Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ask the Administrator: You've Got to be Kidding...

A regular reader writes:

A probationary faculty member in my college plagiarized his entire statement of teaching philosophy in his RST (Rank, Salary, and Tenure) file. Not just lifted a few phrases, but downloaded someone else's teaching philosophy from the Internet, omitted a few paragraphs that were too specifically about the actual author, and put it in his file.

The department has talked to the faculty member, and he "realizes that this is a serious matter" and he's really sorry. I say that I hear that kind of crap from my students way too often. I don't have to put up with it from them, and I sure don't want to put up with it from a colleague. Somewhere in the course of his advanced degree program, they should have mentioned that plagiarism was bad.

As far as I'm concerned, this is sufficient reason to vote for a terminal contract. The department feels otherwise (although I gather that they are split.) What do you think?

That's amazing.

This is where the 'law and order' side of my 'law and order liberal' politics comes out. I'd fire the dumb bastard. The rule against plagiarism is fair, it's directly relevant to the academic enterprise, and this guy doesn't even dispute that he did it. Throw the bum out.

A friend of mine at a comprehensive university recently had a book project canceled out from under him when a chapter submitted by his co-author turned out to have been lifted wholesale from Wikipedia. (His co-author has tenure; he doesn't.) This is not a victimless crime. My guess is that folks who get away with this keep doing it, though I'd imagine it's much easier to catch in the age of Google.

Just for fun, let's imagine what happens if, say, this joker gets tenure, but someone else who actually made an honest effort gets shot down. For more fun, let's assume the denied candidate is a member of a protected class. In administrative terms, it's “liability-a-go-go.” Let's imagine the courtroom dialogue. “Did you know that Mr. Whiteman's portfolio contained plagiarized material?” “Well, yes, but we didn't think it was any big deal.” “Did you have any reason to suspect that Ms. Unemployed's file was illegitimate?” “No, but we thought it wasn't up to snuff.” “So you define 'up to snuff' as 'plagiarized'? Or do you define 'up to snuff' as 'white and male”?”

Not pretty.

On an emotional level, I couldn't help but read your candidate's actions as somewhere between 'arrogant' and 'contemptuous.' If he really can't be bothered to try to whip something up to keep his job, what does he think of his job? Is that really someone you want to make bulletproof for the next several decades? If he escapes consequences now, when he's at least potentially vulnerable, can you imagine the crap he'll pull once he's tenured? This guy will be an ongoing nightmare for the rest of his career, and he will be a nightmare of your department's making.

I'm guessing that some of your colleagues feel bad for him, probably on the grounds that they think of statements of teaching philosophy as inherently vapid and extraneous. There's some truth to that, but that's an argument to be had on its own merits. (In eight years of observing and evaluating faculty, I haven't noticed any correlation – none – between good statements of teaching philosophy and good teaching.) But that's not a justification for cheating. It's a justification for trying to get the rules changed going forward. The issue here isn't whether a statement of teaching philosophy carries any weight; it's whether honesty does.

If it doesn't, you're in very deep trouble.

What if the guy starts fabricating outcomes assessments? What if he publishes something that turns out to have been plagiarized? And do you really want this guy judging other candidates for promotion and tenure in the future? My brain hurts just thinking about it.

Kick him to the curb. If you don't, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you do?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.