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President’s plagiarism controversy roils West Liberty

The faculty senate at West Liberty University has concluded that President W. Franklin Evans committed plagiarism in multiple instances, including a convocation speech, but the board of governors is backing the president so far.

“Academic integrity underpins the core values and reputation of West Liberty University. Plagiarism stands in direct conflict with these values,” the faculty senate wrote this week. “As our most visible representative, the President either reinforces or detracts from West Liberty’s reputation and image.”

W. Franklin Evans

Evans has served as president for less than a year after being hired in November, 2020, to lead the college in Ohio County. He started this past Jan. 1, becoming West Liberty’s first black president.

Trouble emerged after a Sept. 15 fall convocation speech made by Evans. The speech included uncredited tips from personal finance writer Robert Farrington’s “5 Tips For College Freshmen to Help Maximize Year One,” originally published online at Forbes this summer.

After questions arose from faculty and students, Evans wrote in a letter that he had not been careful to credit the original source.

“That is a failure on my part,” he wrote. “However, that mistake is in no way indicative of a pattern, or a ‘bigger picture.’ It was merely an oversight, and one for which I am apologetic.”

That didn’t settle matters though. Faculty continued to examine some of the president’s other public presentations, with a full discussion by the faculty senate on Sept. 21.

The full Senate went over the speeches, comparing original source material, and determined that Evans had committed plagiarism on at least four occasions.

One was the convocation speech. The faculty senate noted that Evans had directed an archived video to be edited and updated with citations of source material.

Another was a speech from this summer commemorating Juneteenth, with uncredited language from sources like the Smithsonian and The New York Times. Yet another was a speech this year honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with uncredited wording from sources like National Public Radio. And another was a “Lunch with Books” presentation at an area library.

One week ago, on Sept. 29, the faculty senate’s executive committee met with President Evans, describing it as “cordial and professional.”

Evans told the faculty representatives that his convocation speech had been intended to be motivational and to provide students with first-year advice. Faculty recounted that, “He commented that plagiarizing was unintentional, and stated twice, ‘I do apologize,’ adding ‘I need to be more careful.'”

Evans told the faculty members he had regarded speeches differently than presenting an academic paper, in terms of standards for citations and reference.

Furthermore, he told the faculty members that he understands what standards are expected at West Liberty and now sees the need to be more deliberate and diligent in citing credit. “I will be more mindful in the future to fully cite,” he told the faculty representatives, according to a summary. 

The full faculty senate, though, concluded that the instances are quite serious, particularly in an academic setting. Some faculty members pushed for a no-confidence vote and for Evans’s resignation, but others favored moving on.

“Practically speaking, these plagiarism incidents have the potential to impact internal classroom discipline making it difficult to enforce academic integrity. Some faculty expressed concern that this can also influence consideration given to West Liberty University for future grants and contracts, and may damage relationships with alumni and donors,” the faculty senate wrote. “These are commonly expressed concerns from faculty.”

As at other academic institutions, students at West Liberty are warned against committing plagiarism, defining it to include “paraphrase or direct quotation, of the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgment.”

West Liberty’s board of governors issued a statement Tuesday, acknowledging Evans had made mistakes but backing his continued service as president.

“It has come to my and the Board Governors attention that Dr. W. Franklin Evans, president of West Liberty University did not give proper attribution to the original authors in his recent speeches. The board believes that this was an oversight by Dr. Evans. Dr. Evans has apologized to the faculty and has vowed that in the future he will be more diligent in giving proper attribution when drafting his speeches,” said Rich Lucas, chairman of the board of governors.

“There are many important issues that all universities across the country are facing at this time. The WLU Board of Governors believes Dr. Evans is the right person to lead and grow WLU now and for our future.”

That isn’t likely to be the end of the controversy, though.

The plagiarism allegations have received national scrutiny by Inside Higher Education and local attention by Wheeling’s Intelligencer newspaper.

West Liberty’s board of governors next meets Oct. 13 with the next monthly faculty senate session scheduled for Oct. 19. The plagiarism issue is likely to be a topic at each.

“The West Liberty University Board of Governors is not ignoring the problem and we will address this matter in the appropriate manner, at the appropriate time, at the next Board of Governors meeting,” Lucas, the board chairman, said in a new statement today.

The new chairman of the faculty senate, healthcare management professor Sean Ryan, said he is not publicly commenting until matters play out.

“Considering this is still an active issue of discussion at multiple levels, despite the board’s statement yesterday, I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this time,” he said.





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