Was Former Journalism Professor Fired for Plagiarism or Sexism?

On Monday, NewsBusters reported the ironic occurrence of a Missouri newspaper firing a former journalism professor for plagiarism.

At the time, I wrote, "I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry."

Well, new information suggests the latter, as the piece which started the brouhaha, a November 3 column by professor emeritus John Merrill, was critical of a new department for women's and gender studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia (emphasis added):

It doesn't really surprise me, but I now learn that MU is getting a new, full-fledged department in the College of Arts and Science. It is called the women's and gender studies department. The director of undergraduate advising for the new department, Jessica Jennrich, said that they can "now offer new classes and more classes, and it gives us more visibility."

A whole department, mind you, just like philosophy and English. The director of advising for the new department says it will affect the curriculum but nothing on the diploma. In other words, it will be an interdisciplinary program permitting the student to design his or her own degree in several discipline areas. "Hopefully, one day, it will be a free-standing degree," Jennrich said.

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What about a department of male studies or homosexual studies? Or black studies or white studies or brown studies or yellow studies? Pardon my lack of political correctness here, but it seems that education is becoming exceedingly entropic. But, as was said, it is a way to get "more visibility." Another way might be for the university to start a department of social injustice and Machiavellianism. That would definitely get MU visibility.

Women are complex, but does it take an entire department to investigate them? A whole department seems a little extreme. And "gender studies"- what in the world does that mean? If they are going to name a new department, it would seem that a reasonable name could be chosen. I would think it would be embarrassing to try to explain "gender studies" to someone.

Think this article might have stirred up some trouble? There's more:

Just what "gender" means in the context of this new department is problematic. Will the department deal with males also, though they are generally "under-genderated" these days? The new program will most likely give attention to gays and lesbians and possibly transsexuals. But anyway, the College of Arts and Science has received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to support women and women faculty. This has had a positive effect on the new department.

Big plans are being made. Such research and studies as these are planned: sexuality and the politics of apartheid in South Africa, Hurricane Katrina and gender, and religion and churches in preventing domestic violence. Surely there will be a course or two on women politicians and on those who have ruled a government with a tight grip, people such as Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher.

And soon they will research and study Hillary Clinton and other women political leaders who have made a scratch on history.

It may all be very well, this constant splintering of the basic divisions of human learning. But one wonders just where it will stop. When names such as Herodotus, Hannibal, Walpole, Bacon, Keats, Freud, Augustine, Frederick the Great and even more recent ones like Madison, Thoreau, Dewey, F.D.R. and Eisenhower, are fading from the coursework at universities - from the minds of today's students - it seems strange to dilute basic "arts and sciences" further by having departments in our universities with such titles as "women and gender studies."

Strong words in a society that today abhors such, wouldn't you agree?

As you might expect, some people on campus weren't pleased. In fact, the Chair of the Women's and Gender Studies Department wrote an article for the paper in question on November 11, coincidentally the same day it was announced that Merrill was fired:

I want to take this opportunity to correct mistakes in John Merrill's Nov. 3 column in which he reveals little knowledge about the discipline of women's and gender studies.

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Does the new department reflect a decentering of disciplinary and canonical institutions at the university? I hope so. For many of us, the university is precisely the place where students should be exposed to diverging methodologies, competing intellectual traditions and multiple "canons."

Is it a coincidence that Jacquelyn Litt's column appeared on the same day Merrill's services with the paper were terminated? Maybe.

However, a former student of Merrill's, Matthew M. Reavy, who is now an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Scranton, believes the plagiarism in question was way overstated. In a Thursday column entitled "If Merrill is Guilty of Plagiarism, is Ted Rall as Well?," Reavy pointed out how commonplace his former professor's supposed transgressions are in the industry (emphasis added throughout):

Unfortunately, Merrill is being vilified for doing what is a matter of routine for many columnists, using a quote already in the public domain without noting where that quote came from.

Take nationally syndicated columnist Ted Rall, for example. He leads his Nov. 5 column with a quote:

"The fact that a lot of people dislike you is troubling," says the director of the Quinnipiac University poll, talking about Hillary Clinton (D-Carpetbagger, Slept Her Way Into National Prominence, NY).

Where did that quote come from? Did Rall pull it from a press release? Did he interview the poll director personally? No. In fact, the quote was taken from an Oct. 31 article in the Connecticut Post. Here's the quote as it appears in the cached version of the article:

"She has very high unfavorable numbers and that is a concern. The fact that a lot of people dislike you is troubling," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

When contacted by e-mail, Rall readily acknowledged getting the quote from the Post, noting that "it is commonly accepted practice to quote from newspaper articles and other outlets in opinion columns."

As to Merrill, Rall said, "If things are as you say, his critics are ignorant of the norms of opinion writing. Taking quotes from media accounts occurs in every day's New York Times Op/Ed page."

Reavy went on to address how "quote lifting" in opinion pieces is rather common and not considered plagiarism by most in the field:

With opinion columns, the matter becomes much less black and white.

As Ralph Lowenstein, dean emeritus of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, suggests in a response to Merrill's apology, a columnist is usually not implying that he or she has personally interviewed the subject. Rather, the implication is that the columnist is using "quotes read elsewhere as background."

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Was Merrill himself guilty of plagiarism? Was he the victim of an overzealous editor? Or, as some suggest, was his real crime "mocking the gender studies department?"

We may never know the answer to that question. However, Merrill responded to his critics Wednesday in what will likely be his final article for the Missourian (emphasis added):

I was, undoubtedly, careless in not naming The Maneater, the MU student newspaper, as the news source from which I got the several direct quotes from Women's and Gender Studies departmental spokespersons. These direct quotes I used to spin off into my column published Nov. 4. I did not lift any sentences or paragraphs from anybody else's writing. I look on these short, directly quoted expressions from the two women in the news story as "news-facts" and see them as in the public domain. Certainly, if what I did is plagiarism, it was unintentional and could, at the most, be considered technical, not unethical.

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Those who know me know that I would not steal anyone else's writing. First of all, I know it's wrong, and secondly, I feel my own writing is probably much better. Anyway, in all this I have learned who are my friends, and I much appreciate the support I have received from a large number of faculty and townspeople. None, of course, from the Journalism School administration, nor did I really expect any.

If I have caused anybody in the Journalism School any embarrassment, I am sorry. I feel that I have done far more for the School through the years than the School has done for me.

Such appears to be the case, as another former student, Dr. Thomas Billings, shared his feelings on the subject in a column at the Missourian Thursday:

John Merrill is probably one of the best journalism professors ever to have taught, advised and mentored students at the J-School. Edward Lambert, Earl English (no better Dean since), Bill Taft and Ralph Lowenstein are others, besides Dr. Merrill, who made a quantitative and qualitative difference in my life at the school during BJ, MA and PhD programs. Walter Williams, who signed my own father's diploma, began the tradition.

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John Merrill stumbled. And he's 83 years old. Who cares? He's provided guidance, love, friendship, loyalty, inspiration and direction to thousands upon thousands of now working journalists all over the world.

John Merrill stumbled. Bloody shame on Tom Warhover (a nice guy), executive editor of the Missourian, who had a chance to rise above the current journalism school's lack of humanitarian and professional resolve and hold out a helping hand.

Thanks, John Merrill, for a dedicated life. There's lots more for you to do, you know - for all of us. But, there are legions of us who are more than sufficiently blessed by what you've given to our own personal and professional lives.

In reality, Dr. Merrill is still teaching journalism, as all the folks that jumped on this story for its exquisitely delicious irony - including moi - might have missed the more consequential aspect of his sudden termination.

And that's a lesson this perpetual student will never forget.

To drive home the point, those finding irony in the name of the school newspaper being "The Maneater" should heed the moral of this story: The team mascot is a tiger.

Are we learning yet?

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.