Southern Utah University is serious about plagiarism, as is any university worthy of the public's trust. In November, when several news stories contained allegations of "widespread" plagiarism in SUU's English as a Second Language program, the university immediately undertook an investigation.
External reviewers were asked to conduct a comprehensive audit of the program. These reviewers, selected from a University and College Intensive English Programs accredited program, have made valuable recommendations for the university to consider.
Specific to the plagiarism allegations, they noted that "we do not feel that the claim that plagiarism was a norm that was accepted within the ESL unit is a founded one."
Despite the allegations being deemed "unfounded," damage has been done. The story was covered by KUTV, KSL and became minor national stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.
So what happens now? Who can "unring" the bell that has tarnished this university's good reputation? At the very least, as the university's chief academic officer, I wish to set the record straight and hope that people are listening.
The plagiarism claims were based on two student essays shared with the media. Let me emphasize: The only material evidence of plagiarism was two papers hardly proof of a widespread problem. To be sure, plagiarism of any stripe is inexcusable; however, the claimed depth and breadth of plagiarism within SUU's ESL program was unfounded.
The subsequent and specious claim that the ESL program is categorically substandard was based on an invalid comparison. Comparing SUU's unaccredited program (as are nine of the 11 programs in the state system of higher education) to accredited programs is unfair at best and irresponsible at worst. The university's program has been in operation for one year. It has been and remains our goal to attain accredited status, a two- to four-year process. Once accredited, we would welcome a comparative review with a similarly accredited program.
Admittedly, SUU's ESL program is a work in progress. It is not perfect, but it is far better than the picture painted in the media. Like all Utah public colleges and universities, SUU values the diversity that an international student population brings to its campus community. We remain committed to helping students understand and interact in an ever growing global community with complex technological, economic, political and cultural interdependencies.
Most importantly, however, we remain committed to protecting the university's academic reputation, its greatest asset, by holding students accountable when they violate our academic and community expectations.
Bradley J. Cook is provost at Southern Utah University and a professor of history. The full report of the UCIEP-affiliated reviewers can be found at http://suu.edu/scps/esl/QualityReview.pdf