Thursday, June 4, 2009

Plagiarism Again -- This Time by a University President

As you might have heard, it seems the doctoral dissertation of William Meehan, who was granted his Doctor of Education degree by the University of Alabama in 1999, and is currently president of Jacksonville State University, contains a significant amount of plagiarized material. Check out the graphic in Michael Leddy's blog -- the verbage copied word-for-word from the 1997 dissertation of Carl Boening, is hilighted in yellow.

Leddy's been reporting on this for a while -- also see his posts on 23 April and 9 May.

Backing up a bit, this all started when Prof. David Whetstone sued Meehan over some plant specimens which Meehan claimed belonged to the university and Whetstone claimed belonged to him. Whetstone pointed out the plagiarism in Meehan's dissertation as a way of establishing "a pattern of behavior of him stealing others’ work." Most people commenting on the situation seem to be more concerned with the plagiarism than the plants, which is probably understandable to everyone but Prof. Whetstone. I think we're still grateful to him for bringing this up, though.

According to the Tuscaloosa News story linked just above, two UA administrators are fighting subpoenas to testify regarding the plagiarism of Meehan's dissertation, on the grounds that "it will subject them to annoyance, embarrassment and undue burden." Umm, right. The great burden of being called to testify in a matter as trivial as a plagiarized doctoral dissertation (especially when the accused is, on the strength of that dissertation, currently the president of a university) is just too onerous. Clearly someone should have sympathy for these poor people. [/sarcasm]

Sandy Gordon, a lawyer for the University of Alabama, claims that the two administrators shouldn't be called to testify because the plagiarism issue has nothing at all to do with the dispute over the plant specimens, and besides there's this other guy you should talk to about it 'cause he's on our side.

That being Mike Miller, who chaired Meehan's dissertation committee. And, interestingly enough, also chaired Boening's dissertation committee. That makes him a not-disinterested participant, since if it's officially decided that Meehan did plagiarize Boening's dissertation, the obvious question will be, why didn't Miller spot it? Or Harold Bishop, who was also on both committees?

Interestingly enough:

Miller, a former UA professor, said in an interview last week he was never contacted by anyone at the university to discuss Meehan’s dissertation, contradicting Meehan’s statement that Miller was called upon by UA to investigate the accusation two years ago.

Miller told The Tuscaloosa News that he doesn’t believe Meehan plagiarized.

So either Meehan or Miller is lying about whether anyone talked to Miller about this two years ago. And Miller's statement to the press doesn't carry much weight either; if he wasn't called on to investigate the plagiarism accusation two years ago, then can we really believe he remembers enough details about two dissertations he read ten and twelve years ago to be able to say with any assurance that there was no plagiarism? If he had investigated the matter two years ago then I'd be slightly more likely to believe at least that he believes there was no wrongdoing (although I still wouldn't take his word for it without a lot more supporting evidence than his bare assertion) but he says he did no investigation and was never asked to. One might suspect that his assertion that there was no plagiarism rests more on the fact that his own academic reputation is on the line here, than on the likelihood of him remembering specifics of two papers he read a decade or more ago.

Patty Hobbs, PR Director at Jacksonville State (where Meehan is president) said in a press release [link to PDF] on 23 April that:

Litigation is currently pending in a lawsuit filed by a JSU professor against the University claiming the professor owns plant specimens located in the JSU herbarium. Unrelated to this case, attorneys for the professor have leveled unfounded plagiarism claims against the university president. These claims have been investigated not only by the university, but by third parties and the university is completely satisfied that there is no substance to the allegations. President Meehan has been clear from the beginning that he used Mr. Boening’s dissertation as a spring board for his own, and Meehan’s dissertation duly credits his predecessor’s work. It appears these false charges have been made in an unfair attempt to pressure the university to pay money to resolve a questionable claim regarding ownership of the plant specimens. The two matters are totally unrelated.

So the two matters are completely unrelated, have nothing to do with one another, and besides he didn't do anything wrong.

Except the statement that "third parties" have satisfied the university that Meehan is in the clear is questionable. Leddy references an AP article in which

Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today examined the dissertations and "concluded that 'extensive portions' of Meehan's dissertation were plagiarism of Boening's work." In other words, the third-party investigation supports, not discredits, the allegation of plagiarism.

One has to wonder just which third parties gave Meehan's dissertation a thumbs-up? It would've been nice if the press release had been more specific on just who was supporting Meehan.

The main argument in favor of Meehan seems to be that he acknowledged Boening. In his abstract, he says: [link to PDF]

Using a case study and content analysis design, this study replicated at a regional comprehensive institution a study of sabbatical leave patterns that had first been conducted at The University of Alabama in 1996 by Carl Boening.

That's fine so far as it goes, but that's an acknowledgement that the original idea for the study, and perhaps the method, came from Boening. This very general acknowledgement doesn't give Meehan wholesale leave to lift extensive phrasing and passages from Boening's dissertation without further, line-level citation. Boening's dissertation is included in Meehan's References list, and Boening's name is mentioned ten times in the body of the document. That's not nearly enough to account for all the lifted passages.

The fact that Meehan duplicated Boening's study, but at a different institution, isn't the problem. An editor's note in the Tuscaloosa News describes the situation, then says:

So far, so good. I can't see anything wrong with extending one line of research in new directions. In fact, that's what the scientific method is all about. We do similar things with news stories. If one newspaper looks at an issue in their hometown, we may look at the same issue here.

This is common practice in both academia and journalism; whether or not a thesis applies in a larger context or a different setting is a completely legitimate question for research. The problem isn't with what Meehan chose to study, or even how he conducted his research, but rather with the extensive verbage lifted directly from someone else's paper.

What's really outrageous about this isn't that, unless there's a fairly huge chunk of mitigating data hiding somewhere, an extremely prominent (and well paid) academic plagiarized large chunks of his dissertation, although that's bad enough. No, what's really outrageous is that neither the institution which granted his doctorate nor the one which currently employs him seem at all interested in pursuing the matter.

DRMT, commenting on BoingBoing's post on the subject, [Comment #108] says:

When a university president is found to have plagiarized, it's the alumni and donors who need to raise their voices and force the board of regents to fire him or her. It's unfortunate, but that's the only way these things get done. Plagiarism is an increasing problem in our classes and students need to understand how serious it is.

I'd say that the alumni and donors of both Jacksonville State University and the University of Alabama need to call for a thorough, independent and transparent investigation of the matter, followed by a firing if the results go against Meehan rather than dismissal without some sort of due process, but otherwise I agree. It's hard enough to convince other people -- writers, readers, students, teachers -- that plagiarism is a serious violation and not to be tolerated when someone as prominent as a university president seems to be getting away with it, and profiting handsomely from his stealing and cheating, even after the matter has been made so public. This is outrageous, and I wouldn't expect anyone to want to be associated with any institution which condones or overlooks such behavior, much less support them with funding.



Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Oh boy! What message are you sending students everywhere if they don't do anything about this university president? He cheated on his dissertation! Does he really deserve his doctorate? Students get expelled but University President's don't even get a slap on the wrist? Sheesh!

Great reporting Angie!

Angie said...

Ello -- thanks. :) And that's exactly it; it'd be bad enough if it were some random doctorate-holder working a whatever job, but this guy is president of a freaking university. Talk about horrible examples to set! I can see the next crop of plagiarizers at his institution: "But I didn't copy anywhere near as much as President Meehan!" [eyeroll]


Michael Leddy said...

Angie, here's a working link for the AP article.

Unknown said...

who reads phd dissertations. no one reads the phd dissertations. this is the cause of plagiarism. it is a waste of time to write an original dissertation.

Angie said...

Michael -- thanks for the link. [nod]

Mike -- actually, some people do read doctoral dissertations. In fact, when I was in college (as a history major) I was reading a book (not an assignment; just an anthology of historical literature pieces from the library which looked interesting) and came across one which sounded like it would interest a woman I knew online. I recommended it to her, and it turned out it was her dissertation. :)


TheREALMrs.Higgins! said...

Angie--I found your blog to be completely informative--information here was nowhere else to be found!

As a graduate of JSU (Meehan became president just before I graduated, sadly), I am appalled. My husband also is also an alumni. He is equally appalled.

It is obvious neither University wants to dig any further because of embarrassment.

If a student were accused of these same charges at JSU, trust me, they would be expelled.

Just another case of a hypocrite in power saying, "Do as I say, NOT as I do..."

Thanks again for the info. ~AK

Angie said...

AK -- you're very welcome. I hope that you and your husband, along with any other alumni you might know, write to JSU and demand an investigation. Universities get a nice chunk of funding from alumni donations, and I certainly wouldn't want to donate a penny to any school I'd gone to under these circumstances; you and the other alumni have leverage no one else has.

Thanks for commenting.