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Bowdoin College Throws the Book at Professor over Embarrassing Research Results

Doug Lederman at Inside Higher Ed reports today on FIRE’s case at Bowdoin College, where a professor and his research have been investigated after he distributed copies of a research paper that embarrassed the college in front of prospective students.

Economics professor Jonathan Goldstein, who has been at Bowdoin for 29 years, was interested in the amount that a college’s academics appear to suffer as a result of emphasis on athletics. His research showed that among 36 colleges, Bowdoin came in last, with the greatest amount of lost academic potential. Goldstein was interested in what prospective students and their families thought about these results, and he distributed summaries of his paper to them while they were on campus and at admissions events.

Not only did the admissions folks not like this, but Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd quickly threw the book at him. An August 27, 2008, letter from Judd informed him that his distribution of the paper was being formally investigated "in the realm of harassment and hostile work environment, as well as the possible violation of other College policies." These allegations were to be investigated by Director of Human Resources Tama Spoerri. Judd also suggested that "issues" with Goldstein's "research methods ... may need to be considered by the appropriate faculty committee and my office."

Then, a few weeks later, Judd added new charges in the investigation: whether Goldstein failed to follow "the protocols outlined by the Research Oversight Committee" and whether he had revealed confidential information. Two weeks after that, Judd formally referred the research misconduct aspect of the investigation to an inquiry committee. Judd's allegations for the inquiry committee were described as "[f]ailure to cite sources" and "[p]lagiarism."

Almost all of these allegations were found to be meritless.

According to a letter to Goldstein from Judd on October 17, Spoerri's investigation cleared Goldstein of the harassment and hostile environment allegations. Instead, Spoerri found only that Goldstein had failed to treat colleagues "with respect and proper protocol." In addition, after Goldstein secured the assistance of attorney Howard Reben on September 11, the Research Oversight Committee investigation into misuse of human subjects was simply dropped. Likewise, the allegations that Goldstein had improperly revealed confidential data apparently were dropped without further comment.

As for the remaining allegation of academic misconduct, on November 10 the three members of the inquiry committee determined that the allegation was "of sufficient substance to warrant further investigation."

The committee added in its report to Judd, however:

We also found that consideration of this case is complicated by a number of external factors, including the fact that the document at the center of the allegation is potentially somewhat embarrassing to the college. We note as well the possible perception of a conflict of interest in oversight of the case, given your status as complainant. Should you decide to form an investigative committee to further examine these allegations [of "failure to cite sources" and "plagiarism"], we also recommend that that committee consider: (1) the status of the document in question, and its position along a continuum between draft and published paper; and (2) the question of 'honest error' in cases of alleged research misconduct, as noted in section I.D.1.a of the Faculty Handbook.

Although Judd had the option not to continue prosecuting her own case against Goldstein, she chose to continue doing so. She initiated "a formal investigation" of her allegations and appointed four faculty members to the investigative committee.

This second committee, reporting last week, threw out the plagiarism charge, leaving only a very weak “failure to cite” charge regarding one item that had not been fully cited—in an online, self-published, draft paper—and despite the fact that the committee could not determine that the misconduct was intentional (in fact, the documentary record appears to show every intention of fully citing the item). The committee also resurrected the “confidential data” charge and, despite being unable to find intentional misconduct, found that Goldstein did incorporate confidential data into his paper. The question of intentionality is important because the Faculty Handbook exempts “honest error” from the definition of minor research misconduct such as “improper practice in … reporting the results of [scholarly] research.”

The committee recommended that for these two “serious” offenses, Goldstein be punished with censure and that future such offenses would “yield more severe sanctions.”

The committee also pointed out that Judd should not, once again, be the judge of her own complaint, and on April 3 she deferred final judgment to President Barry Mills, who has not yet decided what to do next.

FIRE wrote to President Mills about the case in February, pointing out that although Bowdoin is a private college not legally bound by the First Amendment, it is morally and contractually bound to honor its promises of freedom of speech for faculty members. Bowdoin's Faculty Handbook 2008–09 promises, in particular:

Free speech is a constitutional right in a democratic society and a cornerstone of intellectual life at Bowdoin. Members of the college community are encouraged to express their views on all matters including controversial, political issues in the public domain. Preservation of freedom of speech is a primary task of the College; the right to express both popular and unpopular views is to be protected. The College furthers this end best by serving as a forum where ideas may be debated and discussed.

We added that

Goldstein's speech in his paper is fully protected by every traditional understanding of academic freedom. Indeed, the Handbook states that "[t]he students and faculty of Bowdoin College belong to a community of scholars dedicated to the principles of free inquiry and free expression."

Let us be clear: If Goldstein had not come to embarrassing conclusions in his paper and had not distributed his paper to the public audience (i.e., prospective students and their parents) he deemed most likely to be interested in his findings, it is difficult to imagine that Bowdoin would have investigated any of the claims filed and investigated by Judd. The fact that the complaints of research misconduct were both filed and assessed by Judd—the same person who originally intended to proceed against Goldstein on insupportable and fanciful grounds of "harassment"—makes the true purpose of this investigation abundantly clear, as does the fact that Judd did not make the choice to avoid a blatant conflict of interest by letting someone else assess the inquiry committee's findings and recommendations. Choosing to investigate Goldstein for his paper sends a clear message to all faculty members who might reach similar findings: Embarrassing Bowdoin via scholarly research will lead to official investigation and threats of punishment.

We concluded:

FIRE requests that Bowdoin end its investigation into Goldstein's paper. Please demonstrate to the faculty at Bowdoin that promises of academic freedom and freedom of speech are respected on campus. Since faculty members should not fear retribution for their academic work, we further request that you announce to the faculty that their writings will never be investigated simply because of the conclusions they draw and the distribution of their findings.

We got a no-comment response from Mills, however:

We will not comment on an on-going investigation. Not only would such a comment violate the College’s confidentiality policies [Goldstein subsequently waived his confidentiality rights], but it would also potentially prejudice the outcome of the investigation. Any procedures or processes used by the College do and will strictly comply with the College’s policies and the Faculty Handbook.

Lederman got a more revealing response for his article:

Bowdoin officials, meanwhile, accuse Goldstein of trying to cover up shoddy research practices by wrapping himself in the cloak of free expression. The professor drew scrutiny to himself, they say, not because he raised issues Bowdoin would prefer not to face -- "issues of athletics are widely debated at Bowdoin," says Scott Hood, a spokesman -- but because of how he tried to raise them, disrupting admissions events and interfering with the work of college officials, including students leading campus tours.

This is a smokescreen, for the real issue is that Judd threw the book at Goldstein because of the content of his article and the discomfort it caused admissions officers and other college administrators. The truth is that Goldstein was cleared of any wrongdoing in the matter of how he aired his views to prospective students. And Goldstein reported to FIRE some similar trouble he encountered after he tried to air his views in a formal setting:

As a precursor, in 2002, when I presented the results of a mini-study on athletic participation and course grades at an open meeting of the Faculty specifically called to discuss athletics at the College, I was later reprimanded by the Dean for Academic Affairs. The Dean told me that “there were more appropriate ways to present such information.”

All eyes are now on President Mills to see whether he will protect academic freedom at Bowdoin College. Let him know what you think.

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