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The Option Not to Act: The Dissertations of Boening and Meehan

Craig A. Meyer, Ohio University

Incidents of intellectual property seem to be becoming more common, especially in academic circles. For me, one event sticks out: the dissertations of Chuck Boening and William Meehan. In the first half of 2009, news broke about a plagiarism case involving a university president, Meehan of Jacksonville State University (JSU). The charge was brought by R. David Whetstone, who believes Meehan and JSU took unjustified control of “some 55,000 plant specimens” that he insists are his (Stripling). In bringing the accusation of plagiarism, Whetstone hoped to demonstrate Meehan’s propensity “of taking academic work done by others” to the courts and somehow get control of the plants (Associated Press).

Even though the court case about a bunch of plants was the primary story, it soon took a backseat to the charge of plagiarism against Meehan, who appears to have, at the least, improperly used Boening’s earlier dissertation. In short, Boening’s dissertation related to sabbatical leave at the University of Alabama. Meehan, using Boening’s dissertation as a “model,” also studied sabbatical leave but at JSU (Boening). The allegation by Whetstone, which was picked up by major media markets, created online buzz. Websites soon began showing highlighted verbatim portions of the two dissertations (still commonly found by searching online for “what does plagiarism look like”).

At this point, I heard about the story, and I figured instead of taking the media as fact, why not e-mail Meehan? So I did. Meehan responded quickly about the allegation against him; he writes, “I disagree with the allegation” (“Re: Inquiry”). (I highlight that he does not deny the allegation, merely that he disagrees with it, but perhaps I’m splitting hairs.) Meehan continues to point out how the allegation is merely “an attempt to receive financial benefit” from JSU, which seems reasonable if Whetstone was not getting the plants (5 Aug. 2009). Further, Meehan explained, “our attorneys have asked I be circumspect” about the case, and his dissertation committee also “disagree[s] with the allegation” (5 Aug. 2009). At this point, I let the matter rest.

Then a few months later, I got to wondering about the outcome and contacted Meehan again. In a follow-up e-mail (24 Jan. 2010), Meehan directed me to the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision about including the charge of plagiarism with that of the plant specimens case; the court concluded that the allegation of plagiarism is “irrelevant” to the original case and “would serve only to embarrass and annoy Meehan” (Whetstone). And thus, they did not entertain the plagiarism, and the case seems to fizzle out.

Now, I do not know if Meehan plagiarized his dissertation, but the visuals (and commentary) online make it look as though he did. Conversely, Boening, also an academic, has been mostly silent about Meehan and the charges related to his (Boening’s) dissertation. So, once again, I went to the source and e-mailed Boening. Like Meehan, Boening was kind enough to respond; he writes, “I have nothing terribly official or insightful to say” (Boening). But he does have some insightful comments about the comparison between the two dissertations: “when one pores over the actual writing, it gets troubling” (Boening). Further, he explains how he has compared the two, and if a student turned similar work in, he “would not hesitate to turn the matter over to our dean” because of the similarities (Boening). Like me, Boening admits he does not know “if the alleged plagiarism was intentional,” but he does report, “[a]t the very best, it was very sloppy on his [Meehan’s] part, and certainly lazy.”

It would, however, be tragic if someone in a president’s position at a university did plagiarize because that sets a troubling example for today’s students and faculty. With the ability to Google words, phrases, and sentences, plagiarism has taken a rightfully heavy toll on those that have plagiarized, but even those that have made sloppy mistakes with no intent to use someone else’s work without proper acknowledgement have been caught up in such allegations. Moreover, the number of software programs available to uncover plagiarism (or similar concerns) continues to increase. Yet in my experience, I’ve noted a few students still want to take shortcuts, for whatever reason or reward, in producing work for classes. I believe we must acknowledge that some students do, in fact, want to pull the wool over our eyes, while others simply make mistakes. And then there are some that only care about getting to the next level, and once they are there, the ends justified the means. Although I do not like the potential of any one taking material from someone else without proper citation or acknowledgement, if the universities, chairs, and even those that have allegedly been plagiarized decide not to act, investigate, and follow up, I must also be acquiescent and do nothing either. There is, however, one final note that I find interesting:  “Meehan turned in his dissertation on June 28, 1999, four days before he officially became president at JSU” (Jones).

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Alabama College President Accused of Plagiarism.” USA Today. Gannett. 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2010.

Boening, Chuck. “RE: Plagiarism.” Message to Craig A. Meyer E-mail. 27 Jan. 2010. E-mail.

Jones, Adam. “Prof Denies Contact Regarding Plagiarism.” Tuscaloosa News, 8 May 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2010.

Meehan, William A. “Re: Inquiry.” Message to Craig A. Meyer E-mail. 5 Aug. 2009. E-mail.

—. “Re: Inquiry.” Message to Craig A. Meyer E-mail. 24 Jan. 2010. E-mail.

Stripling, Jack. “In Living Color.” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed. 3 Jun. 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2010.

Whetstone v. Meehan et al.. 1081413. Supreme Court of Alabama. 2009. Alabama Appellate Watch. Lightfoot. 2010. Web. 25 Jan. 2010.

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