Monday, April 20, 2009

A Tale of Two Plagiarisms

Like most people, I have long imagined that tenured faculty at major universities, when well-respected by their colleagues and appreciated by their students, are safe from summary, arbitrary dismissal from their jobs by administrators. Yesterday, I was shocked to hear about the case of Theresa Cameron, who was dismissed without notice-- completely out of the blue, without even a hearing or input from the colleagues in her own department-- from Arizona State University on a charge that can only be considered ignorant or malicious: that of writing a course syllabus that borrows from other instructors' syllabi (which as most people who teach at the university level know, is a common practice), which the administrator inappropriately calls "plagiarism." I had always assumed that tenured faculty at reputable institutions were assured of due process: that their tenure guaranteed them, at least, an opportunity to defend their jobs and reputations. (Needless to say, untenured faculty usually have no such rights.) That, I now see, was naive of me.

In the piece below, mathematician Neal Koblitz of the University of Washington lays out the facts of the case.


by Neal Koblitz, Professor of Mathematics,
University of Washington, Seattle

Consider three scenarios:

(1) You're filling in for a colleague by teaching his course while he's on leave. Knowing that the topic is far from your expertise and the colleague has an excellent reputation as a teacher, you decide simply to use his syllabus from last year. You copy it, change the due dates and the instructor's name, contact information, and office hours, and distribute it to students.

(2) Following a general trend, you decide that you have to enlarge your syllabus by including details on expected academic and personal conduct by students. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, you decide to simply copy the student conduct section from a colleague's syllabus.

(3) Returning from disability leave, you have a dispute with the dean of your school about your teaching assignment. Because your disability causes you to have much less energy in the afternoon, you ask for morning classes. The dean refuses, your appeals fail, and you end up with an afternoon class. By this time the start of classes is just a few days away. You hurriedly cobble together a syllabus by copying sections of syllabi that are available online and seem to cover roughly what will be in your course. You distribute this syllabus to students and explain to them that it's very rough and you'll probably announce major changes as the semester progresses.

Syllabi are not normally footnoted, and in none of the above scenarios do the syllabi include attributions to the sources of the copied material. Is this plagiarism? In most settings the answer would probably be No.

However, if your name is Theresa Cameron and you're a professor in the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) at Arizona State University (ASU), then the answer is a resounding Yes. On September 7, 2007, ASU President Michael M. Crow, following the recommendation of CAP Dean Wellington Reiter, wrote Dr. Cameron a letter summarily revoking her tenure and dismissing her. The reasons given were "plagiarism of syllabi" and two other charges.

On April 22 and May 5, 2008, ASU's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure heard Dr. Cameron's appeal of her firing. My wife Ann, who is a professor of Women and Gender Studies at ASU, and I attended as much of the hearing as we could. Dr. Cameron produced witnesses who refuted the two other charges, but she agreed that she had made up syllabi in ways similar to those described in the three scenarios above. After the administration's two other charges against her fell apart, the only remaining basis for dismissal was Dr. Cameron's "plagiarized" syllabi.

On May 5, Dean Reiter testified before the Committee. I heard him repeatedly and emphatically declare that copying material onto syllabi without attribution constituted "egregious plagiarism" and by itself was sufficient grounds for immediate dismissal of a tenured professor.

But wait a minute! Isn't ASU the same university that was at the center of the plagiarism scandal reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education on December 17, 2004? In that case ASU professor of plant biology Charles J. Arntzen took a published paper by a graduate student, copied large portions of it without permission or attribution, and published it under Arntzen's name as part of a longer book chapter. What did ASU President Crow do about Dr. Arntzen's blatant plagiarism? Nothing. Dr. Arntzen is currently Regents' Professor at Arizona State University.

So why was the ASU administration so lenient with Dr. Arntzen and so draconian with Dr. Cameron? The answer to this question is not hard to discern. Dr. Arntzen is a "good old boy" who gets along well with the powers-that-be. In contrast, Theresa Cameron is an African American woman who is intensely disliked by the dean of her school.

Dr. Cameron came to ASU in 1997 and enjoyed six happy and productive years at the university. She was granted tenure in 2000, and as recognition of her excellent teaching she was appointed a Faculty Fellow for 2000-2001. (That's how my wife Ann, who was also a Faculty Fellow that year, made her acquaintance.) Her first book was published in 2002.

But in 2003 Michael Crow became president of ASU and soon after brought in Wellington Reiter to head the CAP. Almost immediately Dr. Cameron's conditions got worse. Dean Reiter resented Cameron's complaints about an increasingly hostile environment for her, which included blatantly racist jokes and pranks. (One of the student witnesses supporting Cameron reported that one of the students who had complained about her was heard referring to Dr. Cameron with the "n" word.) And Dean Reiter appears to have been irritated by Cameron's attempts to get special accommodations for her disabilities. What has developed over the last five years has been a truly tragic situation -- not only for Dr. Cameron, whose medical condition has worsened during the years of constant stress and persecution -- but also for the broad university community.

If ASU were led by people of high intellectual and social principles, the university would be immensely proud to have Dr. Cameron on the faculty. Theresa Cameron overcame tremendous odds to become a scholar and teacher. Born in poverty and raised until adulthood in foster homes, at one point she doubted that she would even graduate from high school. This story is told in her acclaimed book Foster Care Odyssey.

Aside from her writings on the foster care system, Dr. Cameron's main research interests have concerned the human side of urban planning. For example, her research project with students when she was a Faculty Fellow was to investigate the history of the once-vibrant minority neighborhoods of Tempe that were displaced by ASU's expansion. Her work at the university has combined excellence in research, teaching, and community service -- exactly what any decent university wants to see in a faculty member.

We must support Dr. Cameron in her battle to correct the injustice inflicted on her by the ASU administration. If we don't, then all our pronouncements about our belief in the importance of diversity -- in gender, race, and socio-economic class -- become just empty words.


thegreatharriet said...

I downloaded Wellington Reiter's CV when he was at ASU. Dukie old boy has a lot to be ashamed of. Several editors I contacted say Duke didn't publish what he claims. Duke also claims that he published articles when he was merely used an an expert source. That's a no no Dukie. As a man in such a prominent position, you should know better.

Josh said...

I trust AAUP has been contacted; I'll see if I can pass this on to some disability listerv.

Cat Rambo said...

What's the best thing we can to support her?