Dumb and Dumber

In the latest installment in the U of Newcastle plagiarism scandal, Ronald MacDonald tries to outdo Robert Rugimbana (emphasis mine):

The deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation, Ronald MacDonald, said yesterday that he had originally believed the plagiarism claims by Ian Firns. Mr Firns had written to him in late February 2003 protesting at the handling of the matter.

In an email, Mr Firns wrote that “it is particularly galling to know that the top mark for this assignment was awarded to an identified cheat”.

However, Professor MacDonald said that he had changed his opinion shortly afterwards, and accepted Dr Ryder’s view that Mr Firns was making exaggerated accusations out of “spite”. He held that view despite the lecturer having provided specific web addresses for the sites from which students had lifted slabs of material.

Professor MacDonald said it would have been beyond his capacity to judge the plagiarism allegations for himself, because the essays were to do with business. “I’m a physicist.”

Of course, that’s not even faintly plausible. He should have said: “I’m an administrator”.


  1. #1 David Tiley
    September 10, 2004

    It is a sort of post modern version of Schrodinger’s Cat. If I open this website, these students are plagiarists. If I don’t, they are not..

    I think calling him an administrator insults administrators. A good administrator will realise that the brand they are selling needs to be nurtured, not corrupted.

    I hope that “out of spite” remark occurred in a time and place which enabled Firns to go him for libel. I just want them to stand in court and explain how a respect for the truth is evidence of spite.

  2. #2 James Farrell
    September 10, 2004

    I’d like to shake Firns’ hand for sticking to his guns. I know what it’s like to spend hours and days assembling an iron-clad case against a plagiarist, and then have someone dismiss it and accuse me of being aggressive and unprofessional, without even looking at the evidence. In my case it was a student counsellor, and my own boss backed me up. Even then it was a shock; I can only imagine how Firns must have felt.

  3. #3 Eli Rabett
    September 11, 2004

    In the life is always stranger than fiction department of clowning: Ronald McDonald?

    To stretch an old joke, vice chancellors are mice training to be rats.

  4. #4 Anonymous
    September 11, 2004

    In response to the article (and comments) I am inclined to give the University of Newcastle the benefit of the doubt. Having taught for many years, I appreciate that plagiarism is a complex issue that is often confused with a poor understanding about appropriate referencing conventions. This situation is further complicated when inexperienced academics and students from non-English backgrounds are introduced to the mix. While I do not advocate a ‘watering down’ of academic standards, I do think that the large percentage of students presenting with the same problem would ring alarm bells if I were employed in a senior administrative position at the University of Newcastle. Considering the situation objectively… to request a remark seems more than reasonable wouldn’t you say?

  5. #5 dsquared
    September 12, 2004

    I have to say that if I were running an offshore offshoot of a decent university and I was sensitive to the charge of handing out McDegrees, I’d probably suggest to faculty members with names like “Ronald McDonald” or “Duncan Donuts” that they shouldn’t be the ones in charge.

  6. #6 James Farrell
    September 13, 2004

    In repsonse to Anonymous above:

    I’ll bet my eye teeth that Ian Firns bent over backwards to convey to his students what the referencing requirements were. If they were confused it’s probably because they systematically ignored him. That said, if there is a culture of turning a blind eye, this makes the cheating more understandable, but it also makes the course administrators more culpable. At very least, the students would need to do the assignment again, the lecturer would be paid extra to mark it again, and the Dean would thank him for his vigilance. A remark is not reasonable at all.

  7. #7 Ian Firns
    September 14, 2004

    I’d suggest anonymous reads the transcripts of the evidence given so far at ICAC. Note that I dispute the findings in the Deloittes report and of the Student Discipline Committee. As the St James report says, the University at the very least ought to have checked the web sites I identified and compared their content with the content of the essays in question. That has not been done to this day. It was not done by the person who re-marked the essays; it was not done by the School administration; it was not done by the Pro Vice-Chancellor; it was not done by Deloittes; it was not done by the Student Discipline Committee. I stand by my original assessments unless and until somneone demonstrates that they were incorrect. I will be saying that in my evidence to ICAC on Friday.

    There is nothing complex about this issue. Wholesale incorporation, word for word, of material from the internet, without acknowledging the source in the body of the essay or including it in the reference list IS plagiarism. Period. The only issue that needed to be determined once that was established (and it WAS established – read the transcript) was whether or not it was a deliberate attempt to deceive. I don’t know whether or not it was. I simply said there was a prima facie case that it was and each of the students needed to answer that case. Nothing complex there – it’s simple.

    How does anonymous come to the conclusion that I am an inexperienced academic? I have been teaching in MBA programmes since 1996. During that time I have delivered courses for four Australian universities in Perth, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Miri. I have also been involved in management development programmes for the public sector in Sarawak for three years. I was manager of Curtin’s Office of Alumni Relations for two years and spent a considerable amount of time in Malaytsia in that capacity. There are people who have more extensive experience, certainly, but that does not mean I am inexperienced! One of the reasons we have problems like this is that some people who have been teaching for many years haven’t been doing their jobs properly!

    Where is anonymous from? I’d hazard a guess that he or she has an axe to grind in this situation – and that might explain why he or she is prepared to hide behind the shield of anonymity!

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