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Undone by Anonymous Email

Gregory J. Vincent brought credibility as a civil rights expert, but his presidency at his alma mater is over after anonymous allegations.

April 16, 2018
 
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
President Gregory J. Vincent (center) resigned Friday.

Anonymous allegations challenging Gregory J. Vincent’s academic integrity quickly proved too much for his presidency to survive at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Now comes the fallout from the departure of a recently named leader who was identified as an expert on campus culture, civil rights and social justice.

When Vincent was named Hobart and William Smith’s next president last April, he brought a high-profile background to his new employer. He had been vice president for diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, where he helped defend the use of affirmative action in the landmark Fisher v. Texas Supreme Court case, which upheld race-conscious admissions policies as constitutional.

He also had close ties to Hobart and William Smith, small, private liberal arts colleges in Geneva, N.Y., that were founded as separate institutions but now operate under a single administration. Vincent graduated from the colleges in 1983 and spoke at their convocation in 2016. In between, he earned a law degree from Ohio State University and an Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Questions over that doctorate from Penn were what ultimately undid Vincent’s presidency at Hobart and William Smith. On March 21, an anonymous tipster started circulating an email to academic leaders and members of the press, alleging Vincent had plagiarized portions of his 2004 dissertation. Twenty-three days later, on Friday, Vincent told Hobart’s Board of Trustees he was resigning, effective immediately.

The resignation was in the best interest of both Vincent and the colleges, he said in a statement. The anonymous allegations had caused a distraction and he wanted to avoid “further stress” to the campus.

“After a great deal of thought and consideration, in the best interests of my family and myself, and for the love of Hobart and William Smith, I have decided to tender my resignation in order to explore new opportunities,” Vincent said. “This has been a difficult decision because I believe strongly in the value of a Hobart and William Smith education and the trajectory that we have been mapping during the past year.”

Now Hobart and William Smith are back where they were a year ago: searching for a new president.

“We are thankful to Greg and his family for their service to the Colleges during the past year,” said Thomas S. Bozzuto, chair of the colleges’ Board of Trustees in a statement. “I and the rest of the Board respect Greg’s decision and have accepted his resignation with appreciation for his dedication and commitment.”

The colleges plan a national search for a new president. A professor emeritus of economics, Pat McGuire, will serve as interim president.

As they search for a new chief executive, Hobart and William Smith also have to grapple with the aftereffects of an anonymous email upending a nascent administration. The original email tip alleged that Vincent took lengthy direct quotations from works without proper attribution in his 2004 dissertation. The tipster, identified only as “HWSProfessor,” claimed to have found “at least six instances of substantial direct quotation from other works without proper attribution.”

The findings were cause for concern because faculty members hold themselves and students accountable under ideals of academic integrity, the tipster wrote. Vincent was also the “final arbiter of tenure” under faculty bylaws and procedures, and the tipster questioned how he could fairly and competently evaluate faculty members given his dissertation.

“As I have no desire to comment further on this case or become any part of this story, I am submitting this report anonymously,” the tipster wrote. He or she did not reply to an email seeking comment last month. An email sent Friday to the tipster's email address was returned as undeliverable.

After the email tip, Hobart and William Smith began investigating the matter.

Inside Higher Ed was able to evaluate three of the six instances the tipster cited. In each case, Vincent’s dissertation contained sentences that were identical or mostly identical to passages in other works, but those sentences were not enclosed in quotation marks. The dissertation passages did appear in paragraphs with parenthetical citations to the original works.

The Herald, the student newspaper at Hobart and William Smith, performed its own analysis, finding that “in the six passages of the dissertation questioned by the email -- and even on other pages not critiqued by the email -- President Vincent copied what was written in other books verbatim and without quotation marks. In some cases, he used parenthetical citations to give credit to these authors, in other cases he did not, and in some sentences he misattributed credit to completely different authors.”

Vincent submitted a statement to the student newspaper addressing the issue, The Herald reported.

“As my dissertation advisor recently confirmed, I had to change the citation style within a very short period of time after my committee approved the dissertation, which led to inadvertent errors in how some of the work was quoted and paraphrased,” his statement said. “I deeply regret the extent to which this has caused confusion or misled anyone. I eagerly await the findings of the investigation. In the meantime, I have remained focused on my duties as president and on moving the Colleges forward.”

The Herald also noted that a 1995 amendment to Hobart and William Smith’s Faculty Handbook “repudiates and disavows the sending of anonymous ad hominem letters to the faculty as a whole or to individual members thereof.” The risks of harm outweigh any valid purpose of such communications, the handbook says.

Faculty leaders at Hobart and William Smith did not return requests for comment Friday. Nor did the dean of Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Scott Brophy, a philosophy professor who is the presiding officer of Hobart and William Smith’s Faculty Executive Committee, said he was unable to talk or comment because he had to be on a conference call and then teach a class immediately afterward.

But commenters on social media quickly made note of the resignation. One Facebook commenter listed Vincent’s qualifications and argued that his credibility was being questioned “because of a few sentences in his dissertation” written before computerized plagiarism tools. The commenter said the situation reflected institutional racism.

With Vincent’s resignation, trustees will end the investigation into the plagiarism allegations, WXXI radio reported.

Vincent isn’t the first college president to come under fire amid allegations of plagiarism in a dissertation. Glenn Poshard, the president of Southern Illinois University, faced charges in 2007 that he plagiarized parts of his 1980s doctoral dissertation. But he remained president at Southern Illinois through 2014, after a university committee determined his dissertation contained “inadvertent plagiarism” and recommended he replace it with a corrected copy.

Poshard went on to become president of Morthland College in West Frankfort, Ill., in 2017. He resigned after just two months on the job, saying he hadn’t been notified of serious personnel and financial issues when he started as president and that those issues could only be resolved by another authority. But the college said Poshard resigned for health reasons.

Closer to Hobart and William Smith, the president of Hamilton College in upstate New York resigned in 2002 after admitting not properly attributing sources used in a speech. Eugene M. Tobin had been president for nine years but said he was "anguished over the embarrassment" he brought to Hamilton.

Presidents can show leadership in how they react to such allegations, said Gary Pavela, past president of the International Center for Academic Integrity and a co-founder of the Academic Integrity Seminar.

"I think 'leadership' is the right word," he said. "There are different ways people approach this. The more defensive approaches to the transparent or obvious kinds of failure to make attribution do the most harm."

In certain instances, it's possible to have "a fair amount of sympathy and respect" for the way leaders handle such situations, he said. For instance, leaders can be candid, transparent and clear about their professional obligations.

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