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Audit: SUU's ESL program flawed, but plagiarism not the norm

Published January 15, 2013 2:08 pm

Higher ed • SUU's program receives mixed review; theft charges dropped against former instructor.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Flaws in Southern Utah University's English as a Second Language program — such as passing students based "largely" on their attendance — allowed plagiarism to happen, but it wasn't endemic, according to a newly released audit.

The review was triggered by complaints from former instructor Belinda Frost, who alleged the program tolerated widespread plagiarism by students.

The audit, by ESL professors from Utah State University, found otherwise.

"We do not feel that the claim that plagiarism was a norm that was accepted within the ESL unit is a founded one," the audit said. "The faculty we spoke with appeared to be genuinely dedicated and concerned and we don't think they would consciously allow plagiarism in the curriculum."

But the review found "many students were passed through the program largely on attendance-based assessment." Students weren't taught how to use outside sources properly and reading lessons weren't integrated with writing instruction.

Short, four-week courses and the exclusive use of part-time faculty with little experience in teaching academic writing to ESL students exacerbated the program's problems, it said.

SUU officials say they are revamping the 17-month-old program. After Frost's allegations surfaced in November, they ordered the review and increased the amount of in-class writing time, according to the university's written response to the audit.

A new director, Andrea Stiefvater, started this month. Class sessions have been lengthened to seven weeks, and leaders say they plan to begin hiring full-time faculty with more qualifications and experience.

"Admittedly, SUU's ESL program is a work in progress. It is not perfect, but it is far better than the picture painted in the media," SUU provost Bradley Cook wrote in an opinion piece published Sunday in The Salt Lake Tribune. He could not be reached Tuesday for further comment.

USU professors Jim Rogers and Jim Bame conducted 20-minute interviews with eight teachers — half the staff — four students, the curriculum coordinator and Mark Atkinson, dean of SUU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. They also examined teachers' résumés and course syllabi.

Frost, who had resigned before she raised public concerns about the program, called the review "soft."

"I just think that teachers who allowed plagiarism aren't going to come forward and say it," she said. "Documentation should have been reviewed."

An additional internal audit, which included interviews with all personnel in the program and an analysis of more than 80 student papers, confirmed the results, Atkinson said in an email. It "debunked the claim that ESL students were being pipelined into matriculation," he said.

Frost said she agrees with many of the issues the audit identified.

"Plagiarism was a symptom, not a cause," she said. "I don't think that the leadership, at least, was trying to cover up plagiarism; they just didn't have a policy on anything."

Meanwhile, Iron County prosecutors this week dropped a misdemeanor theft charge filed against Frost, citing insufficient evidence.

She was charged in November, after providing The Tribune with copies of student papers that contained unattributed content from Wikipedia and other sources but were marked with passing grades. She also shared the papers with administrators.

Frost said she found the work on her own shelf in a shared office. Frost photocopied the papers off-campus, then returned them to the instructor's shelf.

The instructor, Nina Hansen, accused her of theft. Hansen was placed on probation after the allegations became public but has since been reinstated, Atkinson said.

Frost, who said she reported plagiarism internally, viewed the charge as retribution for going public. University officials said they were required to investigate Hansen's allegation.

The dismissal, made official just before a scheduled arraignment date, is "a big relief," Frost said. "I just want it over and done."

Iron County attorney Scott Garrett did not return a message seeking comment, nor did an attorney representing Frost, who quit SUU and is now looking for a new job.

The ESL program at SUU is part of its School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Originally started by a for-profit company, Internexus Language Schools, in 2001, the program was taken over by SUU in August 2011. It has about 180 students, and is designed to prepare those with little or no English skills for college studies at SUU.

Most of those students are from Saudi Arabia. That country's Cultural Mission banned students from entering the program in December, citing both student complaints and its "oversaturation" with Saudi students.

Once SUU meets the guideline of having no more than 35 percent of students sponsored by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, officials plan to ask for the program be reinstated, Atkinson said.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst