A Chicago State University official is suing the University of Illinois at Chicago, accusing the school of violating federal education law by publicly discussing her dissertation and an accusation of plagiarism made by an adversary.
The lawsuit, filed Monday by CSU Interim Provost and Senior Vice President Angela Henderson, claims UIC violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly referred to as FERPA. The law bars schools from releasing private information on student academics without permission.
Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are UIC Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Lon Kaufman and the Dean of the Graduate College, Karen Colley.
Earlier this year, UIC officials confirmed in media reports that the school was reviewing the dissertation of Henderson, 48 — who earned her Ph.D. in nursing from the school in August 2013. That review occurred after UIC was contacted by a Chicago State professor.
UIC spokesman Bill Burton had said in January that CSU History Professor Robert Bionaz was alleging that parts of Henderson’s dissertation — “Predicting Consistent Condom Use Behavior In African-American, Heterosexual Males Aged 18-25 Who Are Enrolled In Community College” — were plagiarized.
That had triggered a review by a Graduate School committee. The 14-member executive committee, Burton added at the time, had already made a recommendation to Colley, who was expected to decide whether any action was warranted. However, a month later, Burton declined any further discussion of the review or its outcome, citing Henderson’s privacy.
Henderson’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges UIC violated her rights to due process by failing to notify her of the plagiarism accusation before undertaking the extensive review that she learned of through the media. It alleges UIC then attempted to cover up its violation of FERPA by ignoring her repeated communications about the issue.
Burton on Monday declined comment on the lawsuit. “It is university policy not to comment on matters in litigation,” Burton said.
The suit seeks unspecified financial damages. It says Henderson has suffered loss of good name, reputation, embarrassment, shame, interference with her career, and emotional distress.
Henderson has denied plagiarizing. “By definition, honest and unintentional mistakes are not plagiarism,” her lawsuit states. It adds that the executive committee eventually recommended she make revisions to her dissertation.
“In other words, to the extent there were unintentional errors in Ms. Henderson’s dissertation, including the lack of quotation marks, she was requested to fix them,” her lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges UIC has for months refused to address findings that iThenticate, the software program UIC officials told media the school used to detect potential plagiarism in Henderson’s case, has shown at least five other UIC nursing dissertations with higher plagiarism index scores than hers, and at least 30 other UIC dissertations with high or problematic plagiarism scores.
A blog maintained by iThenticate and Plagiarism Today, analyzing high profile news stories of plagiarism, said of Bionaz’ allegations in January: “CSU is clearly an embattled school … shows how deep the divide is between some in the faculty and administration … as serious as it is, the actual question of plagiarism is almost a sideshow. The real issue is the divide that clearly exists.”
Henderson’s attorney said her lawsuit was filed after seeking unsuccessfully for six months to meet with Kaufman, Colley and other UIC officials.
“We had no other recourse. The issue has been raised repeatedly and in writing, and they have not responded,” said her attorney, Michael Leonard.
“You rarely see an institution like UIC engaging in this type of misconduct, giving out information it well knows is protected by federal statute safeguarding the privacy rights and educational records of students and administrators.”