It started out as an anonymous blog to air gripes about a community college in southern Minnesota.
But in the past few weeks, the bloggers have used it to level charges of plagiarism against the presidents of two of Minnesota’s 24 community colleges. And they’re vowing more such allegations as part of an escalating conflict over the management of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MnSCU).
In early February, a blog post titled “Academic Dishonesty” accused an unnamed college president — later identified as Annette Parker, president of South Central College in North Mankato — of lifting parts of her doctoral dissertation from other authors without proper attribution.
On Thursday, a group calling itself Minnesotans United for Higher Ed, published similar allegations against another college president — also unnamed — with numerous examples of what it calls “intellectual fraud.”
“We’ve uncovered two academically dishonest presidents, and there are more,” said Nicole Helget, a former South Central teacher and spokeswoman for the group. If the pattern continues, she said, “MnSCU will be the national laughingstock of higher education.”
MnSCU issued a brief statement Friday, saying: “We fully support all our outstanding presidents. It is disappointing that people with unknown motivations and a blog can repeatedly level baseless and reckless accusations against people they don’t like until they get the attention they seek.”
Others say that the allegations should be taken seriously.
“It is an understatement to say that Annette has ‘borrowed heavily’ from our work,” said University of Richmond professor Jeffrey Harrison, co-author of an article Parker is accused of plagiarizing, in a written statement after reading the blog. “Nobody with her background and training could have engaged in such gross misconduct innocently.”
Parker, who became president of South Central in 2013, insists that she never took credit for anyone else’s work. “I gave proper attribution to my sources,” she said. In response to the allegations, she has asked Western Kentucky University, which awarded her doctorate in education in 2012, to review her dissertation.
Dorothy Duran, president of Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical in Winona, confirmed that her dissertation was the focus of Thursday’s blog post. She said she was “truly blindsided” by the allegations. “I worked very hard and I studied hard and certainly stand behind what I did,” she said. She added that the excerpts in the blog are incomplete, and “they do take it out of context.”
The blog attacks are the latest sign of turmoil at MnSCU, where faculty unions and management have been at loggerheads over Chancellor Steven Rosenstone’s plans to reform the sprawling college system.
Helget’s group openly admits that its main goal is to shake up Rosenstone’s administration, which it accuses of secrecy and mismanagement. In the past two months, the group hired a private investigator and launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to investigate MnSCU’s business dealings.
Fired teacher goes public
Helget, one of the few members willing to speak publicly, was fired in January as an adjunct teacher at South Central after circulating a campuswide e-mail criticizing Parker’s budget cuts and other decisions.
Helget decided to go public with the allegations against Parker after an individual, whom she wouldn’t identify, ran the dissertation through a plagiarism detection program, which searches for similarities in published documents.
“There are certain writing rules that everyone learns I think beginning in junior high,” said Helget, including how to paraphrase and use quotation marks. “Those things are not happening in this dissertation.”
The post, which Helget co-authored with Mankato lawyer Ryan Magnus, appeared on a blog called Save South Central College, and cited several excerpts from Parker’s 2012 dissertation and the original source material.
In one example, Parker wrote: “More loosely formed partnerships also may be formed for strategic reasons such as the American Booksellers Association, a non-profit trade association that represents the owners of independent bookstores (Barringer & Harrison, 2000).”
The original source, the blog shows, appeared in the Journal of Management in 2000 with much the same wording: “More loosely coupled alliances may be formed for similar strategic reasons. For example, the American Booksellers Association is a not-for-profit trade association that represents the owners of independent bookstores.”
Harrison, who co-authored the 2000 article, said that it’s not unusual for academics to “paraphrase a couple of paragraphs” and credit each other. “However, in my opinion Annette has gone far beyond what is acceptable … she did not use quotations where she should have, and it appears that she did not even include citations for much of what she took from our article.”
Experts review dissertation
Two experts in academic integrity, who reviewed the allegations against Parker at the Star Tribune’s request, also found the examples troubling.
“I think most people would say that what I’m seeing here on the blogs constitutes inappropriate attribution,” said Melissa Anderson, associate dean and professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota, who looked at the examples from Parker’s dissertation. Anderson, who chairs a world conference on research integrity, said it’s not enough to change a few words and portray the sentence as your own. “You just have to be really careful in attributing ideas to somebody else.”
Teresa Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, said some of the examples were more problematic than others. “There are some things in here that look like examples of plagiarism and other things that look like citation errors,” she said. “It doesn’t look like there’s any doubt that it wasn’t properly referenced.”
Presidents cry foul
Parker, though, dismissed the plagiarism label as unfair. “Taking anyone’s work and passing it off as someone’s own is wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated,” she said. In this case, she said, she cited her sources repeatedly. “I really think that the conversation is more about attribution and citation and not plagiarism.”
At the same time, she said, if the review of her dissertation at Western Kentucky University finds “that in some places I did not make proper attribution, I would be more than happy to correct those.”
Duran, for her part, said that the blog omitted some of the citations that showed she was crediting other authors.
“I’m very concerned about this,” she said. “It questions my integrity.”
To some, the blog posts raise their own ethical problems.
“In my view, using social media to publish anonymous accusations is extremely irresponsible,” said Kurt Dershem, a philosophy instructor at South Central. “Even if some of the claims being made by contributors to the blog are accurate, they’re embedded in a context of half-truths and outright fabrications.”
Yet the Internet also has made it easier to catch plagiarism, notes Anderson, the U professor.
“The thing about plagiarism is it’s often so clear to anyone who has access to these public documents,” she said. That means that it’s open season for anyone with an Internet connection, regardless of his or her motives.
“It’s as open to someone with a grudge as any public misbehavior,” she said. “The public will draw its own conclusions about whether that was fair or not.”