Matthew C. Whitaker

New Book, New Allegations

May 13, 2014

An investigation into plagiarism allegations against an Arizona State University professor of history in 2011 found him not guilty of deliberate academic misconduct, but the case remained controversial. The chair of his department’s tenure committee resigned in protest and other faculty members spoke out against the findings, saying their colleague – who recently had been promoted to full professor – was cleared even though what he did likely would have gotten an undergraduate in trouble.

Now, Matthew C. Whitaker has written a new book, and allegations of plagiarism are being levied against him once again. Several blogs – one anonymously, and in great detail – have documented alleged examples of plagiarism in the work. Several of his colleagues have seen them, and say they raise serious questions about Whitaker’s academic integrity.

Meanwhile, Whitaker says he won’t comment on allegations brought forth anonymously, and his publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, says it’s standing by him.

Three years ago, several senior faculty members in Whitaker’s department accused him of uncited borrowing of texts and ideas from books, Wikipedia and a newspaper article in his written work and a speech. In response, the university appointed a three-member committee to investigate. The group found that Whitaker’s work contained no “substantial or systematic plagiarism,” but that he had been careless in some instances, as reported by Inside Higher Ed at the time. As a result, the university did not impose serious sanctions on the scholar, who is the founding director of Arizona State’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

In response, Monica Green, professor of history, resigned as department tenure committee chair. Several other professors called the investigation flawed and incomplete in a formal complaint to the university and in public statements.

Whitaker at the time told the university that his colleagues were pursuing a personal vendetta, possibly due to his race and the fact that they disagreed with his promotion, The Arizona Republic reported.

The university backed Whitaker, saying that the investigation had been thorough and carried out by distinguished scholars.

In January, the University of Nebraska Press published Whitaker’s newest book, Peace Be Still: Modern Black America from World War II to Barack Obama. Several prominent professors of history have written blurbs for the book, which won the Bayard Rustin Book Award from the Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

But not everyone is impressed.

Since the book’s publication, a blog called the Cabinet of Plagiarism has detailed numerous alleged instances of plagiarism in the book, including text and ideas taken from information websites and published scholarship. The blog is moderated by someone using the name Ann Ribidoux, who did not return a posted request for comment. There is no one on the Arizona State faculty by that name.

The blog says it is dedicated to exposing plagiarism, and Whitaker’s four “shelves” are the only entries. They detail extensive examples of Whitaker’s alleged plagiarism, in which full paragraphs from Peace Be Still bear strong resemblance, in wording and structure, to various Internet and academic sources. Some are cited, but lack quotations, and others are not cited. All full-text examples have been independently verified by Inside Higher Ed.

In one example, Whitaker discusses affirmative action. Cabinet alleges that it is similar to a discussion on the topic on the information web site Infoplease.com (which has been posted since at least 2000, according to Internet archives).

Peace Be Still:

Infoplease.com

“Fueled by ‘angry white men’ as well as by white women, an all-out battle for the life of the policy emerged. For Conservatives, the system was a zero-sum game that opened the door for jobs, promotions, or education to people of color while it shut the door on whites.  In a nation that has celebrated the values of independence and ‘pulling oneself up by one bootstraps,’ conservatives soon argued that ‘unqualified’ racial minorities were getting a ‘free ride’ in American schools and in the workplace as a result of affirmative action policies.  They referred to affirmative action incorrectly and contemptuously as a system of ‘preferential treatment’ and ‘quotas.’ Some even claimed that many people of color enjoyed playing the role of ‘professional victim’ to exploit the policy for their own benefit.” (No citation of Infoplease.com)

“Fueled by ‘angry white men,’ a backlash against affirmative action began to mount. To conservatives, the system was a zero-sum game that opened the door for jobs, promotions, or education to minorities while it shut the door on whites. In a country that prized the values of self-reliance and pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, conservatives resented the idea that some unqualified minorities were getting a free ride on the American system. ‘Preferential treatment’ and ‘quotas’ became expressions of contempt. Even more contentious was the accusation that some minorities enjoyed playing the role of professional victim.”

In another example, Whitaker cites the Archive of American Television website following a discussion of “The Jeffersons,” but does not use quotations where the wording is the same.

Peace Be Still Archive of American Television

“The Jeffersons focused on the lives of a noveau-riche African American couple, George and Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford). George Jefferson was a successful businessman, millionaire, and owner of seven dry-cleaning stores. He lived with his wife in a ritzy penthouse apartment on Manhattan's fashionable and moneyed East Side. ‘We're movin' on up!’ intoned the musical theme of the show opener that featured George, Louise and a moving van in front of ‘their deluxe apartment in the sky. The Jeffersons was the first television program to feature an interracial married couple, the Jefferson’s upstairs neighbors in their tony apartment building, and it offered an uncommon, albeit comic, portrayal of a successful African American family. Lastly, The Jeffersons is one of several programs of the period to rely heavily on confrontational humor.”

“The Jeffersons, which appeared on CBS television from 1975 to 1985, focused on the lives of a nouveau riche African-American couple, George and Louise Jefferson. George Jefferson was a successful businessman, millionaire and owner of seven dry cleaning stores. He lived with his wife in a ritzy penthouse apartment on Manhattan's fashionable and moneyed East Side. ‘We're movin' on up!’ intoned the musical theme of the show opener that featured George, Louise and a moving van in front of ‘their de-luxe apartment in the sky.’....The Jeffersons was the first television program to feature an interracial married couple, and it offered an uncommon, albeit comic, portrayal of a successful African American family. Lastly, The Jeffersons is one of several programs of the period to rely heavily on confrontational humor.”

Cabinet also alleges that Peace Be Still draws heavily from various editions of the The African American Odyssey, a textbook by Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine and Stanley C. Harrold, without what the blog considers to be proper citations.

One of numerous similar examples relates to Whitaker’s discussion of feminism.

Peace Be Still African American Odyssey (4th edition)

“A new wave of feminism emerged on the American political landscape in the 1960s and 1970s, transforming gender relations in the United States. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed sexual as well as racial discrimination in employment, but the elimination of sexual discrimination was not an explicit goal of the civil rights movement at the time; in fact, congressional leaders who opposed the Civil Rights Act included mention of sexual discrimination in an effort to reduce the law’s chances of passage. Nevertheless, the inclusion of gender-specific language helped broaden discussions of civil rights to include the gender discrimination that had oppressed women for generations.”

“A new wave of feminism emerged on the American political landscape in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed gender relations. This movement arose, in part, out of the successes of the African-American civil rights struggle. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed sexual as well as racial discrimination in employment. Although this had not been the goal of the civil rights movement at that time, and its inclusion was meant in part to lessen the law’s chance of passage, it helped open discussions of gender oppression that had laid dormant for decades.”

In addition to the Cabinet, Andrew Gelman, professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, has written about the plagiarism allegations on his blog.

Gelman says he was alerted to the claims by a “history professor,” who sent him the following commentary after Gelman asked if he could blog about it:

“Over the past three years as a university faculty member, I’ve learned that a professor who plagiarizes blatantly and repeatedly can reap substantial benefits, while those who object to his fraudulent practices are subject to threats against their jobs and punishment from the administration,” the anonymous history professor wrote. “I’ve learned that the editors at a scholarly press will market a book to undergraduates, despite knowing that if those students were to use the book’s citation standards, they would be drummed out of their classes for violations of academic integrity. Perhaps most painfully, I’ve learned that the profession to which I have devoted much of my adult life professes high standards, but does not defend them.”

He continues: “The triumph of this plagiarist suggests that the critics of the humanities may be right. How do we continue to argue for humanities at the university level, if a university professor and a university press scrape their material from Wikipedia and from old textbooks? Why are we charging students to sit at our feet and absorb our expertise, if our expertise consists of little more than the ability to rearrange words?”

The anonymous professor also questions the University of Nebraska Press for its role in the case.

Whitaker said via email: “While I truly appreciate you reaching out to me, I will not respond to an anonymous blog submission.” He referred further questions to the press.

Donna Shear, director of the press, said she hadn’t edited Whitaker’s book personally and couldn’t speak to the exact nature of his review process. She said the press does not and cannot check everything it publishes for plagiarism and that authors sign a statement saying they have not plagiarized, indemnifying the press from such charges.

All that aside, she said, “We stand by Matt.”

Shear continued: “I will say that all of this has been over the years sent to us by someone with a personal Gmail account, whose identity has never been revealed. But not only has [Whitaker’s] book been through rigorous peer review, knowing that he’s had an issue in the past, he took tremendous pains to make sure that there wasn’t anything that could be questioned in this book.”

This seems to be a “personal issue, not a professional one,” Shear added.

Green, the history professor who stepped down from her role on a tenure committee following the 2011 plagiarism investigation into Whitaker, said via email that she was on record with the university and in several news articles, including the Arizona Republic piece about the 2011 allegations regarding Whitaker.

“I have no further comment to make, having already had this matter bring too much grief when I attempted to use normative channels to bring the concerns of the senior historians to the attention of the administration at [Arizona State],” she said.

Brian Gratton, another history professor who vocally opposed the committee’s findings in 2011, in an email compared Whitaker’s case to that of Vanessa Ryan, the assistant professor of English at Brown University who recently was found not guilty of intentional plagiarism by a faculty committee. She has been placed on administrative leave from her faculty position until her contract expires next year. (She is now serving in another, administrative position, and says that she made mistakes, but they were unintentional. Johns Hopkins University Press has declared her book out of print.)

“Two different universities, two different presses,” Gratton said. “In both the Brown and Arizona State University cases, a faculty committee was reluctant to hold a professor accountable for what they condemn in students. Brown nonetheless ended Vanessa Ryan’s professorship, Johns Hopkins University Press withdrew her book, and Professor Ryan apologized. By contrast, Arizona State University promoted Matthew Whitaker, despite his plagiarism, and provided him a well-funded center. Professor Whitaker didn’t apologize, but blamed his initial plagiarism on the people he hired to do his research and writing for him. Even more disheartening is that the University of Nebraska Press has never acknowledged the extensive copying in Professor Whitaker’s latest work, Peace Be Still.”

Gratton continued: “Without attention to the standards of academic integrity by universities and academic presses, we demean the scholarship of those who abide by those principles.”

After the 2011 investigation, Whitaker moved from Arizona State's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies to its School of Letters and Sciences. Matthew Garcia, professor of history and transborder studies and director of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies said he was not aware of the allegations against Whitaker regarding the new book, and declined further comment. Duane Roen, Whitaker's new dean, referred questions to Sharon Keeler, university spokeswoman.

Via email, Keeler said administrators had not previously heard of the new allegations, but that the university does not comment on the status of plagiarism investigations in general, for fear of damaging professors' careers. She added: “Arizona State University has processes in place for investigating allegations of research misconduct. Appropriate sanctions are given when misconduct is determined to have occurred.”

Eduardo Pagan, professor of history at Arizona State, served on the committee that investigated Whitaker in 2011. He said he was aware of the blogs. Pagan said that despite faculty criticism that the probe had been less than thorough, “I absolutely stand by the integrity of the investigation.” He said each alleged example of plagiarism was weighed and debated, and that members of the committee had genuinely arrived at their conclusion, without any interference from administrators or anyone else.

Pagan also noted that there’s a perception among some academics and others outside academe that expulsion from the profession is the only suitable response to findings of plagiarism, but that American Historical Association guidelines say otherwise.

Quoting the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, he said, “A persistent pattern of deception may [emphasis Pagan’s] justify public disclosure or even termination of a career; some scattered misappropriations may warrant a formal reprimand.”

AHA says plagiarism “takes many forms.”

The clearest abuse, it says, “is the use of another's language without quotation marks and citation. More subtle abuses include the appropriation of concepts, data, or notes all disguised in newly crafted sentences, or reference to a borrowed work in an early note and then extensive further use without subsequent attribution. Borrowing unexamined primary source references from a secondary work without citing that work is likewise inappropriate. All such tactics reflect an unworthy disregard for the contributions of others.”

AHA says that, regardless of context, “the best professional practice for avoiding a charge of plagiarism is always to be explicit, thorough, and generous in acknowledging one's intellectual debts.

Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University and founding director of its Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, which awarded Whitaker the book prize, wrote a blurb for Peace Be Still.

Via email, Joseph said that he was not aware of any of the allegations concerning the new book until contacted by Inside Higher Ed.

“I spoke with [Whitaker] about the issue and he assured me that Arizona State University has thoroughly investigated all plagiarism allegations and determined they were unfounded,” Joseph said. “That said, what concerns me most is that the allegations made against Professor Whitaker are being made by anonymous persons using anonymous sources.”

Darlene Clark Hine, professor of African-American studies and history at Northwestern University, whose work is alleged by Cabinet to have been plagiarized, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The alleged instances of plagiarism in some cases appear similar to alleged examples of plagiarism investigated by the university in 2011, including the following graphic comparing a passage from Whitaker’s Race Work to another work by Bradford Luckingham, called Minorities in Phoenix:

Minorities in Phoenix
by Bradford Luckingham

Race Work by Matthew Whitaker

"For example, off-duty black soldiers from the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed at Papago Park frequented the Phoenix ‘colored neighborhood.’ On the night of November 26, 1942, in a café at Thirteenth Street and Washington, one of them struck a black female over the head with a bottle following an argument. A black military policeman tried to arrest the soldier, but he resisted with a knife. When the military policeman shot and wounded the soldier, black servicemen protested."

"On one such occasion, off-duty African American soldiers from the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed at Papago Park in Phoenix were involved in a violent incident in a ‘colored neighborhood’ they often visited. On Thanksgiving night 1942, one of the black soldiers struck a black woman over the head with a bottle following an argument in a Phoenix café. An MP attempted to arrest the soldier, but he resisted with a knife. When the MP shot and wounded the soldier, black servicemen protested."*

* Footnotes in this paragraph credit The Arizona Republic

 

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