Letter to Professor Jonathan P. Goldstein from Barry Mills

By April 21, 2009

April 21, 2009

 

Dear Professor Goldstein,

After a comprehensive review of the facts, a committee consisting of senior faculty at Bowdoin and a senior member from a peer institution has determined that you engaged in serious research misconduct and that your behavior should be sanctioned. You have submitted to me a “motion to dismiss” the faculty judgment. I write to inform you that I deny that motion, that I concur with the judgment that you committed “misconduct in research” and a serious breach of confidentiality, and to inform you of the sanctions I will impose in this case.

Last summer, you conducted research on the effect athletics has on the academic mission of Bowdoin and other liberal arts colleges. In summary, based on grade point averages adjusted by you for various factors, you concluded that Bowdoin students perform the worst academically of the 36-college cohort included in your study. Other colleges in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) join Bowdoin at the bottom of this cohort. This study was listed as formal research on your faculty professional activity form. You also distributed a summary version to campus visitors that directed them to the “complete and fully documented version” of the study posted on your Bowdoin faculty Web page as the finished product of your research.

The following is what I understand took place as reported by those present. In late August you went uninvited and unannounced to the admissions office and to the Moulton Union in order to distribute your research paper to parents and students who were visiting Bowdoin. You also interrupted a tour on campus of visiting students to let them know of your work. In the process, you told parents and students that you had information that the leaders of the admissions session and tour guides would not want the visitors to know. Interim Dean of Admissions Scott Meiklejohn met you at the door to Lancaster Lounge as you were about to enter yet another information session and asked you politely not to attend. You responded, “Bust me,” as you walked toward the session before thinking better of it and turning away. You have told the press and others that the door to Lancaster Lounge was locked, preventing you from entering the session.

This is not true. The College does not lock parents and prospective students into information sessions. This is a small point, but you have made it a big one, and I need to correct the record.

  

Investigation

When I learned of your actions, I consulted with College counsel, our insurer (United Educators), and with the Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs (GFA). Our advisors and your faculty colleagues all agreed that you should not be permitted to interrupt admissions information sessions or campus tours. From a legal standpoint, you have every right to publish and distribute your work, but there is a time, place, and manner limitation that guides each of us in the distribution of our ideas. A private information session for prospective students and their parents is not the appropriate time, place, or manner for such a presentation, and the College has every right to control access to and the content of these meetings.

Upon further investigation, questions were raised about whether your actions constituted harassment of College employees, including student employees. Harassment has a legal definition, and while your actions did not meet that standard, we did conclude that your manner and tone was intimidating to a college employee who was leading the admissions information session. Even more outrageously, you rudely attempted to undercut the credibility of a female student tour guide as she led parents and prospective students up the steps of the Moulton Union. Both of these individuals have asked to remain anonymous in this matter, and we should all respect their request. You must understand that the balance of power between a tenured senior member of our faculty and college employees and students puts these people hired by the College in an impossible position. You interfered with their ability to do their jobs. This intimidation and lack of respect for Bowdoin employees is unacceptable behavior.

When you finally agreed to discuss the research methods of your paper with Dean Judd, you admitted that you did not adequately cite the sources of your data. Specifically you confirmed that grade-point averages and grade distributions reproduced in the paper came from a single unacknowledged compilation created by another academic institution.  Further, you confirmed that that source shaped the choice of the colleges to which you referred in the paper (as those for which grade distributions were available), and, finally, that you hadn’t seen the confidentiality provision clearly set forth at the bottom of the page of that source. At that meeting, you yourself described your actions as “regrettable” and “serious.” These admissions were just cause for an ethical standards of research investigation to proceed as delineated in the Faculty Handbook.

As chief academic officer of this College, Dean Judd has the responsibility to initiate a process of inquiry and investigation on matters of misconduct in research. The Dean cannot make judgments or impose sanctions in research-related instances without following the process set forth in the Faculty Handbook. Nor can the Dean step out of the process, because the Faculty Handbook explicitly requires her to appoint the investigative committees. The fact that the Dean appointed the committee members in this case is a nonissue since you had the right to object to the committee members – a right you twice declined to exercise.

Despite your protests to the contrary, this has never been a matter of personal animosity by the Dean, despite your disrespectful treatment of her. This is a matter of principle that is at the heart of the academic enterprise at Bowdoin. In my view, Dean Judd acted entirely appropriately in this matter and I support her actions without reservation.

The Inquiry Committee found that there were adequate grounds for an investigation to proceed and the Investigative Committee was formed in accordance with the terms of the Faculty Handbook. The Investigative Committee is authorized to consider the charges and any other matters they deem appropriate in connection with the work in question. Hence, the issue of your breach of confidentiality was within the purview of the investigative committee.

 

Findings

As you know, the Investigative Committee found that your “misconduct in research and the violation of confidentiality in [your] use of clearly labeled confidential materials are serious offenses and should be sanctioned.” This conclusion was reached not by me, the Dean, or anyone else in the Bowdoin administration but rather by a distinguished committee of your faculty peers. I am grateful to the faculty who participated in the review of this matter and commend them for their thoughtful work.

In the process of the investigation you also intentionally violated the Faculty Handbook by disclosing many of the details of this matter to various organizations and to the press.  In fact, the Bowdoin Orient reported that you went public with this matter in order to gain leverage over the College (“If everything remained confidential, the College basically has the power,” [Goldstein] said, “particularly if things go to a litigation stage, since the College has deep pockets.”). The Faculty Handbook is explicit in its requirement that all parties involved in the investigation should “strive to maintain confidentiality.” Your willful violation of this provision is regrettable and shows profound disrespect for your faculty colleagues. I believe you owe them a personal apology.

You have claimed that the College trumped up charges to berate you because we object to your message. That claim is both wrong and reflects a complete misunderstanding of what is at stake. To all those who claim that your “mistake” in failing to cite doesn’t matter and that your breach of confidentiality is a trumped up charge, I point out that we have standards at Bowdoin College. We care about our intellectual community and the veracity of the work that gets done here.

Every year we have a small number of students who commit plagiarism or fail to cite sources adequately. The Bowdoin faculty submits these cases to the Judicial Board of the College comprised of students and faculty. Each year we sanction students for failure to cite adequately. The sanctions include a grade of “F” on the paper and frequently a suspension from the College for a semester, depending on the degree of the violation and the intentionality involved. Students who “just made a mistake” are investigated by the Judicial Board and are sanctioned even though they claim they never intended to deceive.

Quite simply, what should the College have done in your case? Should we have ignored the violations that you admitted to in front of Dean Judd and Tama Spoerri? You claimed to have made an honest mistake. Perhaps so, but we investigate students who claim to make honest mistakes. The honesty of the mistake goes to mitigation of the sanction, not to the finding of a violation. If we ignored your violations, what should we tell our students? Should we tell them that faculty are held to lesser standards?

You allege in your defense that the Faculty Handbook expressly exonerates a researcher who just makes an “honest error” in failing to cite the source of their data. There is a provision relating to honest error but that provision is intended to deal with data that may be compiled incorrectly or interpreted incorrectly, not a bald-face failure to cite the source of the data. The Investigative Committee expressly rejected your claim and I agree with their conclusion, as does a legal opinion from College counsel on this issue.

There are some who fear that we are redefining academic standards or the definition of publication, and that we may be ignoring that different conventions apply to different academic disciplines. This is not the case. The Faculty Handbook is clear that conventions of academic discipline govern, and the Administration makes no attempt to change the terms of the Faculty Handbook. We simply asked that the terms of the Faculty Handbook be applied in your case.

In sum, you have been found guilty of research misconduct and violation of confidentiality by a faculty committee of your peers in a process conducted in strict compliance with the Faculty Handbook. No amount of obfuscation of the fact and misdirection of the arguments relieves you of these violations.

  

Values

Bowdoin College is a special place. We pride ourselves on collegiality and fairness. One of the highest values of this College is the collegiality of our community. Make no mistake, this does not mean we should suppress debate or avoid topics that cause tension or discomfort. I have often said that collegiality should not be manufactured artificially through political correctness or by avoiding debate or controversy on our campus. We should always be a place of creative tension and controversy and disagreement. Education is about challenging convention and conventional wisdom and even challenging the College administration.

In my view, what you did by interrupting the admissions session was nothing short of bullying employees who had no way of protecting themselves. There are many other ways to make your point at Bowdoin. Come to my office to discuss the matter with me. Present your report to GFA for consideration as other faculty members have done when dissatisfied with College policy. Attend and participate actively in the monthly meetings of the faculty. But do not interfere with our employees as they do their jobs or intimidate students doing theirs.

The issues relating to the balance of athletics and academics are not new. The College Sports Project is currently collecting data on these issues and has published its first report. NESCAC monitors these issues carefully and probably more closely than any other athletic league in the nation. NESCAC schools, and Bowdoin in particular, have improved the balance of academics and athletics, and every study I have reviewed shows Bowdoin working to achieve the correct balance. William Bowen has informed parents and students of the issues related to athletics by publishing two books on the subject. The trustees and the faculty have been discussing these issues for all my years at Bowdoin. So, your subject is hardly new.

I have been president of Bowdoin for eight years, but you and I have never spoken. That is very unusual for a college our size. Members of the faculty visit me in my office every day, and I would have been happy to meet with you to discuss your findings.

Ironically, despite all of this furor, nobody has had the opportunity to review your research or your findings other than to report your summary conclusions. I have a copy of your paper and have had it reviewed by internal experts to test your methodology. There are serious questions as to the methodology, so at this time, it appears that the summary conclusions you reach regarding Bowdoin and other peer institutions are unsubstantiated.

The balance between academics and athletics at our College is always a subject for attention. We must be rigorous in our analysis of the issues, however, and reach conclusions that are based on fact and well-reasoned opinion. You show me the facts and analysis that prove the depth of the problem you assert, and you will have a partner in me to remedy the situation. To date, I have yet to see the data that proves your point.

 

Sanctions

You claim that you simply made a mistake; that you had no intention to deceive with regard to your sources, and that you just simply missed the confidentiality statement. The faculty committee could not determine that you meant to deceive intentionally, and I tend to agree with them on my review of the record.

But your “mistake” goes beyond mere inadvertence. You were clearly reckless in your disregard for standards of citation applicable to your field of research. And you were at the very least reckless in failing to read the document you utilized for your data. The confidentiality statement at the bottom of the page inserted by its authors is evident during even the most cursory review. By publishing these data without permission, you have damaged the reputation of the College with the compilers of this study and with the other institutional participants. You have caused some to question whether Bowdoin can be trusted with confidential information. I have had to issue an assurance that Bowdoin remains reliable in these matters, despite the fact that a senior, tenured, economics professor at the College has released confidential information. These errors may not have been intentional, but you are responsible for more than simply making a mistake. In failing to cite your sources and to adhere to the confidentiality of the source, you are responsible for recklessly performing your research.

The College proceeded with this case because we hold members of the faculty to the same standards of academic integrity we expect of our students. After careful consideration, the faculty committee has affirmed that there is no double standard for faculty at Bowdoin College.

So what is the appropriate sanction? In my view, sanctions have two important purposes. First, they are meant to send a message to others that actions have consequences. In this case, I have every confidence that the Bowdoin faculty adheres to our standards of research and it is unnecessary for us to punish you for an unintentional mistake, albeit reckless in nature, in order to send a message to the Bowdoin faculty.

Second, sanctions are meant as punishment. My focus is not to punish you, but rather to encourage you to be an excellent teacher, an accomplished scholar, and a contributor to the life of the College. The imposition of sanctions would achieve none of these goals and only serve to further alienate you. You have been found guilty of research misconduct and breach of confidentiality by the unanimous vote of some of the most respected teachers and scholars in our community: your colleagues. That should be punishment enough and should serve to convey an important message to you.

I believe the sanction recommended by the Investigative Committee should be afforded great respect because it was rendered by your faculty peers. Accordingly, I place this letter, along with a copy of the Investigative Committee’s report, in your permanent file. As also recommended by the committee, you are hereby on notice that similar offenses in the future will yield more severe sanctions.

It is time to move on. We face enormous challenges at this time in our history and should not be diverting our attention and efforts in this manner. You claim to be working in good faith to improve the College. I am eager to work with all faculty – including you – to achieve the best for Bowdoin and to further promote and protect excellence in our academic program and pride in our community.

Sincerely yours,

Barry Mills

Schools: Bowdoin College Cases: Bowdoin College: Professor Investigated Because Article Embarrasses the College