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'Pattern of plagiarism' costs University of Utah scholar his job

Published August 18, 2011 8:11 am

Bahman Bakhtiari says he's a victim of discrimination, sanction is overly harsh.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A faculty panel has substantiated a "pattern of plagiarism" on the part of a tenured University of Utah political scientist, but in a split decision declined to recommend firing him or revoking his tenure.

That lifeline was severed, however, by a senior administrator who overruled the panel, known as the Consolidated Hearing Committee (CHC), and fired Bahman Bakhtiari, whom the U. hired in 2009 to head its troubled Middle East Center (MEC), according to documents the U. provided to The Salt Lake Tribune.

"Plagiarism — holding out the work of another as one's own — strikes at the very core of academic integrity. In my view, the sanctions proposed by the CHC do not recognize the seriousness of this offense," interim president Lorris Betz wrote in a June 30 decision. "The only appropriate sanction in this case is dismissal, which is necessary to preserve the academic integrity of the institution and to restore public confidence in the university."

Bakhtiari, whose name also appears in print as "Baktiari," maintains the overlap between his work and that of others was not intentional. He says his firing represents an unwarranted intrusion by administration into faculty governance. The Iranian-born scholar also alleges he is the victim of discrimination perpetrated by a "pro-Arabist faction" within the MEC.

U. officials believe this is just the third proven case of plagiarism by a U. faculty member in the past 25 years, but Bakhtiari is the only one to be fired. One of the earlier cases was resolved by the scholar correcting the offending material, and the other scholar resigned before the administration could decide on a sanction, according to the U. documents.

Reached Wednesday, Bakhtiari defended his integrity, arguing that he has produced 3,500 pages of scholarly material with 14,000 footnotes over the course of his career and the panel found problems with only eight pages. Twelve diplomats and prominent scholars, including Gary Sick and Judith Yaphe, from around the world submitted letters vouching for his character.

"It is not a pattern when you have published 90 articles," Bakhtiari said.

In a letter to Betz asking him to limit the sanction to a private reprimand, Bakhtiari's lawyer Christopher Finley said no evidence was presented to suggest the political scientist's mistakes were motivated by a desire to take credit for others' original work or that these mistakes harmed the university. Bakhtiari has worked to correct "improper attribution and also to rehabilitate any injury to the university's and his reputation as the result of these problems," Finley wrote.

In a letter sent to Betz after he fired Bakhtiari asking him to reconsider, Finley argued that the scholar "has been a successful ambassador for the university, enhanced its international reputation and expanded its donor base."

The plagiarism probe focused mostly on materials Bakhtiari submitted to the U. when he applied for a tenured position two years ago, according to the U. documents. At that time he was director of the University of Maine's School of Policy and International Affairs.

In his defense to the panel, Bakhtiari conceded he made "mistakes" and was "sloppy," but denied he intentionally copied, despite "convincing evidence" that his work borrowed whole sentences and paragraphs from other sources with no attribution, according to the June 14 CHC report. His defense focused on the history of "internecine strife" plaguing the Middle East Center and the "derelictions" of his former U. colleagues, alleging one professor concealed his lack of a doctorate for decades but was not fired.

The faculty panel acknowledged Bakhtiari faced "extreme hardship" trying to right the center, but pointed out that much of the documented plagiarism occurred long before he arrived in Salt Lake City. Noting it reached its conclusions with "great sadness," the panel by a 3-2 vote recommended a public reprimand, six-month suspension without pay, transfer out of the College of Humanities and "retraction" of the offending publications.

"Nobody in the academic enterprise wants to see a colleague fail to observe standards of academic integrity," the report states. "And none of us can escape the pain that will come with a public sanctioning of a colleague."

While two dissenters voted for dismissal, the majority weren't persuaded Bakhtiari's actions warranted such extreme punishment, even though they found his explanations lacked credibility. The majority noted that "plagiarized passages provided supporting detail rather than the fundamental argument" in the publications.

The case against Bakhtiari was based on a March 7 complaint filed by four professors and humanities dean Robert Newman, who hired Bakhtiari with the hope of revitalizing the Middle East Center in the wake of a leadership shake-up. This group was particularly incensed with Bakhtiari for inserting two paragraphs — taken verbatim from a speech delivered by National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach — with no attribution into a conference proposal prepared by students.

Bakhtiari's conduct displayed not just "a willingness to put not only his own career in jeopardy, but the careers of his students who looked to Dr. Bakhtiari as a role model," alleged the dean's complaint, which sought Bakhtiari's firing. "It also [is] evidence [of] Dr. Bakhtiari's utter disregard for the educational mission and reputation of the university."

In February, U. graduate students first uncovered passages in Bakhtiari's published work, starting with an opinion piece in The Tribune that appeared to contain unattributed material from others' work. Around that time, an audit revealed that the center had exhausted its financial resources under Bakhtiari's leadership.

Newman placed Bakhtiari on paid administrative leave in February, took over the center's fiscal affairs and initiated an investigation. This probe documented 11 instances of suspected plagiarism, including material used in his course syllabus, book chapters, the MEC newsletter and commentaries. It discovered eight pages of Bakhtiari's 1984 dissertation at the University of Virginia, which awarded his doctorate, contained passages that had been pulled from five other sources without attribution.

The faculty panel substantiated nine of these instances, but concluded sanctions weren't warranted for the copying apparent in the conference proposal and course syllabus.

Newman declined to comment on the Bakhtiari matter. He did say the humanities college is taking steps to keep Middle East studies relevant on campus and has convened a panel to help chart a future course for the Middle East Center, although a decision has not been made on whether to hire a new director.

Meanwhile, the University of Maine, where Bakhtiari taught when he wrote most of the material found to be plagiarized, will review the U.'s findings, according to spokesman Joseph Carr.

"Based on that review, we will take action as may be appropriate and practical, consistent with UMaine's commitment to the core principle of academic integrity," he said in an email.

bmaffly@sltrib.com

Scholarship and scandal

A faculty panel substantiated nine instances of plagiarism by former University of Utah political scientist Bahman Bakhtiari, who directed the Middle East Center from July 2009 until February 2011. The materials include five book chapters, his doctoral dissertation and three opinion commentaries. Bakhtiari says the plagiarism was due to carelessness. The U. administration terminated Bakhtiari against the recommendation of the panel, which proposed lesser sanctions.