"I am perfectly fine if any of my colleagues chose to use my language in their messaging to their faculty and staff," said McIntire School Dean Carl Zeithaml.
"I contacted him [Darden's Dean Bruner] and asked if I could use material from his letter in my letter and he responded that it was fine to do so," says Engineering School Dean James Aylor.
In the wake of the abrupt June 10 resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, the deans of UVA– before eventually reversing themselves and calling for reinstatement– sent out a raft of statements urging calm, resolution, and damage control. But the messages contained something peculiar: identical words. For instance, a paragraph from Darden Dean Robert Bruner and Engineering School Dean James Aylor, explaining the controversial reasons why Sullivan was departing, appear to be nearly verbatim.
Dean Bruner starts a paragraph with "The 'philosophical difference of opinion' to which the Rector's announcement refers has to do with the rate of change and progress..." Dean Aylor starts his explanatory paragraph the exact same way. It's not until the 73rd word that there's any difference whatsoever, and then the statements quickly go back to verbatim.
The "philosophical difference of opinion" to which the Rector's announcement refers has to do with the rate of change and progress in the face of long range challenges to the University–the Rector called these "existential threats" or challenges to the existence of the University. Included among these threats are recruitment, compensation for faculty and staff, new technology, and financing. The Rector explained that the Board of Visitors seeks "bold, not incremental change." Evidently, conversations about the rate of change have been ongoing at least since last fall. The Rector said that this action is a call for the development of a compelling vision for the University, followed by the raising and allocation of resources toward that vision.
The "philosophical difference of opinion" to which the Rector's announcement refers has to do with the rate of change and progress in the face of long range challenges to the University–the Rector called these "existential threats" or challenges to the existence of the University. Included among these threats are recruitment, compensation for faculty and staff, new technology, and financing. The Rector explained that the Board of Visitors seeks "bold, not incremental change;" an approach that President Sullivan advocated. Evidently, conversations about the rate of change have been ongoing for some time. The Rector said that this action is a call for the development of a compelling vision for the University, followed by the raising and allocation of resources toward that vision. She also noted that prioritization of activities within the University will be key to the implementation of this vision.
"Seems like plagiarism to me," says David Henderson, a Washington, DC-based strategic and crisis communications counselor. "Plagiarism is when there is intent to copy the original writing of someone else. Sometimes laziness, sloppiness, or lack of any creative thoughts can lead to people just cut and pasting, which seems to be the case here."
We asked Dean Bruner why the two passages are so similar, and Darden's director of communications, Julie Daum, responded.
"He shared his message with the other deans after he wrote it on Sunday [June 10]," Daum conveys in an email, "and Jim Aylor asked to borrow from the message. You might call Dean Aylor for further details."
Dean Aylor, responding on his own, explained that all the deans met with UVA Rector Helen Dragas and Vice-Rector Mark Kington that fateful Sunday morning to get the announcement, and it was decided that all the deans would send letters to their respective faculty. Dean Aylor, however, said he had to leave for vacation directly after the meeting and didn't get around to addressing faculty until Tuesday.
"I had received Dean Bruner's letter and felt that he captured the essence of the output of the meeting in that paragraph," says Aylor. "I contacted him and asked if I could use material from his letter in my letter, and he responded that it was fine to do so."
One can imagine how an explanation like that might be received by a student before the Honor Committee.
"My friend, Joe, really captured the essence of our professor's lecture in one paragraph of the essay we were to write, so I asked him if I could use it in my essay, and he said it was fine."
Indeed, students at UVA have been punished for less. In 2008, two students enrolled in UVA's "Semester at Sea" program were kicked off the ship in Greece for alleged plagiarism– one who revealed that she grabbed some general knowledge statements from Wikipedia– and told to find their own way home. At UVA, the Honor Code has just one penalty: permanent expulsion. But it does not apply to faculty and administrators.
Steve Nash, the student who chairs the Honor Committee, was asked to respond to the similar language in the dean statements, but he declined, referring a question to University spokesperson Carol Wood, who has yet to respond. The Hook also sought comment from eight faculty representatives on the Honor Committee, but none responded.
Language in an early letter from McIntire School of Business Dean Carl Zeithaml–- who would accept an offer to become interim president only to step aside after realizing it was premature–- also appeared in a letter sent by Medical School Dean Steven Steven DeKosky, something Dean Zeithaml addressed before hopping on a plane to Europe after walking away from the interim presidency.
"I am perfectly fine if any of my colleagues chose to use my language in their messaging to their faculty and staff," says Zeithaml, mentioning that his letter was composed before that of Dean DeKosky. "That just means that what I wrote was meaningful and worth repeating."
"I don't understand what the issue is," says Dean DeKosky, when asked if he'd borrowed from Dean Zeithaml's message. "I don't remember if I borrowed something from Dr. Zeithaml's communication or not. I may have."
DeKosky says the deans were copying each other on draft notes that fateful Sunday "with precisely that intention– to allow colleagues to borrow phrases that were helpful," he says.
"They were messages of information," says DeKosky. "We might well have sent an identical message to all of our faculty and staff if there had been time to get everyone on board."
Indeed, many of the statements released during the early days of the ouster contained similar, sometimes identical, language:
School of Medicine Steven DeKosky: At this time, I ask for your help and your reliance on our most important assets: our strong sense of community, trust, and collegiality.
McIntire Dean Carl Zeithaml: At this time, we should rely on one of our most important assets: our strong sense of community.
Edward Howell, CEO Medical Center: At this time of transition, I ask for your continued confidence in our programs and our people
Darden Dean Bob Bruner: We'll get through this. The University is greater than any one person.
Engineering dean John Aylor: We'll get through this. The University is greater than any one person.
Even some pleasantries appeared to have been duplicated:
Dean Bruner: I won't have much to add beyond what this note conveys but would be glad to chat.
James L. Hilton, VP/CIO: I doubt if there is much that I can add, but I would be happy to chat.
In sharp contrast, Curry School Dean Robert Pianta provided an original interpretation of the "surprising" news, embracing the Board's decision, and explaining how the school was in line with Rector Dragas' call for "focus and momentum."
"The discussion from the Board this morning made several references to unleashing the schools to be bold and aspirational, to accelerate change," wrote Pianta. "My clear sense is that…we are moving in ways that align well with the larger direction and vision of the Board."
Indeed, in addition to similar language, there was similar enthusiasm and acceptance for the BOV's decision:
Gov. Bob McDonnell: I have great confidence that the Board of Visitors will conduct a thorough and diligent search for the next President of the University and will find the right individual for this prestigious and pivotal post.
Provost John Simon and COO Michael Strine: The Board of Visitors' action is resolute and authoritative. We encourage all of us, even as we adjust and absorb this change, to focus constructively forward in preparing the institution for its next stage of leadership.
Arts & Sciences Dean Meredith Woo: I trust in the wisdom of the Board of Visitors which is unequivocally resolved to swift and bold action to ensure that the University remains in the top echelon of universities well into the 21st century and beyond.
Dean Bruner: Don't spend your energy on rumors and speculation– let's give the Board of Visitors the space to make wise decisions and implement a good transition.
Paul Tudor Jones, UVA alum and donor: The spirit of Thomas Jefferson, the first rector of the University of Virginia, is cheering this bold action by the Board of Visitors. Jefferson was a change agent, a man of action and a perfectionist. To paraphrase him, it is time for a revolution.
Jones got a revolution, but it may not have been the one he envisioned as he cheered Sullivan's ouster. Around the state and across what alums call Wahoo Nation, there was mostly jeering for the BOV's decision. The cheering came from the Lawn– and could be heard inside the solemn BOV chamber– when the group reinstated Sullivan.
In 2001, UVA physics professor Louis Bloomfield famously designed a computer program that caught his students cheating, an effort that made national news. Since then, Bloomfield has become an expert on plagiarism, and he maintains a website called The Plagiarism Resource Site. He's not quick to condemn the deans.
The problem, says Bloomfield, is that public speech is full of "imperfectly attributed prose," as authorship gets cobbled together by speech writers, ghostwriters, and PR professionals. Attributing authorship can become "a complicated mess," he says.
"I can say, however, that they were not written independently," Bloomfield says of the phrases in the dean statements. "Beyond any reasonable doubt, they share a common origin."
He stops short of calling it plagiarism, however, because in the tradition of public speech, lone authorship "is not part of the tradition or expectation."
Dean Zeithaml asked a reporter to cease inquiring about the similarities in the dean's messages, "a totally meaningless issue."
"It is not some sort of communication conspiracy," says Zeithaml. "It is friends helping each other. Nothing more. I cannot imagine why it would be a problem for you or anyone else."
"If I copy an administrative note to people that is not plagiarism," says Dean DeKosky, "it's teamwork. I know you're looking for some sort of story. But there is none."
Public relations expert Henderson also is less alarmed by the possibility of plagiarism than by the message itself, "an amateurish attempt at 'CYA'," says Henderson. "It's incomprehensible and ambiguous gobbledygook that means nothing."
Siva Vaidhyanathan, the chair of the media studies department who has been a strong critic of Sullivan's ouster, also urges a charitable view.
"We can't blame the deans," says Vaidhyanathan. "They must follow orders. They are under immense pressure to make carefully-orchestrated public statements."
Plagiarism may be an Honor Code violation, but Vaidhyanathan sees this merely as a symptom of a larger dishonor perpetrated by the BOV and Dragas, who were behind the campaign to remove Sullivan and manage the message.
"It's insulting to the deans, the faculty, the students, the alumni, and the citizens of Virginia to be treated this way," he says. "And whoever ran the public relations effort for the Board is about the least competent outfit I have ever seen. If it were a collection of students, I would have brought each one up on Honor Code charges."