UNIVERSITY CONDONES PLAGIARISM?

Assessment of the Administration's response to alleged scientific misconduct by a university official: A report from the Executive Committee

For nearly two years the Executive Committee of the U-M Chapter of AAUP has monitored the responses by unit and central university administrators to a complaint of plagiarism and grant piracy brought by a faculty member against his department head.  Original observations and actions by AAUP groups are reported in the article  "Plagiarism Case Triggers Michigan Conference Resolution" (this web page).

The AAUP has taken particular care to document the practices employed by administrative officials who were delegated responsibility for investigating and reporting their findings to top executive officers.  This monitoring activity has documented, in the professional academic opinions of the Executive Committee, a  departure from principles of fair dealing and pursuit of fact.  During Winter Term 2000, a non-faculty assistant vice president of research was directed by the provost to conduct an inquiry and to report about the misconduct charge.  The Executive Committee monitored the process and then produced an analysis of that inquiry and its methods. 

In May 2000 the AAUP sent its analysis to the university president and to the provost; the provost responded on behalf of the president:

"Of course, President Bollinger and I share your deep commitment to honesty and integrity in academe, and I am sure you are not challenging us on that point. We do, however, have a different interpretation of the facts, in this case.   We  thank you, nonetheless, for  your comments."

Equally as troubling as the alleged original action by the department head is an apparent pattern of behavior that conforms to defensive corporate postures rather than to scholarly ideals and recognized academic standards.  By action of the Executive Committee on 20 June 2000 and by consent of the aggrieved faculty member, the AAUP analysis is reproduced below.

AAUP Analysis

To:            AAUP Executive Committee
University of Michigan Chapter

From:        Subcommittee charged 22 March 2000

REPORT ON THE RESPONSE OF THE UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATION TO A CHARGE OF PLAGIARISM

Analysis of a Report to Provost Nancy Cantor prepared by Judith A. Nowack, Assistant Vice President for Research – February 29, 2000

Note:  Committee analysis is based on the Report plus its attached supporting documents plus communications to the U-M AAUP chapter and also the AAUP Policy and Documents Report (the "Red Book").

Conclusions of the Analysis

The committee concludes that the Nowack investigation failed to fairly and impartially evaluate the available evidence for this case.  The committee concludes that the Nowack report is consistent with an intentional or accidental cover up of what we believe to be administrative misconduct and with an attempt to portray, in a favorable light, the inappropriate actions of administrators.  Selective use of evidence and of witnesses by Nowack demonstrates to us that the administration's investigation of itself was prejudiced.  Statements by the administration reflecting cavalier treatment of a serious matter of academic freedom erode confidence in the ability of the university administration to investigate itself or report effectively and impartially.  The committee concludes that the report was definitely inadequate and issued with prejudice.

Background

On Dec. 28, 1998, Professor William Kauffman (hereafter referred to as WK) sent a memo to David Hyland, Chair of the Aerospace Department, asserting that it was well known that WK originated and developed the concept of a Design Center.  On May 7, 1999 WK met with Wilfred Kaplan asking for AAUP help, stating that a research proposal developed by him and other colleagues for presentation to a foundation had been plagiarized by the chair of his department and then secretly sent to the foundation with a request for funding. In January, 1999, WK met with Associate Dean W. R. Martin of the Engineering College and by a memo to him on July 28, 1999 presented objections to the plagiarism. He made other attempts to obtain corrective action, but none occurred until Provost Nancy Cantor responded to a memo from WK on Dec. 21, 1999, by appointing Assistant Vice President J. Nowack to investigate his complaint.

The AAUP chapter followed these developments, reporting them to Dr. Martin Snyder at the national office, and telling of the problem in general terms to the Executive Board of the Michigan Conference.  That body authorized sending a letter to the University administration expressing concern about plagiarism in general with no reference to the specific case in question. The letter gave no names and did not state definitively that plagiarism had occurred.  On October 13, 1999 Dr. Jeffery Frumkin responded on behalf of the University President saying that no charge of plagiarism had been made. On the same day he phoned Chapter President L. D'Alecy to point out flaws in the allegation of plagiarism.

Actions up to and including those of Frumkin evince serious delinquencies in administrative behavior.  Standard Practice Guide 303.3 is specific about responding to charges of plagiarism.  Section B.3. says that such charges should be reported to any one of a number of administrators, who then have a duty to report the charge to the General Counsel, who should inform the Vice President for Research, who then has a duty to conduct an inquiry.  These stipulated measures were subverted in this instance; the action by Nowack is reported to be only a response to WK's memo of Dec. 1999.  Dr. Frumkin's actions are contradictory: he simultaneously asserted to AAUP officials off-campus that there was no allegation while initiating discussion of the substance of the allegation with other AAUP officials on campus.  The Nowack report has no comments whatsoever on these preceding delinquencies.

There are four issues of this case relevant to AAUP consideration in terms of analysis of the administrative action reflected in the Nowack Report:

Each issue will be reviewed and discussed below.

Was the charge of plagiarism of an intellectual property fairly investigated?

The charge revolves around three drafts of a document that outlines plans for a "Center" within the Department of Aerospace Engineering.  Both Nowack and the AAUP have  been provided with two drafts.  One, WK claims, is his second draft of his proposal for the center.  On this draft he is listed as one of four authors.  The second document is also a proposal for the same center.  It is not attributed to any author, but identifies itself as originating in the Department of Aerospace Engineering.

WK's assertions are:

  1. He is the sole author and originator of a first draft of this proposal from which all revisions were made.

  2. The second draft of his proposal includes gratuitous authorship for one other person, but the work is still solely his.

  3. The third draft was plagiarized by his department chair and submitted for funding without attribution to Professor K.

Analysis:

Nowack's report acknowledges that the funded proposal uses material taken directly from the previous version (page 6): "a conclusion that claim 2 [Draft 3 contains material from Draft 2] is true is inescapable."   The department chair does not deny that he used Draft 2 to create Draft 3. 

WK asserted that one individual listed as an author on Draft 2 was a gratuitous gesture because this was the sole faculty member authorized to approach the funding agency.  Nowack contacted this one individual, and his assertions to Nowack are consistent with WK's statement of his role.  WK also asked Nowack to interview the other two authors, asserting that they would attest to the fact that WK was the sole creator of the document and originator of the idea.  Subcommittee members have been able to establish directly that Nowack did not contact these two important corroborating witnesses.   

Nowack uses two arguments to support her claim that the material used in Drafts 2 and 3 is not the sole intellectual property of WK.  Although she explains these in reverse order she ascertains that 1) the ideas cannot belong to him because one cannot "patent ideas", and there is no legal recourse to prevent the use of those ideas and 2) the text or "particular expression of ideas" cannot belong to him because the document explicitly has four authors.

The AAUP "Red Book" in its Statement on Plagiarism (page 109) defines the offense as: "…taking over the ideas, methods, or written words of another, without acknowledgement and with the intention that they be taken as the work of the deceiver…."  In this case, attribution for the alleged plagiarized document is given to the Department of Aerospace Engineering.  The parent document listed four members of that department as authors.  In addition the AAUP Statement acknowledges that issues of academic plagiarism are influenced by "complexities and shades of difference" and they temper their edict that "the professor must scrupulously acknowledge every intellectual debt – for ideas, methods, and expressions …" with the conclusion "by means appropriate to the form of communication".   

By the apparent negligence of avoiding interviews with all of the individuals listed by name on the proposal allegedly written solely by WK, Nowack avoided obtaining sufficient evidence to prove that subsequent drafts incorporated into the final draft were also solely authored by WK and that it was his work alone that was plagiarized.

Were there forms of reconciliation with the complainant that were adequately and fairly considered?

The Nowack report highlights the public statements by the AAUP Chapter and Conference by reproducing them near the beginning of the report.  Those statements give no names and describe the case only in general terms. Their prominent inclusion is a telling sign that the report was drafted with prejudice.  In particular the Nowack report responds in detail to one complaint which is mentioned in the AAUP statements but was not presented to the Provost by WK: that WK should have been appointed Director of the Design Center.  It is inappropriate to insert third party statements into a proceeding that is self-described as a response to WK's letter.  Moreover, Nowack did not contact the cognizant AAUP officials for comment or information on the subject.

Although the Nowack report avoided the search for incontestable evidence that malicious, deliberate plagiarism had occurred, no one interviewed for Nowack's report seems to deny that many of the ideas for the "Center" came from WK.  It is generally assumed that if an academic writes a proposal and the proposal is funded, that proposal author will be the project director unless they specifically choose to decline the responsibility.   

Analysis:

University administration has asserted its prerogative to owe no obligation to appoint WK director of the Center.  The action is definitely not fair, but it is probably legal.  And it seems that the limits of legality rather than of traditional professional and ethical conduct are being used as the benchmarks of administrative conduct. 

Were AAUP Standards of Academic Freedom violated by the University of Michigan?

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure published in the AAUP "Red Book" lists three tenants of Academic Freedom.  Abbreviated and paraphrased, they are:

  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of their results.
  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.
  3. Professors should be free from institutional censorship.

Analysis:

If evidence had been sought which proved that WK's work had been plagiarized and published without attribution it would also be possible to infer that his right to full freedom in research and publication had been breached.  AAUP recognizes the challenges inherent in multiple authorship.  In its Statement found on page 121 of the "Red Book" the problem is defined as threatening "to become steadily worse and to contribute to tarnishing the scholarly enterprise."  AAUP proposes that these "questions of immense complexity and subtlety" should " not to be resolved by an unimaginative application of traditional academic myths or by bureaucratic heavy-handedness".  Heavy-handedness seems to describe just what happened in the Nowack Report.  Once again, by failing to seek and obtain testimony from individuals who signed the draft document the administration failed in collection of evidence attesting to the original authorship.  Without speaking to administrative motive it is clear that the administration's actions allowed  the University administration to maintain its claim of "insufficient evidence".

Was the University of Michigan investigation process fair AND COMPLETE?

There is no way to conclude the Office of the Vice President for Research's (OVPR's) actions thus far have been either fair or complete.  The issue in this investigation, based on WK's letter to Provost Cantor, are simple.  Did the chair of Aerospace Engineering plagiarize a grant proposal written by Professor WK?  The only answer that is apparently acceptable to the administration is "no".  Assistant vice president Nowack's actions serve only to present  the evidence around the acceptable answer.  In this specific instance her task was apparently made easy by the fact that the document produced by WK  listed multiple authors.  So on superficial assessment of the OVPR's report it seems to make sense.  Existence of more than one name makes it seem difficult to attribute specific text or ideas to a single author. 

Analysis:

1)      The difficulty was contrived by not interviewing all of the authors.  In her report, Nowack reveals interviewing only one of the proposal's co-authors and that individual- a gratuitous addition for technical reasons according to WK- never states that he contributed specific text or ideas to the proposal.  In fact, on page 10, he states that he once asked WK for a revised paragraph and WK says he provided it.

2)      Additionally, WK asserts that he gave Nowack names of several witnesses he wished her to interview in connection with this investigation.  Her report indicates that she did not speak with any of them, and independently the AAUP has confirmed that she did not.  Specifically, the two other individuals listed on the proposal source document were not interviewed for the OVPR report. 

3)      Nowack's report does not include all of the documents she refers to in the text.  The report attachments are as selective as the witness list.  She refers to portions of numerous memos and letters that are not attached to the report, so that their existence and reality is a matter of speculation.

4)      Even Ms. Nowack had to conclude that WK was entitled to some recognition of his contribution to the funded proposal.  On page 20 of the report she asserts that proper credit in this case takes the form of a message from the chair in the department newsletter that gives WK thanks for his "tireless efforts" and "early contributions" to this project.

At this point the only conclusion that the subcommittee can reach is that the goal of this U-M OVPR investigation was to protect the reputation of the administration, not the integrity of scholarship.  As with others, this report relies on the absence of legal liability and ignores the issues of honesty and fairness.  It is hardly fair to submit someone's grant proposal without his knowledge, give the responsibility for the funded project to someone else, thank him for his efforts and contributions, and then ask him to go away quietly.

Stated simply: we all know what really happened and that WK has been abused; the report by Asst VP Nowack at this point covers up the administrative failure of duty and misconduct surrounding alleged plagiarism of a faculty proposal.


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