The Arizona Desert Lamp

Open-source dissertation defense?

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 3 June 2009

Plagiarism, by JSU President Meehan

This picture is rightly getting the rounds, thanks to the ever popular Boing Boing. A summary of the story from the Chronicle:

Back in April, William A. Meehan, president of Jacksonville State University in Alabama, was accused of plagiarism. According to a lawsuit, Mr. Meehan copied large portions of his dissertation verbatim from a dissertation published three years earlier.

At the time, a university spokesman said there was no substance to the accusations, and the matter has since faded from the news.

But that changed on Monday, when a chart (click on “Download PDF” icon in order to read the document) surfaced online. The chart highlights portions of Mr. Meehan’s dissertation that mirror the work of Carl Boening, chairman of the behavioral-studies division at Shelton State Community College, also in Alabama.

. . .

Patty Hobbs, a spokeswoman for Jacksonville State, said the plagiarism charges had been investigated and refuted by lawyers at both Jacksonville and Alabama. “This is not new,” said Ms. Hobbs. “It’s taken on a life of its own on the blogs. Our stand on it is still the same.””

Mr. Meehan received his doctorate in education from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1999. The university reportedly reviewed the plagiarism charges, though questions have been raised about the thoroughness of that investigation.

Mr. Meehan has run into trouble with allegations of plagiarism before. In 2007 newspaper columns supposedly written by him turned out to have been copied. —Thomas Bartlett

One of the comments brings up the specter of Ward Churchill, and between these cases a common question emerges: “How the hell did these people ever get to be doctors in their field, let alone (in the case of Churchill) gain tenure?” It’s a interesting question. The process for gaining a doctorate is largely buried within the various departments, but the end-tail of the process (after completing core requirements) basically boils to the following steps:

1. Choose a faculty advisor(s)

2. Write a dissertation

3. Defend dissertation before a committee of professors in your field

This process depends based on program and school, and the amount of intra-department politics that go into it are somewhat astounding (or utterly unsurprising). Students aspiring for doctorates must play these power politics as much as they must research, striving to get a more amenable professor on their review board in lieu of someone else. Usually, this is a side effect of a general good; yet the case of Mr. Meehan is a dramatic demonstration of how someone can slip through the system.

Currently, dissertation defenses are open to the public. Students on campus can occasionally espy fliers advertising the defense of the paper, “Design of Multi Modality Fundus Cameras” (Biomedical Engineering). It probably won’t be as bad as Pearl Harbor, but few if any of those with interest will want to, or will find the time to, attend.

Suppose, though, that these papers were published online? Ideally, they would be accessible at a resource center for the department, easily viewable by experts – amateur and otherwise – around the world. The papers would include a commenting section, where viewers could submit questions/concerns. The author could either respond to the comments online, or use the comments to help prepare for questions that s/he might face in an oral defense.

There are two ways to go about implementing such a format. One would be to publish the dissertation two weeks before the actual defense. Google News Alerts would be dinged, RSS feeds would be updated, and those with an interest in the field would have to time to go through the paper. Yet I suspect that those seeking doctorates might find this an unfair amount of scrutiny to be subjected to prior to an oral defense; in that case, papers could be posted after the oral defense had been passed, again for two weeks. The same process would continue, but the approval would only be reconsidered in light of the comments with the approval of half of the professors on the board.

By no means is this a fool-proof plan – in all likelihood, Mr. Meehan would still have gotten away with his plagiarism no matter what sort of system of establish. But by bringing some sunlight – that most effective disinfectant – into the docorate granting process, perhaps there might some chance of combating the system’s worst vagaries.

(Any thoughts from those in graduate school will be greatly appreciated.)

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In praise of the ivory tower

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 29 April 2009

Ivory TowerMark Taylor’s piece on graduate school was apparently quite the popular column in the Times, but hopefully not for the merit of its ideas. This proposal in particular struck me as wrong-minded:

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

It’s easy to bash the “ivory tower,” but this proposal reminds us why the epithet was originally positive. If you really want to see Horowitz go into a rage, wait until we start having graduate studies on the ethical implications of opposing the stimulus package, or the Lyotardian perspective on the tea party demonstrations of 2009. Do we start reading the Iliad to learn about ancient Greek attitudes towards a single-payer health care system? While the sentiment against parochial departments is nice, the proposed solution – essentially, department formation on the basis of media focus – is even worse. Even today, we see our own university moving towards renaming the architecture college the “College of Sustainable Design.” Had we the same attitudes in the 1950s as we do now, would it be the “The College of Atomic Design”?

This isn’t to say that the university should be completely aloof from the here and now. The ivory tower is a great metaphor here, because it describes exactly what the university, as an institution, should be doing: taking in the bird’s-eye view, looking at things in the long run and considering their place in a broader scheme.

This dovetails nicely with the new public-private education lobby in Arizona, Expect More Arizona, which states in its “Facts” section that:

There is a competitive shift occurring around the globe and in local communities that highlights an increasing need to strengthen education in our state.  Arizona’s students are falling behind their national and international peers in academic achievement, high school graduation rates and postsecondary degree attainment.  And our students who do graduate on time are increasingly unprepared to succeed in college, work or life.

In a world where the best jobs will go to the most knowledgeable and skilled workers regardless of where they live around the world, we cannot afford to let another day go without making education our state’s top priority.  It’s up to all of us to raise the bar, expecting more from ourselves, from our students and from each other.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the private sponsors of education lobbying efforts emphasize the economic aspects, but this has quickly become the only justification for the university. This represents a sort of debased utilitarianism, in which everything is weighted based on the jobs “generated” or the appropriation’s “multiplier effect” (multipliers, animal spirits, and liquidity traps, oh my!). If economic concerns are primary, then the proper legislative action should be to boost support for community colleges, which provide cheaper, professional education, that allows those earning median income ranges and below to acquire the skills necessary to get a new job.

The university at its best, in contrast, is marked by nothing if not its impracticality. Here is the place for reading the Greek philosophers, for pondering theoretical concepts in physics (how would Einstein have managed at a ‘jobs-oriented’ university), for allowing the baroque fantasies of the mind untethered to manifest themselves. This attitude is not inimical to societal contribution – today’s musings on futarchy might be tomorrow’s expositions on legal reform. But it does stand in stark contrast to any form of short-term “stimulus.”

NB: This post is a somewhat haphazard sequel to thoughts in an earlier post.