The whistle-blower\’s dilemma



This is a story about ethical violations in academe—about why they go undiscovered for so long, why they rarely lead to serious punishment, and why the whistle-blowers seem to get as much blowback as the accused. In this case, I am the whistle-blower. I am going to do my best to chronicle this true and continuing saga as fairly as I can while protecting everyone’s anonymity. Keep in mind that various people I mention here would probably see things differently than I do.

Discovering the problem. We had a young faculty member coming up on the halfway point of her tenure process, and I was on her review committee. She was a solid teacher with an acceptable amount of service, but had barely written a word since we hired her. Her committee members pointed that out in her first annual review, and again more forcefully in her second.

As we went into her third, we either needed to see real progress, or her circumstances were going to change. When we received her updated dossier, sure enough, it showed she had produced and presented a competitively selected paper at an academic conference. It wasn’t much to show after three years, but it was something.

The problem: Instead of the actual paper, the candidate had given us only a copy of the conference program listing her paper. That seemed like a rookie oversight, so I contacted the chair of the review committee (\”Dr. A\”), who also happened to be this young faculty member’s mentor. Our practice is for the committee chair to communicate directly with the tenure candidate (to limit confusion) so I asked Dr. A if a copy of the candidate’s paper could be emailed to me so I could review it over the weekend. (This was on a Thursday.)

Imagine my surprise when the answer came back \”no.\” Dr. A told me that our junior colleague could not possibly get the paper to me before the following Monday. That made no sense. How long does it take to hit \”reply\” to an email and attach a document? I was a senior member of the faculty, a member of the review committee, and I was asking for something simple and straightforward. \”No\” was not an acceptable answer, and I said as much to Dr. A—to no avail.

I finally got the paper on Monday, and my curiosity aroused, gave it a closer-than-usual read. At first, I thought it was actually quite brilliant—well written, extremely well documented, and interesting. However, it also seemed astoundingly ambitious for a 20-page paper, and I could not imagine how she could accomplish all she had set out to do in the first few pages. As I got closer to the \”end\” of the paper, it became clear: Not only had she not finished her stated aims, she hadn’t even started. The paper ended abruptly with a few disjointed summary paragraphs, having never actually discussed any data or analysis. Meanwhile, after citing well over 100 references in the text, the author had not supplied a bibliography. The paper just ended.

I could come to only one logical explanation: The paper hadn’t existed when I requested a copy. The candidate had used the weekend to convert the first chapter of her doctoral dissertation into something resembling a conference paper. Taken aback, I immediately took my concerns to our department chair. He was troubled, too, and confronted the faculty member. She confessed she did not, in fact, have a completed paper but had \”tossed one together\” after I had asked to see it. Our chair took over at that point, and suffice it to say, this assistant professor now works elsewhere.

Here was my problem, though. Her dossier had provided clear evidence that she had presented this \”paper.\” It was printed right there in the conference program, and on the meeting’s website. How could it get there if there was no paper?

Discovering the bigger problem. As I stared at the program, I got a terrible, sinking feeling. The chair of this particular conference panel: Dr. A. It was one of several sessions at this meeting organized by a particular division. And who was that division’s program planner? Once again: Dr. A.

At last, things started to make sense. Dr. A, wanting this young colleague to succeed, must have bypassed the peer-review process and slipped her unfinished work onto the conference panel. That had to be why no one realized that the \”paper\” this junior faculty member stood up and presented did not actually exist. Things went downhill from there. The conference program for that same panel listed papers from four other scholars—one of them being Dr. A. Something struck me as too familiar about this entire situation. So, having served on our department’s personnel committee more than a dozen times, I went back to our files and, to my shock, found that every single peer-reviewed conference paper listed by Dr. A on an annual self-evaluation had been presented on a panel chaired by Dr. A.

Surely, there was some explanation. I was overreacting, right? Paranoid? Seeing bogeymen?

Before I proceed, I should mention that Dr. A and I had been friends. Good friends, even. Dr. A was a mentor of sorts. Like Dr. A, I developed into someone who was a good teacher, did too much service for my own good, and generated just enough scholarship to get by. Unfortunately, we had had something of a falling out when we were on opposite sides of a departmental debate over killing a program.

Our brittle relationship gave me pause about looking into this further, but it didn’t seem right to stop, either. So I looked up Dr. A’s CV and began trying to find the conference papers that had been listed.

As it turned out, not a single one of Dr. A’s papers had been published. I know that in my own resoundingly mediocre career as a scholar, many of my conference papers disappeared as well, but not all of them. Then I discovered that the conference for which Dr. A had been planning panels had archived its papers online for several years. But when I looked up Dr. A’s papers, and clicked on the links, every one of them led to a blank page. I could not find a single paper anywhere.

Then I remembered that, at the very least, Dr. A’s most recent conference paper was filed in the department office. So as discreetly as possible, I removed the paper, made a copy, and returned it. The paper was eight pages long, contained no original data, no real analysis, no citations more recent than five years ago (and only about eight of those), and enough grammatical and formatting errors to raise eyebrows in a sophomore-level class. By contrast, the other papers presented on the same panel were more than 20 pages long and had up-to-date references, real data, and astute analysis. Dr. A, it appeared, had been faking these conference papers for years.

The investigation. I felt obligated to report my findings. So I went to the department chair. That was an interesting experience, as I saw my chair transform before my eyes from a regular, affable colleague into a legalistic automaton. In fairness, I am sure what I brought to him was overwhelming, and he was not yet nearly as convinced as I that my allegations were true. He was also, however, suddenly aware that he had been dragged into a legal minefield, and he was stepping cautiously.

Now, instead of chatting casually in the doorway as we had for years, our conversations were seated, and stilted, and he took notes. It was awful, and I immediately felt pushed away—as if I had done something wrong.

My chair concluded that university policy required him to pass my concerns up the ladder, and he sent me to my dean, whose reaction was not much different from that of the chair. The dean concluded that his office was not, in fact, where the buck stopped, so he sent me to the associate dean of the graduate school, who then sent me to the dean of the graduate school, who then passed me along to an assistant to the provost, who then finally passed me along to the provost.

By the time I was done making the rounds, any sense that I was still anonymous in making this complaint had long since evaporated. Finally in the provost’s office, however, I was assured that I was right in coming forward, that my allegations were both serious and credible, and that they would be investigated.

At that point, the cone of silence descended. Because of privacy laws, personnel matters are confidential. That makes sense. The investigation would include at least one senior member of the department, but there were only a handful of us, including me, the chair, or Dr. A. So I had now created this enormous, burdensome, tension-producing task about which none of us senior professors could talk. To call this awkward might be an understatement.

It was also awkward to suddenly find myself being kept at arm’s length, not only my own chair but by other administrators as well. I had never considered how invested I would become in resolving this issue, nor that I would be entirely cut out of that resolution.

Why does all this matter? Well, I see a number of reasons. We all work for the state, where money is especially tight. Every year, Dr. A’s performance evaluation—upon which a faculty member’s salary is based—was justified in part with fraudulent information. Dr. A traveled every year to a conference—with airfare, conference and hotel fees, and a per diem all paid for by the state—to present \”scholarship\” that did not actually exist. Every dollar given to Dr. A was a dollar not given to someone else.

This situation also exposed the unintended complicity of the rest of us. I had personally chaired or served on all but one of the personnel committees that had signed off on Dr. A’s annual self-evaluation report listing this \”scholarship.\” How had this happened?

Easy, we were friends. Had I actually read Dr. A’s conference papers during those annual performance reviews? Honestly? Not so much. I saw that they were listed in Dr. A’s dossier, I noted that they had been presented at a conference, and I checked the appropriate box. Once or twice I recall glancing at Dr. A’s papers and thinking they were on the sparse side, but I never gave them another thought. Neither did anyone else on the personnel committee. Neither did any of the various department chairs who served during this time span.

We all had faith in \”the system\” and in the long-tenured Dr. A, and we all had more pressing things to do with our time.

What eventually happened to Dr. A as a result of these misdeeds? I learned after the fact that a preliminary inquiry found my allegations credible and recommended a full investigation, which found that my concerns were not only valid, but understated. That committee recommended to the administration that Dr. A be both fined and terminated.

However, Dr. A was not without allies and several of them argued that Dr. A had been led to believe that this sort of activity was acceptable. How? By having had it sanctioned annually by—you guessed it—me and other members of our personnel committee.

Eventually, the university chose to rescind Dr. A’s graduate faculty status for several years. The only actual \”punishment\”: Dr. A was no longer allowed to teach graduate courses or serve on graduate thesis and exam committees, and was instead required to teach one additional undergraduate service course.

Lessons learned. And what about me? The time I spent building the case and dealing with the aftermath was not time I spent on anything productive, nor was it time I spent with my family, so this experience was financially, physically, and emotionally draining in ways I had certainly not bargained for.

My relationships with administrators suffered, too. In the eyes of many, I went from being a well-respected member of the faculty to a crazy guy with an obsession. They thought I should have \”let go\” much sooner than I did. Meanwhile, my uninformed junior colleagues didn’t see me as \”the good guy\” in the story; they just saw a pair of warring elephants that they hoped to avoid being trampled by.

As of this writing, three years have passed. My university and department have engaged in some genuine soul-searching regarding policies and procedures, and the rigor with which we implement them, in the hopes that situations like this won’t happen again. I have struggled to regain the respect of my administration, and I would say I have made reasonable and steady progress.

I have made less progress with the folks in my department. Our chair is stepping down, and I am clearly the logical choice to follow. When I talk to my colleagues, however, no one asks about my qualifications or my vision for the department. They only ask how I am going to handle Dr. A. And the honest answer is, I have no idea.

Author Bio: Lee Townes is the pseudonym of a tenured faculty member at a public university in the Midwest.