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Arizona plagiarism update

More details on the Matthew Whitaker case from Brian Gratton and from Rick Shenkman. Shenkman even goes to the trouble of interviewing some of the people involved. It’s not pretty.

One of the people involved in this sad, sad story, is Michael Crow, formerly at Columbia and currently president of the University of Arizona Arizona State University, about whom the university’s official website says, “He is guiding the transformation of ASU into one of the nation’s leading public metropolitan research universities, an institution that combines the highest levels of academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic, and maximum societal impact.”

I think it’s pretty clear that Matthew Whitaker does not represent the highest levels of academic excellence, so this case just represents Crow’s commitment to the values of inclusiveness to a broad demographic and maximum societal impact.

In some way I wouldn’t mind an open commitment to these values, but do they really have to knowingly tell untruths about Whitaker’s unsourced copying? That’s just so ugly. Why can’t they just give him some title such as “non-research communicator” and tell him to stop putting his name on things that other people wrote?

I dunno, I guess it would look bad, and they decided that deny deny deny would be the better way to go. Hey, it worked with Laurence Tribe, right? The difference is, I suppose, that Tribe also has done notable original work, so his copying-without-attribution can be viewed as a bit of sloppiness or laziness or even ethical lapse but not enough to cancel out all his positive contributions. In the case of Whitaker, the positive contributions don’t appear on the record of his published papers but perhaps exist in other forms such has his involvement with the community. I have no idea.

Speaking more broadly, the president of a university is some sort of politician and he has to wheel and deal. You can’t really expect him to evaluate each case on its merits, any more than you can thing that Bill Clinton really believed that fugitive financier Marc Rich deserved to be pardoned etc etc.

Regarding the copying-without-attribution itself, commenter Eliza puts it well:

In almost every instance, the discovery of plagiarism in current work leads to the discovery of plagiarism in earlier work. . . . Plagiarism is not a crime of passion; it’s a way of life. And a lucrative one.

And I agree with this too:

What’s surprising to me is not that he, like most people, got away with it for a while. What’s surprising is that when it was revealed beyond the shadow of a doubt, his university continued to put him in front of undergraduates and the community and — even more inexplicably — his press contracted a new book from him. No foresight was required of them to cut ties, just professional dignity.

At this point I guess we should no longer be surprised at such things. But I think it’s still ok to be disturbed.

29 Comments

  1. Rick G says:

    It’s Arizona State University, not the University of Arizona. You’re shaming the Wildcats when it should be the Sun Devils.

  2. zbicyclist says:

    There are claims that the UA-ASU rivalry is the biggest rivalry in the country, ahead of Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, etc. Not sure this is a credible statement, but I do know that UA grads don’t like to be accidentally called ASU grads.

    • Frederick Guy says:

      I’ll take the bait.
      (1) There is no way in which any affirmative action employment policy requires or implies allowing violation of academic honesty requirements or the promotion of academics who have not continued producing the required output.
      (2) The ASU administration’s apparent felt need to support one individual with this record suggests that they feel that they ought to have a more racially diverse faculty, but have in fact failed to develop one – in short, that their affirmative action policies have been so deficient that they opt to do what they have done rather than lose one of their vanishingly scarce African American faculty members (though evidently somebody who, for whatever reasons, they wanted to keep more than Teresa Cameron, a once-tenured African American at the same institution who was fired for plagiarising *course syllabi* – see the link in the Brian Gratton post Andrew links above).
      (3) If you don’t approve of affirmative action, what do you propose to do in response to the amply documented ongoing discrimination by race, gender, and other characteristics individuals didn’t ask for – characteristics sometimes innate and sometimes socially constructed – whether discrimination in employment, housing, or walking down the street? Do you believe that institutions should not have an obligation to take affirmative action to overcome the patterns of discrimination which we have not only inherited, but in many cases manage to reproduce generation by generation? Is that because you think it doesn’t matter, or because you hold to a meritocratic fantasy in which, absent such requirements and perhaps with simple legal obligations not to discriminate, discrimination would simply go away and the best would rise to the top? Subjective judgements abound, and tend to favor people like us – whoever the us may be. The fortunes of women in classical music have been transformed by the introduction of screens to hide their identities during auditions, but such simple mechanisms aren’t feasible in all fields of work, or the rest of life.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “If you don’t approve of affirmative action, what do you propose to do in response to the amply documented ongoing discrimination by race, gender, and other characteristics individuals didn’t ask for – characteristics sometimes innate and sometimes socially constructed – whether discrimination in employment, housing, or walking down the street?”

        Who says I don’t approve of affirmative action? I’ve argued for several years now that we will probably have to pay some kind of subsidy to the descendants of American slaves and American Indians forever: reparations, whether in lowered standards or casinos or whatever. Call it the Slave Trade Tax.

        I strongly object, however, to our current policy of extending racial/ethnic preferences to the ever growing numbers of immigrants and their descendants, who, after all, chose this country, warts and all. For example, I’m okay with affirmative action for Michelle Obama because she is the descendant of American slaves through all four grandparents. But I’m not okay with racial preferences for Barack Obama, who is half white and half descended from the slave sellers of Africa.

        But, anyway, this kind of discussion demanding what my policy view is in response to a four word quip puts the cart before the horse: it’s more important to frankly and honestly discuss the effects of affirmative action so that Americans can come to a better informed decision about what the policy should be than to start with the policy and work back to what analysis is permissible.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “1) There is no way in which any affirmative action employment policy requires or implies allowing violation of academic honesty requirements or the promotion of academics who have not continued producing the required output.”

        Think about how it works: affirmative action / racial preferences / quotas / goals involve lowering standards for some races or ethnicities but not for others. The people at the top of the pyramid make the decision that it’s tolerable to lower standards lower down hierarchy to achieve more diversity.

        What we generally see, however, is that the folks at the top of the hierarchy become increasingly reluctant to lower standards near the top. So, individuals like Whitaker get passed on past their level of competence, but eventually they get the message: okay, now we’re serious! We won’t bend the rules for you any further.

        Not surprisingly, some affirmative action beneficiaries decide to bend the rules for themselves to make it that last step.

        • Rahul says:

          Aren’t you just restating the Peter Principle here? Everyone rises to the level of their incompetence.

          What’s so special about affirmative action hires? Is every manager stalled at his incompetence-ceiling on the corporate ladder bending the rules & cheating?

    • Eric says:

      To not call out Steve Sailer’s comment as racist is to condone his racism. Andrew has blogged about many different plagiarists; all except one of them have been white. Steve Sailer attributes Matthew Whitaker’s plagiarism to ‘affirmative action’ (i.e. his race). There is no reason other than racism to do that.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        It’s a common pattern going back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s plagiarism on his dissertation:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._authorship_issues

        “… Boston University, where King received his Ph.D. in systematic theology, conducted an investigation that found he appropriated[3] and plagiarized major portions of his doctoral thesis from various other authors who wrote about the topic.[4][5] …”

        • Andrew says:

          Steve:

          As I’ve written many times, I don’t think plagiarism is the worst thing a person can do, or even close. I’d actually find it refreshing if Ed Wegman or Frank Fischer or whoever would flat-out admit their plagiarism and say that we should stop complaining because their positive contributions outweigh this minor offense. I don’t know if I’d agree, but I’d prefer to see it out in the open like that. In the case of Martin Luther King, I’d go with the generally-held view that his well-known plagiarism and womanizing are minor compared to his major contributions to public life.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    Whitaker’s Awards and Distinctions:

    2013 Looking@Democracy Award, Illinois Humanities Council/MacAuthur Foundation
    2011 Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award-ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
    2011 ASU Professor of the Year Special Recognition Award
    2010 ASU Professor of the Year Special Recognition Award
    2010 One of the Ten Best Articles of the Decade Award-Journal of the West
    2009 City of Glendale’s (Arizona) Martin Luther King, Jr. “Promoting Inclusive Award”
    2009 Mark of Excellence Award-National Forum for Black Public Administrators, Central Arizona Chapter
    2008 Excellence in Diversity Award-National League of Cities
    2007 ASU’s Parent’s Association Professor of the Year Special Recognition Award
    2006 ASU Promotion and Tenure Exemplar Award
    2006 Ronald McDonald House Charities (Arizona Chapter) Excellence in Education Award
    2006 City of Phoenix Martin Luther King, Jr. Living the Dream Award
    2006 Maricopa County, Arizona, NAACP Educational Leadership Award
    2006 ASU Distinguished Last Lecture Award
    2005 Journal of the West Award for Best Article of the Year
    2005 Dan Shilling Public Scholar Award-Arizona Humanities Council
    2005 ASU Patricia Gurin Scholar-Activist Award
    2004 ASU Centennial Professor Award
    2004 Education Leadership Award-100 Black Men of Arizona, Inc.
    2003 Bert M. Fireman Prize-Western History Association
    2000 Sara Jackson Award-Western Historical Association

    http://csrd.asu.edu/people/matthew-c-whitaker-phd

  4. Thomas says:

    I think you’ve got your finger on something important with Crow’s statement about the “combination” of “academic excellence” and (simplifying somewhat) “maximum societal impact”. I find it frustrating when university administrators refuse to see this as a trade-off. (Sort of like when politicians won’t see that there is a trade-off between freedom and security.) At the very least, any effort spent on one will not be spent on the other, and often the interests of the one is inimical to the interests of the other. In cases like this, where the pursuit of social impact causes administrators to ignore or excuse (or outright approve of) academic shoddiness, it’s really important to point this out.

    • Andrew says:

      Thomas:

      Setting aside Crow’s politician-like need to speak in platitudes, I don’t completely agree with you about the tradeoff between academic excellence and societal impact. I mean, sure, at some level there is definitely a tradeoff, as these are different goals. In practice, though, it makes sense to me that aiming for academic excellence can improve societal impact, and that aiming for societal impact can improve academic excellence. Ultimately, as an academic researcher, I have to believe this, that even the most ivory-tower activity is ultimately to the benefit of society. For example, I prove a theorem which enables a computational method which enables the fitting of a model on data related to something important to society. Or, from the other direction, from my desire to do the best possible job on some applied problem. comes the motivation to improve statistical methods, which motivates new theory.

      To put it another way, I haven’t actually seen any evidence that Matthew Whitaker has achieved “maximum societal impact.” This may be true but I have no idea.

      • Thomas says:

        I’d put it this way: having sites of academic excellence (universities) is a good thing for society. These are places where young people can bring the curiosity and intelligence for a few years and develop it. They can then go out into society and have an impact on it. All the academic “has to believe” is that his or her excellence will have an impact on the minds of the students. And that their discoveries, disseminated to the peers for consideration, will, when accepted by those peers, also be taught to their students. Word spreads slowly by this means, but carefully and precisely.

        The trouble begins (in my view) when academics seek influence beyond their peers and the minds of the students they’ve been charged to teach. This broader audience does not have the conditions under which to reflect critically on the ideas that are being presented. Distinctly academic excellence is possible only among peers and students (students should be thought of as peers-in-training). When a university announces its intent to have “maximum societal impact” it is often forgetting that the available “maximum” is that which can be achieved without sacrificing academic values.

        • Andrew says:

          Thomas:

          But it goes beyond that, in that it’s not clear that “social impact” is being evaluated at all. It’s more that “social impact” is a catchall category that the university can use to justify whatever decisions they might want to make on other grounds.

  5. John Mashey says:

    In case people haven’t seen it before, try this 3-page PDF that shows highlighted side-by-side comparisons of the allegedly plagiarized text.
    Key: light blue = word for word identical, in order (in essence, about what a UNIX diff command would find.)

    But it seems ASU joins a few other schools in being unable to deal with plagiarism. Sigh.

  6. jrc says:

    “And then when it turns out they made a mistake, they can correct it. No shame in that, no shame at all.”

    – AG: http://andrewgelman.com/2014/06/21/race-top-nyt-columnists-edition/

    So, in the spirit of you, I’ve taken the liberty of drafting a correction for you:

    One of the people involved in this sad, sad story, is Michael Crow, formerly at Columbia and currently president of some low quality state university (Arizona State University) in some low quality city (Phoenix, Arizona), about whom the university’s official website says, “He is guiding the transformation of ASU into one of the nation’s leading public metropolitan research universities, an institution that combines the highest levels of academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic, and maximum societal impact.” Furthermore, I am of the opinion that the University of Arizona is by far a superior institution in every respect.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    This Whitaker case appears to represent a common, almost inevitable issue involving affirmative action: what happens when you get so high up the ladder that racial preferences run out? Generally, the people running institutions see affirmative action as not a big problem at lower levels of the hierarchy, but think their own levels of the hierarchy should not lower standards. So, individuals like Professor Whitaker enjoy an easy ascent but then bang up against their limits near the top of the heap. The urge to cheat to make it that last step is understandable: did anybody ever tell Whitaker that everybody has just been shining him on for years to make themselves look racially sensitive, but he’s not smart enough to write his own books and earn tenure?

    Similarly, affirmative action often runs out when it comes to making partner in a law firm. For example, judging from her own remarks, her mother’s, and her friend’s, Michelle Obama benefited from affirmative action in getting into Whitney Young H.S., Princeton, Harvard Law School, and a BigLaw firm in Chicago. But it quickly became apparent there that she was never going to make partner (e.g., she didn’t pass the easy Illinois bar exam at her first opportunity). So the much smarter Barack helped her decide to give up her law license and go to work for the Daley Administration doing Chicago Machine stuff. The First Lady is still sore about people noticing her intelligence limitations, but at least she had a very smart spouse to help her get reoriented. Most people aren’t as lucky as her.

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      Setting the ethnic issue aside, it’s my impression that a lot of plagiarism cases arise when someone agrees to do something that he or she does not have the ability or inclination to do. For example, statistician Ed Wegman agreed to write that report for Congress but he didn’t really know what he was talking about, so he copied material written by others and did not give attribution (because, if he had given the citation, it would’ve been clear he had nothing to say). With law professors Laurence Tribe and Ian Ayres, I don’t know whassup but I assume they wanted credit for something but didn’t want to do the work. Or maybe they’d agreed to do something out of a sense of responsibility—I suspect that’s what happened in some of Wegman’s papers—but then just didn’t have the energy to do it. With Jonah Lehrer, I dunno: perhaps he’d been plagiarizing all his life and it worked for him, so he kept doing it until he didn’t really know any other way to go. Some of these people have had pretty hard-core defenders, I assume because they are professionally or politically connected to the offenders.

      • Rahul says:

        Andrew:

        Isn’t your “setting the ethnic issue aside” a bit too mild of a response to Steve here?

        It is like someone accuses Jews of blood libel & one responds “The Jewish angle apart, generally child murderers are very bad people”.

        Almost as if you are implicitly conceding Steve’s “affirmative action leads to plagiarism” logic but want to play safe by not actively endorsing it?

    • Rahul says:

      @Steve:

      Andrew’s blog focuses quite a bit on plagiarism, research-fabrication & similar academic “cheating” cases.

      Some names that come to mind: Wegman, Diederik Stapel, Dershowitz, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Laurence Tribe, Ian Ayres, Fareed Zakaria, Karl E. Weick, Raymond Keene, Anil Potti….

      Can you count how many of these were affirmative action hires? You make it sound like affirmative action is a significant source / cause of plagiarism.

      Unfortunately, the facts say something else.

      PS. Here’s Wikipedia’s list of plagiarism incidents. Maybe someone can do a systematic count of affirmative action hires here…. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_plagiarism_incidents

    • Steve,
      Since you seem to reserve “affirmative action” for cases in which standards are lowered (lowered, let’s assume, from some notional meritocratic standard), do you have a term that you use for the process an employer might undertake to overcome the various entrenched biases in hiring and promotion, which lead to ongoing discrimination against many groups? That, after all, is where the term affirmative action originates – even if you think it’s been implemented as standards lowering, what would you call the process of working actively to overcome discrimination? I ask because, if one doesn’t make this distinction – between lowering of standards, and working actively to overcome discrimination – then one might be thought either to be living in a fantasyland where the whole process is non-problematic (“just be colorblind…”), or a racist who thinks vastly unequal employment outcomes natural, deserved, or desirable.
      I don’t mean to make light, though, of the problem of trying to cut off unearned preference when you get far up the ladder – it can have serious consequences. Look at George W. Bush.

  8. Rahul says:

    ” Some of these people have had pretty hard-core defenders, I assume because they are professionally or politically connected to the offenders.”

    …or because the defenders think that one incident is not enough to damn a guy. Or they think his overall contribution is so good that he doesn’t deserve a career ending lynching for this.

    Or maybe they think he’s just a nice, helpful guy in general and academic obsessions with plagiarism be damned (remember, plagiarism isn’t even a real offense outside of academia.)

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      As noted above, I’d be much happier if Wegman and his defenders would admit that he polluted the scientific literature with botched Wikipedia copyings, misled Congress by writing a report on a topic beyond his expertise, ripped off journal subscribers by charging thousands of dollars for unsourced material, etc., but that this was all ok because of his other contributions. If they want to make the case, make the case. But I think you do have to make the case. Same with Whitaker: maybe he’s the world’s greatest dad, whatever, I don’t see why a book editor has to say ludicrous things to deny the obvious. Hey, if plagiarism is no big deal, just say he plagiarized and you’re happy to publish plagiarized material, go for it. I won’t like that either, but at least it’s honest.

      As Thomas Basbøll might say, let’s not “damn a guy,” let’s not damn anybody. Let’s just describe what happened as openly and directly as possible. If a university wants to tenure someone whose work is plagiarized, let’s make that decision openly so it can be contested openly. And let’s also consider what it means to make these decisions while at the same time expressing a zero-tolerance position for such behavior by students.

      P.S. Plagiarism is a real offense outside academia. Just ask Jonah Lehrer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Quentin Rowan, etc.

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