On September 15, West Liberty University President W. Franklin Evans, gave the annual freshman convocation speech to a mix of students and faculty. Having only been hired for the position in November 2020, it was Evans’ first time giving such a speech at the university.
However, as the speech went on, several faculty members felt somehting was amiss. According to one anonymous faculty member that spoke to Inside Higher Ed, some members of the faculty began searching for passages from the speech as it was being given. Pretty soon, “People started just reading along.”
Evans had plagiarized a significant portion of his speech from a July 2021 article by Robert Farrington at Forbes magazine. The article, entitled 5 Tips for College Freshman [sic] to Help Maximize Year One, featured much of the same language and even the same tips at Evans’ speech.
Faculty members soon began investigating other speeches Evans had given and, at a Faculty Senate meeting on September 24, had determined that Evans had plagiarized at least three of his speeches.
The first event took place in January 2021. At a Belmont County NAACP event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he quoted author Doug Williford without crediting him and even implied that he came up with the analogy himself.
The second incident took place in June 2021 at a Juneteenth event in Flushing, Ohio. There, he plagiarized several sources including the Smithsonian Website, an op-ed piece by Greg Bell and a New York Times article.
After both of those plagiarisms came the convocation speech in September.
But while West Liberty’s Faculty Senate appears to be taking the matter seriously, the school’s Board of Governors is not. In a statement, the board said, “the board believes that this was an oversight by Dr. Evans.” The statement went on to say that, “Dr. Evans has apologized to the faculty and has vowed that in the future he will be more diligent in giving proper attribution when drafting his speeches.”
To put it bluntly, this is not adequate. Members of the faculty are correctly concerned that this will make it difficult for the school to enforce academic integrity standards. After all, how can a professor punish a student for plagiarism when the President of the school isn’t even reprimanded for the same act?
However, Evans is far from alone in his situation. The list of school administrators caught plagiarizing is both long and growing and even includes my alma mater.
A Growing Problem
Disclosure: The University of South Carolina is my alma mater. I was graduated from there in 2002 but have not had any involvement with the school since then. President Robert Caslen was not the President at my time of attendance.
Evans is far from alone as a school administrator facing significant allegations of plagiarism. Back in May 2021, then-University of South Carolina President Robert Caslen was accused of plagiarizing portions of his commencement speech to the school.
Issues with his speech were first noticed when he greeted the audience as the latest graduates from the “University of California”. This prompted an investigation into the speech, which found significant overlap with a 2014 commencement address given by Admiral William H. McRaven at the University of Texas.
As with Evans’ case, the Board of Trustees initially stood behind Caslen However, Caslen ultimately opted to hand in his resignation. Investigations into his hiring revealed that he considered taking the job the “biggest regret of my life.”
But while Evans likely has a friend among University Presidents, he has many more among public school superintendents, at least 5 of which have faced allegations of plagiarism in the past two years alone. One in particular was accused of plagiarism just two months into their tenure.
The problem is clearly growing, and it’s past time for universities and school districts to get ahead of the issue.
A Disheartening Response
The school’s response, so far, has been underwhelming. Thought its added citations to the archived videos of the speeches and the Faculty Senate seems to be taking the matter seriously, Both Evans and the Board of Governors are not.
Evans, for his part, has apologized for the plagiarism saying that “I need to be more careful” and that the plagiarism was “unintentional”. According to a summary of the meeting with the Faculty Senate, the confrontation was “cordial” and that Evans felt speeches were different from papers in terms of citation standards.
However, Evans’ explanation doesn’t carry water. The three incidents make it more than a simple mistake and, while he is correct that speeches have a different citation standard than an academic paper, he flouted those citation standards as well.
When giving a speech, one is expected to call out quotes by saying things such as “As previously said by…” or “As stated…” Evans did not do that. No one is expecting full footnotes for his speeches, but he failed to meet the modest citation standards exist and are very well understood when it comes to speeches.
However, perhaps the most troubling response came from the Board of Governors.
On Tuesday, the Board of Governors for the school issued a statement. However, the statement is both underwhelming and inaccurate. It says in part:
The board believes that this was an oversight by Dr. Evans. Dr. Evans has apologized to the faculty and has vowed that in the future he will be more diligent in giving proper attribution when drafting his speeches.Rich Lucas, chairman West Liberty University Board of Governors
To be clear, this is not an oversight. The faculty at the school have established a clear pattern of plagiarism with three separate speeches. If it were a simple mistake, it might be easier to forgive, but three separate instances in less than 10 months illustrates a habit of plagiarism, not a simple mistake.
The fact that all three plagiarism incidents followed such similar patterns makes it clear that Evans didn’t slip up, but that this is how he has been writing speeches, with a clear lack of care about attribution and citation.
The faculty has correctly expressed concern that having a repeat plagiarist serve as the school’s president could undermine any efforts to teach and enforce academic integrity. After all, why should students, who are still learning the craft, be held to a higher standard than the president of the school?
Both the Faculty Senate and the Board of Governors have meetings scheduled for later this month and my hope is that, with the dust settled a bit, both can see this case with fresh eyes and take the action that is needed. This isn’t something that the school can afford to simply dismiss. It demands a strong, transparent and decisive reaction.
The Bigger Lesson
However, it isn’t just West Liberty University that needs to take action in the wake of these events. It’s every university and school district in the world.
One thing that was noted in the original Times Higher Ed coverage was that many institutions do not have policies that cover how they should respond when their faculty, staff or administrators commit plagiarism as part of their jobs.
Though they likely have policies dealing with research and other academic work, those policies often don’t cover speeches, letters to the public, books, or other non-academic pursuits.
As Evans’ case shows, now is the time to start drafting those policies. Though it is human nature to only draft policies after a problem arises, it is simply not practical in this case. One of the reasons why West Liberty University is struggling is because it doesn’t have a policy in place. If it did, it’s likely this matter would already be resolved.
It doesn’t take much time or energy to draft policies for these kinds of incidents, and they can save so much embarrassment and floundering in a time of crisis.
In the end, the school cannot afford to ignore a repeated pattern of plagiarism by its president. It’s that simple. The school needs to take decisive action that is transparent and forceful. It needs to send the message to its students, not to mention its alumni and donors, that they take academic integrity seriously.
Neither Evans’ apology nor the Board of Governors’ statements about the incident treat it with the appropriate gravity. This wasn’t a simple mistake or an oversight, it was repeated plagiarisms buy the president of the school in public forums.
This is an embarrassment to the school and everyone connected to it. Ultimately, it’s up to the school to take the needed action to remedy it.
Hopefully, the increased attention both nationally and locally will help the school see how serious this is and not only take steps to resolve this issue, but ensure that it never happens again.