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Archive Volume 2, 2007


Invited Editorials


Ripples In the Pond: The Wide-Spread Effects
of a Plagiarism Disaster

E. Duff Wrobbel

I am currently living through a disaster. While nothing on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, it is a disaster all the same. Glenn Poshard, the President of the Southern Illinois University system, was recently found to have plagiarized parts of his 1975 thesis and his 1984 dissertation - both completed while a student at the Carbondale campus of Southern Illinois University. Now, I have never met President Poshard. I was not on the panel tasked to adjudicate the case. His degrees came neither from my department nor my discipline. I do not even work in Carbondale. I am simply a member of the faculty at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. And yet, since late last August, these acts, committed before most of my present-day students were even born, have been with me daily. I know I am hardly alone in this, and it is about this that I wish to write. You see, we all know why plagiarists do it -- because it is easier. And we all know what happens to plagiarists -- they get caught. In the brief discussion that follows, I will review the manner in which one person’s plagiarism then has affected the lives of thousands of people now.

At the very end of August, I received an e-mail from one of my graduate students. It contained the link to a newspaper article alleging that President Poshard had plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation.[1] She wondered what such a thing, if true, might mean for our university. I said I had no idea, but that the key word was “alleged.” I told her it would likely blow over. Sadly, it did not. It is important to point out that we’d been through this before. We had a faculty member fired from our School of Business in 2004 for plagiarizing his statement of teaching philosophy in his mid-tenure review documents.[2] Things got ugly. This faculty member claimed that such “boilerplate” material was both unimportant and commonly plagiarized, and to help make his case, he and his supporters, who called themselves “Alumni and Faculty Against Corruption,” or AFAC, set about finding other such examples. The first they found was on the School of Business’s web site. The next was in a strategic plan written by the Chancellor of our Carbondale campus. The third was in a speech by the Chancellor of the Edwardsville campus. It got bad enough that the President of the system referred in a November 30th, 2006 SIUC Graduate Council meeting to "academic terrorists" who "lay in the weeds and throw bombs at everybody." However, since each allegation brought with it an increasing sense of shame and embarrassment, and a deepening worry over our reputation, President Poshard formed a bi-campus task force to review our respective policies and procedures and make recommendations to bring them, if necessary, up to the highest standards possible. In spite of this, the AFAC, whether “terrorists” or simply fulfilling their obligation to bring plagiarism to the attention of the administration, eventually scrutinized President Poshard’s dissertation - written while he was a student at our own Carbondale campus - and contacted the media. This brings us back to the end of August 2007.

What happened next came as quite a surprise to many on our campus. First, our Board of Trustees, even as they were creating the panel to investigate the as-yet unconfirmed allegations against our President, came out in public support of him. They then asked the department originally granting his degree to investigate, but when that department declined, a panel was formed entirely from ranking faculty from across the Carbondale campus. While there were policy-based reasons for making this decision, it struck many as creating a serious conflict of interest given that all those doing the investigation both worked for the person alleged to have committed the acts of plagiarism, and for the university alleged to have allowed this plagiarism to go undetected. When members of our faculty spoke up about these concerns at a faculty senate meeting, we were rebuked by a spokesperson for the Board of Trustees who told us that our opinion didn’t matter because

a) President Poshard worked for the Board and not us, and

b) the dissertation was written at Carbondale and not Edwardsville.

Not surprisingly, many on our campus were incensed by this. Still, the faculty senate took up the issue and released a simple statement that we had faith in the system and would await the results of the inquiry and the Board’s response before making any additional comment. We thought this would be enough to calm the waters. We were wrong.

At first, there were simply “water-cooler” conversations. However, fairly quickly, a small group of faculty at my campus seized on this event as evidence to support their particular view of the state of our university. It is accurate to say that many here would call this group “disgruntled,” though to be fair, they are all faculty in good standing and have what they feel are good reasons for their particular views. Still, it was very useful for these folks to have more of what they claimed to be “evidence” of bad faith and corruption at the highest levels of the university. We have a very liberal faculty listserv policy, and this small group of faculty took every opportunity to forward every new newspaper article, every editorial, and every blog to the entire faculty and staff, along with their own commentaries. Each time this happened (which was as often as several times per day), other faculty would respond to them, carbon-copying their return responses to all faculty and staff as well. The result was an absolute deluge of e-mails pouring in to a listserv usually used to communicate important university information to faculty and staff. As a result, ignoring these e-mails was almost impossible. Many of the initial postings took the form of an enthusiastic “I told you so.” Those who disagreed with these negative assessments often responded with equal vigor to the contrary, leading to heated and at times rather unprofessional exchanges. Others then waded in and advised restraint and patience, while still others urged everyone to get off the listserv and go back to work. This took place on and off for three months. For perspective, the most vocal participant in these e-mail exchanges wrote in excess of 30,000 words of commentary during this time period, and posted all of it to the entire faculty. Simply keeping up was a full time pursuit, and yet it was important to keep up, because actions impacting the faculty were being proposed via these exchanges.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of proposed actions were the various petitions introduced, refined, and eventually circulated via the listserv. Principle among these was one demanding that President Poshard resign, another calling for an independent, outside review, and a third calling for the Edwardsville campus to be formally separated from the Carbondale campus. All of these had potentially serious ramifications, but none originated from any campus body with any authority. Each, however, was eventually leaked to the press, which set off yet another round of stories, leading to yet another round of listserv discussions, further fueling the various petitions, and on and on ad infinitum. Finally, the Carbondale panel tasked to review the case released its findings, and things went from bad to worse.

The “good news,” so to speak, was that the panel did indeed find that President Poshard had committed plagiarism. I say good news because by this time, there had been multiple well-reported, if unofficial, reviews, all of which had found significant plagiarism (most report finding 54 specific examples), and a copy of the original dissertation itself had been placed in our library for our own review. The bad news, however, was that the panel went to great lengths to show that the particular plagiarism found in the document was “unintentional” on the part of the author, and that the plagiary’s not being discovered was an unfortunate oversight on the part of the committee. These findings said, in essence, that no one was really at fault, and that there had been no egregious ethical lapses by anyone involved. The even worse news was that the panel then went beyond just issuing these findings to recommend that President Poshard be allowed to re-write his dissertation. No other punishment (save for the obvious public humiliation) was meted out. Not surprisingly, the Board accepted the panel’s recommendations.

Back in Edwardsville, this news set off another firestorm of listserv and water-cooler discussions, and stoked the fires beneath the two still-relevant petitions (the time to call for an external review had clearly passed). At this point, the faculty senate now re-engaged with the discussion and held an emergency meeting, which turned out to be highly unusual for several reasons. First, there was only one item on the agenda. Second, we had requests to address the senate by both faculty and students. And third, the press, both print and television, was there in force. Faculty representing the various petitions spoke. The call for the separation of the campuses was raised. I spoke against this because of my concerns over the long-term costs of such a move. It took me several hours to research for and prepare my remarks. Fortunately (at least in my opinion), this issue was tabled. However, the call for President Poshard to resign received considerable traction, and eventually won the support of a majority of the faculty senate as well. We voted to ask for his resignation, but then needed to figure out exactly how to ask. Several senators put forth possible approaches, and we voted on the one we thought was the closest. Then, over the course of the next two weeks, a sub-committee passed this statement back and forth repeatedly and wrangled over the wording until everyone could live with it.

Our colleagues at Carbondale were unhappy with us. They requested that we come down to meet with them. When the day came, we checked two vans out from the motor pool and most of our senate executive committee plus several other senators made the hours-long drive to our south campus, and we spent one whole day there in meetings. They were very gracious, and we all managed to say what we needed to say, but I’m not sure much of substance was accomplished. We returned to Edwardsville still convinced that President Poshard should resign, and so we went forward with our plan and eventually released our call for his resignation to the press, as well as to the President and the Board. Our senate president sent the document to Springfield to the Board, and drove once again to Carbondale for the next Board meeting. Neither the President nor anyone on the Board so much as mentioned it. To be honest, no one was surprised.

During this same time, there were parallel discussions going on among the students. Many who had been caught and severely penalized for lesser offenses wondered if the new “do-over” rule applied to them. The student paper was filled with editorials lamenting this apparent double-standard. Many participated in blogs in which they mused about how this might diminish the value of their diplomas. Some looked for the humor in the situation. Instead of our official mascot, the SIUE cougar, or our unofficial one, the goose (by virtue of the great many geese nesting all over our campus), students created T-shirts such as the following:



Figure 1. "Go Copycats!" T-Shirt Created by SIUE Students [3]


At least this was pretty funny. Less funny are the many anecdotal reports of potential students choosing to look elsewhere for fear of wasting their money earning a “tarnished” degree.

So, a disaster. Certainly not Katrina, to be sure, but not as far-fetched an analogy as may at first appear. Consider that virtually everyone in this academic community of nearly 15,000 was affected. Consider that the effects were widespread, and overwhelmingly negative. Consider that, through no fault of our own, we were all obligated to spend considerable amounts of our limited time and energy cleaning up after this mess. Consider that our smaller campuses in Springfield, Alton, and East St. Louis were affected too. And consider that the academic community in Carbondale, more than twice our size, was arguably hit even harder than we were. In all, some 42,000 people have been dealing directly for over 3 months now with plagiary committed by one person over twenty years ago. One can only imagine the actual dollar value of the work this has obligated us all to do, or of the losses, both direct and indirect, that we must now absorb. What might have been accomplished with this time, energy, and money had it all been directed toward something constructive and of our own choosing? And finally, consider that no matter what, for all those involved, things will never be the same again.

Truly, a disaster.


1. This story first appeared in and was covered extensively by the Southern Illinois University Carbondale student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian. <>

2. See Bartlett, T. (2006). The rumor: What really cost Chris Dussold his dream job? Chronicle of Higher Education, 52 (23), A8.

3. T-Shirts featuring this slogan are available at


Editorials Archive, 2006



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