shults’s name from the documents when he used them in class, adding his own name throughout the materials.

“I’m an academic. This is plagiarism,” Shults said. “There is no higher crime in academics.”

Shults launched a vociferous case against Turnquist, a professor with whom he has had run-ins before (more on that later). But Shults’s arguments did not convince a Grievance Review Committee that Turnquist willfully or deliberately plagiarized the material. Instead, the committee found Shults’s colleague was guilty of “innocent infringement” or “accidental plagiarism.” Their only suggested sanctions were that Turnquist apologize for his “innocent” error, adding that he shouldn’t post the materials again on his own Web site in the future, referring students instead to Shults's site.

“I feel that this sets a precedent for Bethel’s standards for what is plagiarism, and students ought to know they can't do this; faculty ought to know what extra steps we need to take beyond what the law requires [to protect our work],” Shults said.

Bethel officials say they are launching a review of the university’s plagiarism policies, along with a review of the grievance procedures that were employed to address Shults’s charges.

Turnquist declined an interview request, saying the committee’s report – supported by the provost – was sufficient to convey his own views.

Shults doesn’t deny willingly providing his course materials to Turnquist, who was teaching an Introduction to Programming course that Shults also taught. He says he told Turnquist to feel free to add himself as a “co-author” if he made “significant changes,” but never thought Turnquist would remove the original author’s name and other identifying features from the documents.

Shults’s materials include more than a dozen chapters, which he refers to as “labs.” Each lab addresses a different content area, covering the fundamentals of Web design. Atop each of the labs, Shults’s original documents included a header with his name and the words “Fall 2007,” which he says denoted the “publication date” when he first posted the materials on his own Web site.

When Turnquist first used the labs, he says he removed Shults’s name from the header and placed his own name there to identify himself as the instructor of the course. In later versions, Turnquist removed the headers altogether.

In addition to removing the headers, Turnquist placed self-referential markers in the documents. For example, the original chapter on using images featured two pictures of Shults. Turnquist removed those images and replaced them with pictures of himself. For Shults, this was part of a clear ruse on Turnquist’s part to represent himself as the author.

“Turnquist went to a good deal of trouble to remove any visible trace of the author’s name or identity from these documents,” Shults wrote to the grievance committee.

But what Shults saw as malicious was viewed by committee members as Turnquist’s innocent effort to personalize course content.

“The [committee] considers this action normal behavior for a professor using someone else’s material,” the report states.

While any visible trace of Shults’s name was removed for the casual observer, Turnquist did leave an opaque reference to his colleague. In a “meta tag,” visible only to Web page visitors who purposely dig into source code, Turnquist listed himself and Shults as the “author.” Turnquist also says he verbally informed his students the materials were created by Shults, and committee members said they believed Turnquist provided "some kind of verbal author attribution to his class," according to the report. [Clarification added].

Eric Gossett, another computer science and mathematics professor who used Shults’s materials, took a different approach to attribution, adding the words “Created by Benji Shults” to the header. Even so, Gossett isn’t very critical of Turnquist’s actions.

“Brian made a different decision. Knowing what I know it was a mistake not to leave some attribution to Benji, but it was definitely not malicious,” said Gossett, who chairs the department.

When Gossett first relayed Shults’s concerns about attribution to Turnquist, he says Turnquist removed the materials from his site “within five to 10 minutes.” Shults, who maintains that he’s passionate about the precedent the case sets, pressed the issue through mediation, a formal grievance process and an unsuccessful appeal.

“He wanted from the beginning to go right to the top and have Turnquist fired,” Gossett said.

Past Frictions

Shults’s history with Turnquist bears mentioning. Before the plagiarism charges were ever made, Shults accused Turnquist of “slander.” The charge was made after Turnquist, then department chair, mentioned in a public meeting that there were attrition problems in Shults’s course, adding that students had complained about its pacing. Shults found no evidence of attrition problems or any such student complaints in evaluations, and Turnquist was ultimately compelled by the college’s dean to apologize to Shults in writing.

Turnquist later recanted the apology.

For grievance committee members, Shults’s decision to pursue the plagiarism grievance and the severest possible penalty was “significantly motivated” by the prior incident. For Shults, however, the matter is only germane in as much as it shows Turnquist is fast and loose with facts and incapable of true contrition.

“I think that the plagiarism case stands on its own,” Shults says. “He took my work. I was the author. He republished at with no attribution and his name was on the documents.”

Provost Challenged Anti-Homophobic Signs

While Shults says his past conflict with Turnquist has little relevance to the plagiarism case, he does suggest that prior friction with David K. Clark, the college’s provost, is relevant. Clark not only agreed with the committee’s findings, but he also suggested Shults should “exhaust lesser levels of conflict resolution” in the future.

“We consider this case closed and expect you to fulfill the responsibilities of your position as a member of the Bethel University faculty,” Clark wrote May 12.

Shults’s disagreements with Clark stemmed from a January dispute over the decision by some faculty, including Shults, to place signs on their doors indicating a “safe” place for students to discuss homosexuality. Other signs read “homophobic speech is not tolerated.”

In response to the signs, Clark sent a lengthy e-mail to faculty saying he felt “quizzical” about them “because “they don’t go far enough.” He noted concern that the signs “trumpet safety” about one issue, while expressing “deafening silence” on others like eating disorders, spiritual lethargy, pride or struggles with gambling.

“If hateful speech is tolerated nowhere on campus, then a sign declaring that it’s not tolerated in this office is misleading,” Clark wrote.

“From my perspective, ‘homophobic’ speech should not be tolerated on our campus. (For clarity, Bethel holds that same-sex activity is not God’s plan. Some outside our community may say that just affirming our view is ‘hateful’ or counts as ‘homophobic speech.’ I don’t agree; simply stating our Bethel stance is not a case of ‘hate’ or ‘homophobic speech.’) The signs seem to imply that because hateful speech is generally tolerated at Bethel, we need safe zones. This troubles me. If indeed such speech is tolerated, then the right response is to get clear that we don’t tolerate hate speech of any sort on our campus.”

Shults was quick to respond to Clark with his own e-mail, questioning why the signs had prompted such pushback from the provost.

“Unfortunately, hateful speech toward homosexually-oriented people (or people mistaken as such) occurs quite a bit on campus,” he wrote.

“Does a stop sign at an intersection mean that cars should not stop anywhere there is not a sign? If we work hard enough, we could find a way that every sign is misleading. Why are we working so hard in this case?

“Until the entire campus really is a safe place for these kinds of conversations, the signs are appropriate, very helpful, and greatly comforting to those who are currently suffering from hateful speech occurring on campus.”

Asked about the past debate, Clark said it had never entered his mind during the plagiarism case.

“I would say this: Until you asked the question it never dawned on me that that would be relevant,” Clark told Inside Higher Ed.

As for the debate over the signs themselves, Clark said the signs made it appear as if anyone without a sign favored hate speech.

“We were raising the observation that this does set the community against each other,” he said.

Far from ducking the issue of homosexuality, however, Clark notes that the university has held a series of dialogues on the topic in recent months. Among them was a forum where a faculty member, when asked if homosexuals could change orientation, said “grace comes to some people in the form of deliverance, and to others in the form of a disciplined endurance.”


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