27. USD Provost’s Memorandum Appears to Violate BOR Academic Misconduct and Plagiarism Policy

On October 1, 2020, USD Provost Kurt Hackemer issued a major policy memorandum concerning “Implicit Bias and the Promotion and Tenure Process.” As we explained in a previous article, the Provost’s memorandum (available here) essentially argues that USD should lower promotion and tenure standards for female faculty and professors of color, based on faulty arguments driven by Woke ideology. The policy guidance offered in the memorandum is unethical and could well be classified as illegal under a soon-to-be implemented law, if it is not already illegal.

In this article, we will highlight another serious problem with the memorandum: It appears to violate South Dakota Board of Regents (BOR) policy on academic misconduct and plagiarism. The memorandum, which presents itself as being evidence-based, borrows a significant amount of content from a previously-published research brief written by “gender equity” activists. The Provost’s memorandum acknowledges this only with a fine-print disclaimer buried at the end, while misleadingly portraying the borrowed content as the author’s own research/writing in the rest of the document. This violates the spirit, and, possibly, the letter, of BOR policy on academic misconduct and plagiarism.

After highlighting these and other problems with the Provost’s “Implicit Bias” memo, we argue that an official investigation into the memorandum is needed.

(We warn the reader in advance that this will be a longer and more detailed article than our others. Unfortunately, there is no way around this as the issues we are dealing with are relatively complicated.)

Evidence of Potential Plagiarism and Academic Misconduct

Let us begin by considering some relevant passages on academic misconduct from the BOR policy manual:

The highlighted passages may be wordy, but their main point is a commonsense one: You shouldn’t pass off other people’s research and writing as your own. This includes avoiding what the BOR calls “recklessness.” By this, the BOR means that you should be careful not to imply that others’ work is your own.

This is where the memorandum issued by Provost Hackemer gets into trouble. To begin, it is important to point out that the memorandum clearly seems to fall under the scope of the BOR policy cited above because it engages in “reporting research results” (see the highlighted passages).[1] The memorandum should therefore follow the relevant BOR policies.

The problem is that it does not appear to do that. The memorandum issued by the Provost borrows a significant amount of content from a previously-published research brief written by activist researchers. But rather than acknowledging that fact in a transparent and up-front way, the memorandum’s author buries it in literal fine print at the very end of the document. As a result of this decision and other steps taken by the author, most of the borrowed content in the memorandum has the appearance of being the memo author’s own original work.

The content borrowed by the author of the Provost’s memorandum comes from a “Strategic Intervention Brief” published in 2014. The Brief was written by researchers Sandra Laursen and Ann Austin, in order to advance an arguably quite radical agenda of “gender equity” in tenure and promotion processes.[2] Here is a passage from the Strategic Intervention Brief:

Here is a rather similar passage from Provost Hackemer’s memo:

The Provost’s memorandum essentially reproduces the highlighted passage from the original Strategic Intervention Brief, while giving it some light rephrasing (this is actually a serious problem, as we explain below). Yet the Strategic Intervention Brief is not cited. The impression conveyed is that the author of the memorandum directly consulted Valian’s work himself or herself, and is presenting his or her own summary of Valian’s conclusions. Obviously, there is a huge difference between reading and summarizing a book on your own and copying the work of someone else who has done that. 

Here is another relevant passage from the Strategic Research Brief:

Compare that to the following passage from the Provost’s memorandum:

The green portion of the passage in the Provost’s memorandum is properly attributed to the original Strategic Brief written by Laursen and Austin (2014) (although the citations are made in a technically incorrect way). However, the yellow portion has been borrowed from the original without proper attribution. There are at least two other passages in the Provost’s memorandum that appear to have been taken from the Brief without proper citation.

Is it okay to help yourself to others’ research and writing in this way? The author of the Provost’s memorandum might try to argue that he or she is in the clear because of this disclaimer buried at the very end of the memo:

In italicized, small font, at the very end of the memorandum, the author explains that the document is “adapted from” the Strategic Research Brief and another source.

This does not seem sufficient to bring the Provost’s memorandum into compliance with BOR policy.

In the first place, if you are going to be borrowing large chunks of content from one or two other sources in what is presented as a research-based document, that would count as extremely important information. The point should be made crystal clear to the reader at the outset, and not buried.

In the second place, the meaning of the phrase “adapted from” as used in the Provost’s memorandum is totally unclear. The memorandum is clearly not based entirely on the two sources named in the fine print. It references other sources as well (which are cited in the normal way). The author also adds in his or her own discussion of USD promotion and tenure practices. So, the memorandum clearly contains a combination of original and borrowed research and writing. The problem is that this makes the meaning of the phrase “adapted from” unclear. It can’t mean “all of this memorandum is taken from the two sources named in the fine print.” Instead, it appears to mean that “some of this memo is borrowed from the two sources.” But that’s not a proper way to give credit to your sources. You can’t say “some of what I’ve presented to you was taken from others,” and leave it up to the reader to guess which parts are original and which are borrowed (while perhaps hoping that the reader assumes that more, rather than less, of the material presented is the author’s own original work). This would seem to qualify as “recklessness” as defined by the BOR.

This lack of clarity becomes especially problematic when you consider that the Provost’s memorandum appears to encourage the reader to mistake the borrowed content for the author’s own original work. Notice that, in the first and second passages from the Strategic Intervention Brief highlighted above, the authors of that document cite a number of sources, including “(Bellas & Toutkousian, 1999),” “(Demb & Wade, 2012),” “(Duch et al., 2012),” “(Rhoten & Pfirman, 2007),” and “(Valian, 1999).” The author of the Provost’s memorandum has copied those same sources into her/his own “Works Cited” list:

This is misleading. To be sure, it can sometimes make sense to cite a source referenced by one of your own sources. Doing so can help the reader locate primary documents and dig into the evidence on their own. But we have never seen a “Works Cited” page like that provided in the Provost’s memorandum, one that mixes together one’s own sources with sources other people have consulted in their own research, without making clear what’s what.

A reader of the Provost’s memorandum would likely come away with the impression that the author consulted the sources listed in the Works Cited page himself or herself. Only if the reader happened to notice the fine-print “adapted from” disclaimer would there be any reason to think otherwise. And even then, it would still be unclear which sources listed in the “Works Cited” section the author had actually consulted. This is not how citation is supposed to work. It should always be clear how you used the sources listed in the “Works Cited” section, which should generally not include works that were only consulted by other people. Really, why bother with citation at all if this is how it’s going to be done?

But perhaps the most clear-cut problem with the memo issued by Provost Hackemer is that it borrows specific language from the Strategic Research Brief. You have two main choices when it comes to referencing others’ work. You can repeat what someone else has said, word for word, while using quotation marks to show that you are directly quoting your source. Or, you can describe someone else’s work in your own, new language. (With either option you must also cite the original source as well, of course.) What you cannot do is take someone else’s writing, make a few word substitutions and cosmetic edits here and there, and then drop it into your own text. You can’t do that even if you cite the original source. Why? Because that is essentially stealing the other person’s language. It’s not just ideas and research you have to give credit for; the way in which something is written is also the intellectual property of the author. Thus, you must either avoid using another author’s language or quote them directly. (For more on these points, see this helpful guide on avoiding plagiarism.) Unfortunately, in the passages highlighted above, the Provost’s memorandum appears to ignore this rule (which is common knowledge in academia). It takes passages from the Strategic Intervention Brief, gives them a cosmetic makeover and drops them directly into the memorandum.

This problem occurs at other spots in the Provost’s memorandum as well. For example, here are two lines from the Strategic Intervention Brief:

And here are two very similar lines from the Provost’s memorandum:

If you cannot borrow language in this way even when you properly cite the original source, it seems clear you cannot do it when your only reference to the original source is a fine print disclaimer buried at the end of your document.

In sum, the “Implicit Bias and the Promotion and Tenure Process” memorandum issued by USD Provost Kurt Hackemer on October 1, 2020, appears to violate BOR policy on academic conduct and plagiarism by appropriating the work of others in a reckless way.

We are not aware of any common understanding in academia that would make it okay to write up an explicitly research-based memorandum that misrepresents others’ work as your own, so long as you include a fine-print disclaimer that your memo is actually “adapted from” other sources (with the actual meaning of “adapted from” being left for the reader to discover through an exhaustive side-by-side comparison of your document and your sources).

Would you be satisfied if your own work were cited in this manner? Probably not.

The Other Problem with the “Adapted from” Nature of the Provost’s Memorandum 

The Provost’s memorandum reports that it is “adapted from” two sources. The first is the 2014 Strategic Intervention Brief written by “gender equity” activists affiliated with the University of Colorado. The second is a 2016 workshop handout from the Rochester Institute of Technology. How can either of these sources (which present general research findings) show specifically that there is a problem of “implicit bias” at USD so profound that it justifies the unethical and possibly illegal policy advice issued by the Provost’s memorandum? How can these sources capture the nature of the USD bias problem in a precise way, so that we know the steps being taken to address it are warranted?

Probably they cannot. Here, again, we see an object lesson in how Woke “research” and policymaking work. The aim is rarely to study and understand societal problems in a precise or rigorous way. Rather, the goal is often to push for quasi-revolutionary changes that transfer as much power to Woke activists as possible – say, for example, by creating new policy “recommendations” that force university promotion and tenure committees to bow to Woke ideology and usher favored candidates through the tenure and promotion process, lest they be subject to accusations of “implicit bias” (i.e., of acting on secret racist or sexist impulses).

It doesn’t matter if the sources cited in the process are irrelevant, of low quality, or have an explicit, radical political agenda. So long as they appear to justify whatever radical course of action is being proposed or justified, they’re “good.” The Woke activists know that they can just accuse you of being a White supremacist, a racist, a colonialist, pro-patriarchy, anti-diversity, or whatever the insult du jour is, if you ask too many critical questions about their plans and/or reasoning. (For other examples of Woke USD activists advancing radical policy ideas based on shoddy, biased research see this report from the USD President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusiveness and Professor Clayton Lehmann’s proposals to disarm the local police.)

An Investigation into Provost Hackemer’s “Implicit Bias” Memorandum Seems Appropriate

Given that students are not allowed to plagiarize or engage in academic misconduct, and may be sanctioned for doing so, it seems quite fair and appropriate that USD – preferably in conjunction with the BOR – initiate an investigation into Provost Hackemer’s “Implicit Bias” memorandum, to assess whether it indeed violates BOR policy.

It is worth pointing out here that Dr. Hackemer’s full job title is “provost and vice president for Academic Affairs.” In this capacity, he plays the lead role in “oversee[ing] all academic programs and other matters pertaining to the academic mission of the university.” Therefore, it is particularly important to ensure that the memoranda his office issues are not only in line with BOR policy, but model appropriate citation and other academic practices for the USD community.

On a final note, because the recommendations offered in the Provost’s memorandum would, if acted upon, appear to violate a soon-to-be implemented South Dakota state law – and possibly other laws against employment discrimination – it may be wise to assess the document’s adequacy from a legal standpoint as well.  

[1] For example, the Provost’s memorandum introduces some of its key arguments with the phrases “A robust body of research shows…” and “Research supports that…” and it generally presents itself as being research-based. It also contains a “Works Cited” section.

[2] Laursen, S. L., & Austin, A. E. (2014). Strategic Intervention Brief #6: Equitable Processes of Tenure and

Promotion. In Laursen, S. L., & Austin, A. E., StratEGIC Toolkit: Strategies for Effecting Gender Equity and Institutional Change. Boulder, CO, and East Lansing, MI. http://www.strategictoolkit.org

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