Is Southern Utah University tolerating plagiarism by ESL students?
Southern Utah University has placed an instructor in its English as a Second Language program on probation and is investigating allegations that the program tolerates widespread plagiarism by students.
The probe was triggered by complaints from former instructor Belinda Frost, who said she quit earlier this month in disgust.
Frost taught for a year in SUU's English as a Second Language (ESL) program, which some international students many of them from Saudi Arabia attend to prepare for college-level work. She estimates one-fifth of the writing assignments she graded contained unattributed prose from other sources.
The clues included unusual adjectives or American colloquialisms that a Saudi student would not likely know, Frost said. She discovered cheaters often laundered plagiarized passages through Google Translate. The odd syntax and sentence constructions the translation tool yields when converting Arabic text into English gave them away, she said.
In every instance, Frost said, she failed the student and reported the plagiarism, which is not tolerated under SUU's student conduct code, to now-former director Roland Brown and current interim director Bob Goodman. But she saw those students routinely escaping discipline, being passed to the next level of ESL instruction or even enrolled as full-time SUU undergraduates, she said.
The final straw came in October when she saw plagiarized papers that bore passing grades, in a file left on her shelf in the office she shares with a dozen part-time ESL teachers, she said. One paper, which included a heading that said it was an assignment in a class taught by instructor Nina Hansen, was a near-verbatim replica of a Wikipedia entry. A grade of B-plus was written on its cover page.
"This incident is indicative of the lack of standards in our program, which includes lax grading policies and teacher qualifications," Frost subsequently wrote to Mark Atkinson, dean of continuing and professional studies, announcing her resignation.
Frost, who holds a master's degree in applied linguistics, contends that the majority of the teachers in the program have "zero training" in an ESL academic field and were hired with "zero experience" in ESL education.
Responding to an inquiry from The Tribune by email, Hansen said, "If there was a passing grade on a plagiarized paper it is only the grade the student would have received if it had not been plagiarized."
Administrators this week put Hansen on probation and launched an investigation.
"The university doesn't not allow or condone plagiarism. We're disheartened to find that we have an instructor who didn't abide by that policy," said Dean O'Driscoll, vice president for university relations.
The university also intends to pursue specialized accreditation for the ESL program, which will require hiring instructors with "higher credentials," O'Driscoll acknowledged.
Evidence that student plagiarism is being mishandled would be a serious matter for any university, but for SUU, it comes as the small Cedar City campus is working to rebrand itself as a high-quality liberal arts institution.
Rough start • SUU's ESL program, now in its second year, has been under interim leadership for the six months since Brown, its first director, abruptly resigned. Andrea Stiefvater, an assistant professor at Morristown State College in New York, has been hired as his permanent successor, but she isn't set to take over until Jan. 7.
"In the meantime the leadership hasn't been as good as we hoped," O'Driscoll said. "There may be things Belinda reported that were falling though the cracks."
Goodman, the associate director who has been serving as interim director, did not respond to a request for comment.
Atkinson, the dean who oversees the ESL program, is examining how the program's instructors have been responding to suspected plagiarism, O'Driscoll said. He will prepare a report for Stiefvater.
Frost taught ESL in Cedar City public schools for six years before she joined SUU's program when it launched in August 2011. Previously, SUU had outsourced ESL instruction to the private education firm Internexus.
According to Frost, about 200 students have entered the program and most are Saudi Arabian students whose education is paid for by their government. The students provide a revenue stream of as much as $20,000 a year per student, she notes.
Frost said she inadvertently took the file of papers home a month ago, then photocopied them when she discovered plagiarized assignments had been given passing grades. She returned the file to the ESL office.
But she also scanned three of the papers and forwarded them to Atkinson, along with her Nov. 14 letter of resignation. She sent the same papers to The Salt Lake Tribune after obscuring the students' names.
'A little' plagiarism • Submitted in January, the papers are summaries of Lois Lowry's Newberry-winning Number the Stars, a coming-of-age story set in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. They were assigned as part of the ESL program's third level, which is devoted to reading comprehension and writing skills.
Each paper had hand-written remarks noting it contained "plagerism." One paper appears to be a wholesale theft from SparkNotes, complete with its headings. The paper carries a score of 73 for a "C."
Another paper begins with numerous grammatical errors, then shifts to competent English by the fourth paragraph. It was scored as an 88, with a note it included "a little" plagiarism. In fact, every word past the third paragraph duplicates Wikipedia's summary of the novel's plot. The paper includes underlined words that correspond with hyperlinked words on Wikipedia, evidence the passage was cut-and-pasted from a Web page.
In her response to The Tribune, Hansen said she always checks for plagiarism and gives failing marks to those she catches. She did not address whether she had reported any plagiarism by students.
Her explanation that her grades on plagiarized papers indicate the grade the student would have received without the plagiarism is "at best confusing and misleading," O'Driscoll said.
Frost argues such a grading practice would be pointless. "If the paper is completely plagiarized, then what is she giving a grade for? Do they get a 'C' for writing their name?" Frost asked.
Raising the standards • Atkinson referred inquiries to O'Driscoll. The dean has admonished instructors against speaking with the news media about Frost's allegations or any other matter.
"The allegations will be answered by the university, but not until an investigation takes place. That is the ethical and fair thing to do; I do not believe there is wrong doing. If there are issues within our department, we will professionally resolve them," Atkinson wrote to faculty on Nov. 15, shortly after The Tribune e-mailed Hansen the request for comment.
Atkinson's e-mail summoned faculty to a Nov. 28 meeting where SUU officials will "re-train us on plagiarism and remind us what the specific institutional policy is."
However, Frost contends SUU has never trained its ESL instructors in plagiarism or the school's policies on the issue. Nor has the school provided them with Turnitin software, a plagiarism-detecting tool commonly used at Utah high schools and colleges, she said.
"I begged them to have just such a meeting last year when one of our teachers thought it was OK to copy three lines or less from a secondary source and not cite them," Frost said in an e-mail. "About a month ago, we had a meeting about plagiarism where every teacher gave his or her opinion about the issue, but we did not talk about a plagiarism policy."
University policy defines plagiarism as "intentionally or carelessly presenting the work of another as one's own." O'Driscoll said SUU allows instructors to determine when a student has committed plagiarism and how to address it.
SUU's ESL instructors are limited to part-time employment and are all paid $17.50 per hour of classroom time, Frost said. Depending on how much time instructors spend preparing and grading, that wage equates to about $9 an hour.
Frost said she has asked SUU's 12 ESL instructors about their training, and found that only two of them hold a master's degree or higher. Many of the others hold bachelors in other subject areas, and two have yet to complete a bachelor's degree, she said.
Stiefvater, the incoming director, holds a doctorate in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).
The university plans to seek specialized ESL accreditation from the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation, or CEA, which accredits programs at the state's largest public universities, O'Driscoll said.
CEA's guidelines say a minimum credential for instructors at the university level is a master's degree in TESL, applied linguists or related field.
"We will have to hire new faculty and demand higher credentials," O'Driscoll acknowledged.
P Dean Mark Atkinson is investigating how instructors in Southern Utah University's English as a Second Language program have been handling plagiarism by students.
New boss • New ESL Director Andrea Stiefvater will take over the program in January.
Faculty shake-up • SUU will seek specialized accreditation for the program, which would require faculty with higher credentials.