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Academic Fraud?

by gy Wednesday, Sep. 20, 2006 at 2:14 PM

Academic fraud is usually defined as something done by a student. But here's a case where a teacher appears to have been the perpetrator.

I recently told someone that I have a degree in geology, and in fact I do. Well, sort of. The problem with my degree is that it's based on something that might be considered academic fraud--my professor took over my thesis project and wrote my paper. I speculate that he did so in order to cover up an incident which reflected badly on the Department of Geological Sciences at California State University, Fullerton. And for going along with it I received a BS.


THE GEOLOGY DEPARTMENT at CSUF (California State University, Fullerton) was new and unknown, but there was a lot of enthusiasm and expectations were high. While I was there it was promoted from a department of Earth Science to one of Geological Sciences. Expectations went even higher, perhaps unrealistically high.

Most of the professors gave excellent classroom lectures and put southern California's unique geology to good use in field trips. Among these professors was Dr. Gerald F. Brem, whom I chose as my faculty advisor and later as my thesis advisor. "Jerry," as we called him, was charismatic, knowledgeable and demanding. Many called him a slave driver, but he was himself a workaholic. "We want to graduate people who can do the job," Dr. Brem said, again and again and again.

A good school with competent teachers--that's how it impressed me, and I hoped to become a credit to it. Most of the other students also seemed to feel that way. One classmate, K.C., told a reporter for the campus paper, "Geology becomes your life and the department is your family--your mother and your father."

But these moms and dads soon became squabbling parents who dragged their little children into a vicious fight. In 1984 they questioned a dozen of us students, pressuring us to inform on their colleague, Dr. C.B. We were interrogated one by one. Dr. Jack Ryan, the department chair, questioned me for over an hour, wanting to know if Dr. C.B. had entered a military firing range during a field trip.

The targeted professor was a controversial figure, loved by some, hated by others. Two or three students eagerly volunteered information against him. Others gave information out of fear. "I have my future to think about," said one. Some of us warned Dr. C.B. of what was going on, but he didn't seem to believe it. Well, he soon found out.

Since Dr. C.B. was tenured, it should have been impossible to fire him. Nevertheless, he resigned. Apparently they just made it so unpleasant for him that he was glad to leave.

I'd taken four classes from Dr. C.B. and I learned a lot from him. It was mind boggling to think that I was expected to rat on him. I felt exploited. Dr. Ryan was the only one who had played a visible role, and at first I couldn't believe the other professors had been actively involved. They just weren't that kind of people, certainly not Dr. Jerry Brem. He seemed like a model of what a geology teacher should be. He was also a likable person with a ready grin and a sense of humor. At first I couldn't bring myself to even consider the possibility of "Jerry" having been in on such a thing.

"Please excuse me for asking," I finally said to Dr. Brem more than a year later, "For my peace of mind I need to know something. When they forced Dr. C.B. out, were you part of that?"

"Dr. C.B. wasn't forced out! He didn't want to teach!" Dr. Brem snapped. The anger in his response surprised me; for that brief instant he was a Jerry Brem I hadn't seen before.

Since the faculty had used us students in their quarrel with Dr. C.B., I think they should have told us in a straightforward manner what their problem with him was. Instead, they labeled him as a bad guy. "You don't know the things he did!" was their standard response to questions. That's all they'd say; they claimed to be protecting his confidentiality.

I remember two notable things about Dr. C.B. He was the only professor in the department with a serious amount of experience outside of academia. And, he was an iconoclast who loved to play the devil's advocate.

Meanwhile, the department kept two incompetent professors, one of them a classic Homer Simpson.

Then came J.F., a student who was either retarded or just wired wrong. He gave no indication of learning anything, but he didn't just sit in a corner and quietly vegetate. His antics got attention, and his presence drained energy and dignity from the department. The rest of the students were intelligent and capable. We felt we were a select group, and that being in this school was something to be proud of. J.F.'s presence modified that feeling.

But the faculty kept J.F. around for at least four semesters. After I graduated he was still there. He had somehow completed his lower division classes elsewhere. Here at CSUF he took upper division core classes, the same ones over and over, year after year, failing them and repeating them. Dr. Brem yelled at him. Dr. Saint took him under his wing and tried to rehabilitate him.

There was a shortage of geology majors. The department needed students to get state funding, and I suspect that was the main reason for keeping J.F. This student shortage was mostly due to a lack of job prospects for geologists. However, it was exacerbated by the fact that some core classes were set up as weeder courses. Dr. Brem openly told us the intention was to separate out people who lacked commitment to geology. (We students debated that among ourselves, and many criticized him for his workload; ironically, I was the guy who always defended Dr. Brem.) Anyway, the workload caused some students to leave, but it didn't seem to bother J.F. who didn't do his assignments anyway. My guess is that the faculty saw their dwindling student population and decided they needed to keep every one they could. Whatever the intentions may have been, the ironic fact was that inconsistent zeal for unrealistically high standards resulted in the opposite, and J.F. found his niche.

Students joked about J.F.'s presence, but often with angry, sour humor. "Here I sit, next to a retarded clown," groaned one.

Meanwhile, Professors Brem and Woyski had been declaring: "The reputation of our school will depend on the people we train." In their pursuit of excellence they instituted demanding standards for the senior thesis requirement. That became the final step in the weeding process, and the eventual result was that many completed everything except their theses, and therefore did not graduate; this included several top students. The upshot was that the requirement was eventually waived and most were later allowed to graduate without completing the thesis, but that was later.

For my thesis project I had found an especially interesting study site, and so I welcomed the demanding thesis requirement as a learning opportunity. That was also in the spring of 1984, when we were being questioned about Dr. C.B.

These events unfolded more or less simultaneously while I was there. The capriciousness of what those professors were doing was not apparent to me at the beginning, but I should at least have had some foreboding when the department chair pressured us to inform on Dr. C.B. Teachers who cannot resolve their petty quarrels in a mature manner are unlikely to do a responsible job of managing their school. Well, I can look back and say that now; I didn't see it at the time.

Meanwhile, I had a job which was in sync with my studies. This job even led to my thesis project.

I worked with a land survey party, which was considered to be useful background for fieldwork in geology. An added bonus was that my employer took me along on occasional field trips to look at mines out in the desert. Mr. B, as everyone called my boss, was a graduate of Colorado School of Mines. In his younger days he'd been a mining engineer, and it was an interest he still pursued, though infrequently. On those field trips I carried sample bags and did pick-and-shovel work. Sometimes we located claims. This had been a tremendous encouragement to me in my lower division studies at a nearby junior college.

While on a field trip with Mr. B I'd found the site which I eventually chose for my thesis project. This was the Holly Camp Pumicite Mine in the desert near Inyokern. The ore consisted of a white, siliceous tephra which was part of a volcanic sequence. From the day I first saw it, I decided that this was something I'd eventually like to do a study on. That was before I even transferred to CSUF.

When the time came for me to make my project proposal, I discussed the site with Dr. Brem, whom I considered the ideal professor for this. He seemed enthusiastic about it and agreed to advise me on the project. Like other senior thesis project proposals, this was reviewed and approved by a panel of several faculty members.

The mining property belonged to Mr. B. By then I'd worked for him for several years, and he sponsored my project. In effect it was a scholarship. He loaned me a vehicle and gave me $300 for expenses. In turn, he was to receive a copy of the thesis.

I did a total of some twenty-five days of field work in the summer. Unfortunately, Dr. Brem was gone all summer, and in the fall he did not make himself available until October. When I finally did get an hour of his time--five weeks into the fall semester--he interrupted my appointment to attend to a person who casually walked in the office with no appointment.

Dr. Brem gave me further appointments, but something else always came up. He'd told me that in his absence I could consult Dr. Margaret Woyski, but when I did, she referred me back to Dr. Brem.

The project was an extremely challenging one which required assistance from my advisor. That was why I had been careful to choose Dr. Brem, whom I considered both knowledgeable and responsible. Unfortunately, it had never occurred to me to ask ahead of time how often he would be available for consultation. On my own, I was unable to evaluate the information and produce the paper. Meanwhile, my commitment to my boss was to present him with a copy of the thesis, and we'd agreed to a tentative deadline which we extended several times. After a year and a half he got fed up and fired me; this came as no surprise, and I had repeatedly told Dr. Brem that my boss was losing patience. "I don't have time," Dr. Brem replied.

Dr. Brem didn't have time? I couldn't believe this was happening, even though it obviously was. After all, the professors, mainly Dr. Woyski, had told us so clearly and made such a major point of telling us that we, their students, were the ones who were going to make the school's reputation, and for that they, the school, was depending on us and our success. "People who can do the job." That's what they expected of us. But there I was in this ridiculous situation, doing a job with an employer involved, a situation which would affect the school's name and reputation, a fact Dr. Brem must have known, and yet he didn't have time to advise me. Dr. Brem had made this commitment, and it had been reviewed by a panel of department faculty.

Other classmates were also having difficulties. Though as far as I know, none of them had projects with employers involved. Several had by this time finished all their required courses except their thesis. This included several of the top students.

"Nobody's graduating!" classmates were saying to each other in dismay. Those who hadn't yet began their projects were frightened. "The department wants a master's thesis for a BS!"

The ousted Dr. C.B. had from the beginning felt the thesis should be less demanding. Of course he was gone by 1985, but some other professors began to set more reasonable standards. Students who chose them as thesis advisors were able to complete their projects and graduate.

Dr. Brem had been the most vocal advocate of the demanding requirement, and he continued to defend it. "It's one thing to take a structured class, do assigned work, and pass tests," Dr. Brem told me. "But a project requires a student to act on his own. That's where we see who can do the job."

Anyway, after my boss fired me, Dr. Brem found time for my project. But instead of assisting me, he started out by rewriting everything I wrote. Eventually he was rewriting his own writing, having me type and retype one version after another on a manual typewriter. This went on week after week, then month after month.

I had taken no course in technical writing and had no idea of how to do a scientific paper. I dug up a professional paper which I proposed to use as a model, but Dr. Brem dismissed it as being a poor example of technical writing. So I asked him to recommend a paper that he would consider a model of the kind of report he wanted to see. Dr. Brem replied, "When this is finished, you'll have a model."

Finally, after a whole semester of typing and retyping, the paper at last seemed finished. Then Dr. Woyski revised it, leaving me to retype it yet once again.

It was about this time, after it was too late to be of much use to me, that Dr. Brem gave me a twelve-page handout of instructions for writing such papers. This was an instruction sheet he'd had for some time and had been giving to other students; he should've given it to me at the beginning of the project, not at the end.

Of the forty pages in the final draft, perhaps a dozen were mine, barely enough to say I had a part in it. Dr. Brem had me write the abstract, so it did have the appearance of being mine. In reality, I was hardly more than the clerk typist; I consider it no exaggeration to say that Dr. Brem ghostwrote my thesis paper.

The scientific opinions and even the rock descriptions in it were Dr. Bream's; only the maps and the stratigraphic columns were mine. Nor did he adequately explain what he was doing--he was a different person from the Dr. Brem I'd known in classrooms, where he had always explained things impressively well.

Ever since, I've wondered what Dr. Brem's intentions might have been. Was he playing a game? Or, was he a bumbling incompetent? Or, was there something else going on? Looking back, it appears to me that the department was going through hard times due to bad planning, unrealistic expectations and also external factors. The energy crisis of the 1970s had created a large demand for geologists. Our department, which till then had offered little more than lower division courses for general education, had expanded to meet this need. But by the mid-1980s the job market was overflowing with unemployed geologists. So, fewer students were attracted to the field, and the future of this department was possibly in question.

If that be so, perhaps neither Dr. Brem nor any other professor had much time to give thought to my project. My project was probably just a minor footnote compared to magnitude other things that were going wrong. However, I do suspect that despite Dr. Brem's remarkable skill at presenting facts in the classroom, he lacked field experience and felt uncomfortable with my project. Perhaps for that reason, he at first avoided it, and then afterwards did it himself in an attempt to prove that he could do this job. The commitment to my employer must have been the key factor. Since Dr. Brem claimed to be training people to do the job, he was probably embarrassed to have his pupil fired for an inability to produce a paper. Dr. Brem himself told me, "It's also my credibility."

My employer certainly did want the paper, but I do not believe he wanted a ghostwritten paper. His sponsorship of my project was his way of helping an employee, not something he was likely to make a lot of money from. He had fired me because he was angry at me for failing to fulfill his expectations. A ghostwritten paper could not redeem those expectations.

Perhaps Dr. Brem was not aware of that. "Your boss is getting a lot of work done cheap," Dr. Brem said. He perhpas viewed my boss as a greedy businessman out in the "real world" of lie-cheat-steal.

As far as I know, my paper was the only one Dr. Brem ghostwrote. My guess is that Dr. Brem was trying to cover up the farce and make things look good. He perhaps concluded that the easiest way to get the paper done was to do it himself, and that the ruse would work best if it had my participation.

So, was my degree a reward for my going along with that? Such a thing seemed unthinkable at first, but I did have a sickening feeling about the whole experience.

During my years in this school I had looked forward to being part of a proud new tradition, but for me the school had ended up becoming a diploma mill with a lot of busy work. My degree was not something I could proudly present to family, friends or employers.

I remember one day on a street, some months after graduating, I saw one of my former classmates, a student who'd dropped out of the geology department. I ducked into a building to avoid him. It was a rather bizarre situation when I look back on it--I who had graduated found myself fearing ridicule from a student who'd dropped out!

I saw myself as being totally alone in this, and I was so ashamed that I avoided my classmates and didn't attend graduation. That was the June of 1986. Dr. Brem and other professors told me that most classmates had finally completed their projects and were now graduating. That was blatantly untrue, and had I checked with my classmates I would have heard differently. As it was, I learned much later that few of us graduated that June. My classmates were apparently as disillusioned as I was; instead of avoiding them, I should have shared the problem with them.

Dr. Woyski had talked about the good reputation their school was acquiring among employers for the capable people they trained. In the midst of such alleged success, my project seemed an abysmal failure. I did ask Dr. Brem some questions, at first discreetly, and he answered evasively. After graduating I tried a different approach and asked Dr. Brem why he'd given me "B" rather than "A" for the thesis.

"I had to write a lot of it for you," Dr. Brem replied.

"Is that academic fraud?" I asked.


I asked him why he had not given me his twelve-page handout of instructions until very near the end of my project. He replied that he had prepared that handout for a certain field class. "You were not in class the day I passed it out," he said.

I was not enrolled in that particular class, I reminded him. It seemed strange that he could expect me to show up for a class that I had no reason to be in. I felt he was making a very flimsy excuse.

"I'm terminating this discussion. If you want to discuss more you can go to the administration," Dr. Brem said. I protested that having spent two years on the project, I had a right to discuss it. He ordered me out of his office.

Until beginning my thesis project, Dr. Brem had impressed me as a very straightforward person. Then, bit by bit, this very different side of him had emerged, and so the above response should not have surprised me--but it did. In fact, I found it quite overwhelming. I felt that I had been let down, lied to, and defrauded of my right to earn a legitimate degree.

Good sense should have cautioned me to keep my mouth shut and simply accept my dubious degree with as much grace as possible. But I was at this point acting out of pure shock. The degree I'd put years into earning seemed to be less than valid. Perhaps even downright fraudulent. The thought simply overwhelmed me and drove anything else out of my mind. I felt betrayed and cheated, to say the least. In short, I went from denial and into shock.

Several of my classmates, practically all of those with whom I eventually discussed thesis projects some years later expressed chagrin at having been encouraged to undertake projects which they were not able to complete, though as I've said, none as far as I know had employers involved. So I wasn't the only one to be disappointed. But while some of them quit the program, none of those who graduated, (to my knowledge at least) seemed to consider their degrees invalid.

The shock I experienced went far beyond mere disappointment. I suppose it had to do with the fact that I came from a mining family. I guess a feeling of family tradition had something to do with my expectations.

Anyway, I went to talk with Dr. Jack Ryan, the department chair. "My degree is fraudulent," I told him. "I did not write my thesis paper."

Dr. Ryan taught geophysics; I had once taken a class from him which he taught very well. He was the very picture of a mature man, a fatherly type who inspired trust. Nevertheless, this Dr. Ryan was the person who had once pressured my classmates and me to speak against Dr. C.B. That incident had undermined trust. Nevertheless, since Dr. Ryan was the chair, he seemed the logical one to speak to.

My degree was valid, Dr. Ryan assured me. His logic was this: Papers submitted to professional publications in geology are routinely rewritten by the editors, but the person who submits the article receives full credit because the scientific opinions are his.

So I told him, "The scientific opinions in my thesis are those of Dr. Brem. They are not mine. There are important things in it that I do not even understand." I gave as an example the origin of the orebody.

The orebody was an ash-flow tuff, also called ignimbrite. Evidence for identifying it as such would have included the siliceousness of the material, the thickness of the deposit and the topography of the underlying bedrock. That's pretty obvious to me now, but at the time I wrongly believed it to be an air-fall deposit. Dr. Brem told me what it was, and to put it in the paper, but didn't explain it and didn't respond to my questions about it. Eventually, after graduating, I figured it out on my own, but the point is that my thesis paper contained scientific opinions which I did not at the time understand or even agree with.

Dr. Ryan did not respond to this. He said nothing.

So I said, "This has to be academic fraud." And I added that I also thought it strange that Dr. Brem was himself unwilling to discuss this with me.

"Consider what you've said," Dr. Ryan responded, and suggested that Dr. Brem was probably offended.

Unlike Dr. Brem, Dr. Ryan didn't order me out of his office; in fact, he very patiently listened to my story. But when our discussion was over, I left with the feeling that he was avoiding the problem and that I had wasted my time. Years of it.

Meanwhile, as I learned later, many of the others were still not graduating. These included some of the most promising students, and so the department was losing the very people who could earn the school a good reputation among local employers. Presumably for that reason the thesis requirement was simplified, and my classmates were offered their degrees without having to complete their original projects. Most accepted, but those I talked with seemed disappointed. Some even declined the offer. Among those who chose not to graduate was A.W., who had once received the department's student-of-the-year award.

About two and a half years later Dr. Jack Ryan retired due to illness, and Dr. Gerald F. Brem became the next chair.

Daniel Borgstrom
Alumnus of CSUF, Department of Geological Sciences

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