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22 August 2007
Integrity Committee Finishes Investigation

By Jennifer Bacchus
News Staff Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

The Jacksonville State University Integrity in Communications Committee completed its investigation of the facts surrounding the allegation of plagiarism in university president Dr. William Meehan’s column in The Jacksonville News.

The committee met Aug. 15 to hear from Jerry Chandler, an associate professor in the communications department, and Dr. Robert Felgar, head of the English department, on how plagiarism is taught to the students.

With Chandler’s history as not only a teacher in the communications department, which is home to the university’s public relations and journalism students, but a journalist himself, he was able to offer insight into attribution in journalistic writing.

“If you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, if you haven’t experienced it, you need to say where the information came from,” said Chandler.

Chandler explained that proper attribution is taught in COM 200, the basic course each communications student is required to take, and is reinforced in subsequent writing courses. He stressed the communications curriculum and faculty put great emphasis on getting facts straight and attributing them correctly, calling neglecting attribution “one of the cardinal sins.”

“You can put up with somebody who stylistically is poor, who even grammatically has got some problems, but if you don’t get the facts straight and pin that fact to a specific person and let people know from whence it came, then not only do you have problems with your professor, you’re going to have great problems when you get out in society as a whole,” he said.

In Felgar's department, any charge of plagiarism has to be substantiated, almost beyond a shadow of doubt, before a student can be punished for the offense.

“We make it clear that plagiarism, whether intended or not, is considered plagiarism,” said Felgar.

No matter if a work is quoted or paraphrased, it must be referenced in a footnote on an English department paper.

“You can’t have too many footnotes,” said Felgar, “but you can have not enough.”

During the course of the committee’s investigation, they researched whether or not other universities had ethics policies in place for their public relations departments.

Joe Serviss, JSU’s Vice President of Institutional Advancement, who serves as an advisor to the committee, researched other institutions for the group and found none had a specific media ethics policy.

At the first formal meeting on Aug. 13, Chris Waddel, a former editor of The Anniston Star and current president of the Ayers Institute for Community Journalism, submitted the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists as a possible template for formulating a code for the news bureau.

The code of ethics from the Public Relations Society of America was brought up during the August 15 meeting for consideration. The PRSA requires each of its members to read and sign the code of ethics, in essence binding them to its principals.

As the committee discussed the recommendations they might make to Dr. Meehan in their meeting Monday, Waddel proposed making each staff member in the news bureau office abide by the SPJ code of ethics and ask them to sign a statement to that affect.

They also discussed establishing a distinction between the ethical standards of the news bureau and the standards of attribution in any academic department.

“I’d like for the academics in the faculty to understand that the news bureau is putting out something that will not meet their standards,” said Dr. Glen Browder, a former member of the United States House of Representatives.

Other recommendations made by various committee members were:

• For the news bureau to establish a mission statement.

• For the public relations director to report to a university official no lower in ranking than a vice president. This recommendation is currently in effect as the head of the news bureau reports to the Vice President of Institutional Advancement.

• The university should establish a layer of verification for any external communications from the news bureau. It was also recommended that the system itself be checked on an annual basis to ensure it is still working properly.

• The PR director would be responsible for every external communication leaving the office.

Committee members addressed an issue, which has come up in recent editorials in papers throughout the area – that perhaps Dr. Meehan should step down from his position.

“We have not seen anything from our examination that in any way questions the integrity of Dr. Meehan,” said Judge Sam Monk, chairman of the committee. “I think Dr. Meehan has accepted the responsibilities that go with leadership of this institution, but I do not see any evidence, or have not seen any, to indicate that Dr. Meehan was in any way personally or individually responsible.”

Waddel agreed, saying that, in his opinion, the incident should not lead people to question the authority of Meehan to lead JSU.

“He has not simply taken verbal responsibility. He has gone beyond simply taking verbal responsibility,” said Browder, mentioning the fact that Meehan not only created the committee, but has taken steps to ensure the problem wouldn’t happen again.

They all agreed Dr. Meehan should use this issue as an instructional tool, with a full public statement to the university and a statement specifically to the student government association.

“Dr. Meehan’s background is a teacher first and then he went into administration and I think he would be the first to say this is a teachable opportunity and I think the students could benefit, as well as teaching the basic principals of integrity,” said Dr. Mike Malone, a former executive director of the Alabama Commission of Higher Education and former President of Troy University-Dothan.

There will be another meeting of the committee later this week, at a time and date to be posted on the JSU website, when the committee anticipates finalizing their recommendations, and hope to present the report to Dr. Meehan.

The committee was formed in response to an allegation by JSU alumnus Jeff Youngblood that information in Dr. Meehan’s Town & Gown column for August 8 was directly copied without attribution from a Merck & Company, Incorporated, website. During the course of their investigation, the committee found three instances of plagiarism on July 4, Aug. 1 and the aforementioned Aug. 8 column. Al Harris, who was Dr. Meehan’s ghostwriter for all three columns, was a part-time employee at the JSU News Bureau at the time. He resigned citing health problems prior to the plagiarism allegations coming to light.

About Jennifer Bachus

Jennifer Bacchus is a staff writer at The Jacksonville News. She can be reached at 256-435-5021 or via e-mail at

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