I was not going to post on the Witi Ihimaera plagarism scandal, having commented under my own name on another blog that covered the matter. But as I compare my summary dismissal for writing a rude email to an unqualified and underperforming student with the lack of even a cursory reprimand for his theft of intellectual property, and then find out that apparently it is not the first time that Mr. Ihimaera has appropriated someone else’s work as his own, I find myself wondering if indeed there is a double standard at play when it comes to our respective treatment by my former employer. Let me explain why, but first point to the one consistency in the handling of both cases.
The University has, as part of its collective contract with the union representing academic staff, a series of procedures and regulations that have to be followed before an academic staff member can be dismissed for serious misconduct. This includes receiving a formal complaint detailing the misconduct, attempting to mediate the matter using the offices of the Ombudsman, handling the matter within the department, issuing two formal written warnings before dismissal is sought…the requirements are pretty detailed and in fact were made even more so after my dismissal precisely because of the controversy surrounding it. Perhaps Mr. Ihimaera is not a member of the union so other procedures were followed, but that usually mitigates against favorable resolution for the employee.
In my case none of the internal procedures were honoured other than as a facade. No formal written complaint was ever made against me, but without getting my side of the story the Ombuds(person) immediately brought the issue to the attention of my department HOD, who without saying a word to me passed it on to the Dean, who after consulting with the student as to what should be done held a series of brief meetings with me and a union rep in which he shrugged off my apologies and assurances, ignored the fact I had no prior formal warnings, and sent me packing. In fact, he and his HR advisors attempted to use a couple of unrelated events from the past (an argument with a former HOD about managerial practices and an email disagreement with a colleague about a grad student who failed to attend a class) to argue that prior warnings had been given. Those were later found to be irrelevant by the ERA.
In Mr. Ihimaera’s case it appears that, upon hearing that news of the plagarism was about to go public, the University rapidly pushed through an “investigation” of the matter apparently involving his HOD, the new Dean of Arts (who was not the Dean the fired me) and Mr. Ihimaera. No disciplinary board with colleagues outside of the HoD and Dean was apparently convened. Mr. Itimaera Â gave apologies and assurances, and the case was closed.
What is consistent in both cases is that the lengthy rules and procedures for handling discipline cases involving academics were circumvented, in his case favourably to him and in my case not. This galls me not because I think that Mr. Ihimaera should be fired–I do not, and think that both of us should have received a final written reprimand about our respective transgressions–but because the University argued that I was fired because of the damage I did to its reputation. This line of argument continued after the dismissal was found to be unjustified, then into the settlement agreement by which formal reinstatement meant no actual reinstatement. But what about my reputation? Not only did the leaked email wind up on the front page of the national newspaper and then went global, but the University did nothing to prevent its release or demand its withdrawal when a student newspaper under its authority first published it (even though leaking the email was a violation of the email policy under which I was ostensibly fired). Moreover, the University knew well what the impact of the dismissal would be. As the Dean who fired me said to the ERA, “in a reputation-based business like academia, summary dismissal essentially means the end of a career.” In my case that seems to be proving true, and perhaps it was that knowledge that made for lighter treatment for Mr. Ihimaera–but I suspect not, simply because his association with academia was one of mutual convenience rather than professional necessity.
My major question is, if what I did was so injurious to the University reputation, what about Mr. Ihimaera’s plagarism? Plagarism is the single worst thing that an academic can do. Working in a genre such as historical fiction does not excuse the lifting of other’s words. Plus, being housed within an academic institution means adhering to its requirements on original work, so he was, in fact, more duty bound than independent writers in that regard. Students get failed and often expelled for plagarism. Academic staff get demoted or fired for plagarism. And Mr Ihimaera did not even merit a reprimand? Now, it seems that the case gets worse, as others have come forth to claim that Mr. Ihimaera has plagarised in his previous work. If so, and if the University knew about those previous incidents, then its absolution of the latest episode is even more alarming.
The University and Mr. Ihimaera say that his plagarism was “inadvertent” and thus excusable. Even if that were true–and it stretches credulity to think that a famous author would not know the difference between his own words and sentence structure and those of others– standard guidelines on plagarism, including those specifically used and distributed by the University to students and staff, state that inadvertent or unknowing plagarism is no excuse for it. It is the author’s responsibility to ensure his/her work is original and properly cited, and the crosses all academic fields and intellectual genres.
Some have claimed that because Mr. Ihimaera is Maori, famous and gay, he got off lightly. I initially thought that was ludicrous and that there were other mitigating circumstances at play. But the more I learn about the case and think about the differences in our treatment, the more I wonder as to why those differences. Certainly universal institutional standards need to be upheld over and above the specific identity and interests of any individual. That is what the University claimed in my case. Yet, was what I did worse than plagarism? Did my email to an individual student cause more damage to the University than the discovery by a book reviewer in a national magazine of the as of then unattributed passages in Mr. Ihimaera’s latest book? How can he not even receive a reprimand, and how can the University claim that in both cases its standard rules and procedures were followed to the letter?
The real shame is that it is not my actions or Mr. Ihimaera’s that have tainted the reputation of the University. Instead, it is playing loose with the rules and attempts to “spin” both stories in a way that gives the illusion of procedures being properly followed that sullies the brand. That has a negative impact not only on the managerial cadre that are the perpetrators of the double standard but also the staff, alumni, current and prospective students who share association with the University name. Yet, instead of being ashamed and contrite, University managers continue to obfuscate and bluster, refusing to reveal how their “investigation” of the Ihimaera case was conducted citing privacy concerns (concerns they were not so concerned about when my email went public). Â It appears that management are blissfully unaware that the ship is sinking beneath them or else are confident that no matter what they do, they will not be held to account by anyone other than themselves. Since the taxpayers ultimately pay the salaries of all involved, that should be a matter of public interest.