Every essay season, professors trot out the same talk about plagiarism and its dire consequences. By all accounts, punishment is swift and devastating. But one professor, Stella Sandahl of the East Asian studies department, is still waiting on an explanation for a case she reported years ago that never got a hearing. So far, she says, the only explanation seems to be the student’s relationship to senior administration.
Sandahl said that when she discovered a serious plagiarism case in fall of 2002, she first spoke with the student, in accordance with the Code on Behaviour in Academic Matters. When the student denied any wrongdoing, Sandahl took the matter to the chair of the department. The Code states that the chair should interview the student and invite the dean and the instructor for the meeting.
No such interview took place. Michael Marrus, who was then the dean of the School of Graduate Studies and a friend of the student’s parents, wrote to Sandahl in a letter, “After a careful examination of this matter at SGS we have concluded that there are no grounds to proceed further. Consequently, I regard this matter as closed.”
In a letter to Joseph Goering, the chair of the religious studies department, Marrus said that since he and Sandahl disagreed about whether the student plagiarized, he would submit the matter to two associate deans and the coordinator of Policy Programs and Liaison. Marrus’ inquiry concluded that there was no clear and convincing evidence of plagiarism.
Sandahl’s requests to see the report resulting from the inquiry were denied by three administrators: former provost Vivek Goel (then vice-provost of the faculty), former provost Adel Sedra, and most recently interim provost and VP Cheryl Misak.
“This matter was formally concluded under the code more than six years ago,” said Misak in a letter dated Sept. 30, 2008, in response to Sandahl’s most recent claim on the documents.
A report published in the Independent Weekly (now the Newspaper) on March 21, 2002, quoted professor David Smith, undergraduate adjudicator who ruled on plagiarism cases, saying that the case was “significant enough to warrant an allegation of plagiarism.” The report also notes that the student’s father was a “high-level administrator” at the university. The Varsity has found that the father is still at U of T, and continues to occupy an academic office.
Sandahl said the student had been careless with paraphrasing and several instances of copying short sentences verbatim, all without citation. According to Sandahl, as many as 49 of the essay’s 54 citations were improper. A letter from Smith said there were at least two occasions where the student did not cite his source at all.
Following Marrus’ ruling, a Classics department professor (name withheld) wrote to Goel, stating one of students had been found guilty of plagiarism in a similar case. That student had gotten an “F” grade and a note on her transcript. The professor asked why Sandahl’s case was different.
Plagiarism officer Susan Bartkiw, who made the ruling against the Classics student, told The Varsity that Sandahl’s case merited an investigation.
“It appears to me that Professor Sandhal had more than sufficient evidence to proceed with an allegation of plagiarism against the student and met with the student according to the procedures provided by U of T’s Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters,” said Bartkiw. “It is also my understanding that the matter should have gone before a hearing at the next level (at the decanal level) in accordance with the procedures provided by the Code.”
“Do these rules not apply for graduate students?” asked Sandahl. “Or do they not apply to graduate students with friends in high places?”
Six years later, Sandahl’s attempts to receive answers have all turned up empty. She hasn’t gotten access to either Marrus’ report or the letter from dean Goering to Marrus, both of which ruled against plagiarism.
“I have never disputed Marrus’ right to make a decision,” said Sandahl. “I just want to know why what I and several others consider plagiarism was not plagiarism in this case.”
Sandahl claimed that she had the right to see the file SGS keeps containing documents relating to her, including Goering’s letter stating why he thought the case was not plagiarism, under the memorandum of agreement between the U of T Faculty Association.
“I agree…that the documents you are requesting were part of a confidential process and it would not be consistent with policy, practice, or the principles of fairness to privide further access to you,” said Misak in her letter to Sandahl. Additionally, she said that Sandahl did not have the right to view these documents because they do not “form a personnel basis,” as stated in the UTFA memorandum.