Shirley Malone-Fenner, Wheelock College’s vice-president in charge of academic affairs for the Boston based college, resigned today. The reason: though her responsibilities included oversight of the investigation and discipline of students accused of academic plagiarism, Malone-Fenner’s welcome-back letter to the faculty last month…was plagiarized.
The inspiring four-page letter from Malone-Fenner contained at least six passages from the letter Harvard’s president Drew Faust wrote to her returning faculty in 2007. Experienced plagiarists, however—and who has more experience with plagiarism than a college’s academic affairs authority?— knows that it is better to mix sources, so the letter also contained verbatim and barely altered phrases, sentences, and passages from a 2004 welcome letter from the president of Rutgers University, as well as sections of a 2010 letter from the president of the University of the Pacific in California.
A suspicious Wheelock professor ran Malone-Fenner’s letter through software the school uses to detect student plagiarism, discovering the damning parallels. The faculty subsequently called for her metaphorical head.
That head didn’t help matters by dreaming up pathetic explanations like this one, which she gave to the Boston Globe:
“In preparing my message, I reviewed many letters from other institutions and used words from others’ welcoming messages without attribution. What I intended to share is quite simple — I am excited about working with each member of the faculty to make this a most successful year.”
Translation: “Crap, you got me.”
What does what she was “trying to do” and how “excited” she was about it have to do with the fact that she obviously and unethically tried to pass off the words of others as her own? I bet many of the students she has nailed for plagiarism have come up with better excuses than that.
This rot may start even higher, however. Alarmingly, Wheelock’s president, Jackie Jenkins Scott, tried to minimize the incident. Writing to the college’s board, Scott stated that Malone-Fenner was “a highly respected academic and a wonderful leader” who “acknowledges that she used a few words from others’ welcoming messages without attribution.”
That’s outrageous spin. “A few words” is a dishonest description of what would have been ruled a slam-dunk example of punishable plagiarism if it had been submitted by a student. Student plagiarism, which can lead to suspension or expulsion, is defined by Wheelock’s academic handbook as “copying text verbatim from another source without using proper citation,” and “paraphrasing from another source without acknowledgment.” Administrator plagiarism, however, is defined as “using someone else’s words in a situation where you think nobody will notice, because you’re feeling lazy and despite all your degrees you can’t write a compelling sentence, and you’re confident that your boss will shrug it off because rules and ethics don’t apply to those with power.”
Well, not in print of course. It’s really one of those unwritten rules.
Malone-Fenner tried an apology, saying in an e-mail, “This is an action for which I am regretful. I apologize for my behavior, which was not reflective of what we expect from members of our academic community. I am also sorry for the negative attention this mistake has had for Wheelock.” The apology also made it cear why she had to lift passages to create a professional letter. The woman can’t write, though she has “Dr.” in front of her name.
She had to resign anyway. After that ridiculous statement of support, Scott should resign too.
Facts: Boston Globe (I learned about the resignation today from local TV)