Blowing the Whistle at our Harvard of the Sky

Hello, folks, my name is Barker and I opine on the news and newsmakers that affect our lives and livelihoods here on Florida’s Fun Coast.

I don’t report the news – I complain about it – a dilettante editorialist, totally unqualified, but with a fire in the belly to discuss our uncomfortable realities and perhaps help right the wrongs.

Fact is, I have a solid 8th grade education.

My High School years are a cloud of barleycorn and bad decisions, and my lack of higher learning has haunted me all my life.

It’s why I hold those with advanced degrees in such high regard.

I have always felt distinctly less than my peers who took the time to earn a college education, and that sense of academic inferiority was never more evident than during my years as a law enforcement executive.

In fact, it is one of the very few things I would change if I had it all to do over again.

Imagine what a thrill it was for this uneducated rube when, as Volusia County taxpayers, we became unofficial members of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Jack R. Hunt Society in recognition of our October 2016 endowment of some $1.5 million dollars.

Add to that the $1 million we gifted to venture capital firm FireSpring to help fund struggling start-ups at ERAU’s MicaPlex research park – that massive glass and steel monument to University Trustee Mori Hosseini’s unfettered access to federal, state and local tax dollars.

Given our collective financial commitment, I believe the citizens of Volusia County have a vested public interest in the continued success of Embry-Riddle as our nation’s premiere aerospace education and research university, an important regional employer and a valued member of our community.

Last week, I was made aware of a disturbing internal situation at Embry-Riddle so utterly shocking that I took a long step back and contemplated the serious ramifications of this information to the institution’s academic reputation.

The facts, as I know them, are these:

Late last year, some incredibly courageous professors in Embry-Riddle’s Worldwide College of Aeronautics had reason to suspect academic misconduct by two senior administrators – then they acted to protect the university’s credibility.

These allegations include publishing research articles in predatory “pay to play” journals, self-plagiarism (passing off one’s own previous work as a new product), attempts to boost citations by citing unrelated research, and making presentations at foreign “conferences” of questionable integrity – while prominently using the ERAU affiliation to add legitimacy.

Most disturbing, the report suggests that, as members of leadership, the accused have been involved in denying tenure to faculty for what these individuals have described as insufficient research activity and/or quality of research activity.

Now, to you and me these charges might not sound like the Lindbergh case, but to academicians, those whose sacred personal and professional reputations depend upon their complete commitment to the highest ethical standards of academic and scientific integrity – even the appearance of impropriety can result in the death of a hard-earned career – and diminish the standing of the university they represent.

Because of these sensitivities, I am refraining from mentioning the names of those who stand accused by their colleagues.  Further, to my knowledge, this issue is limited to two senior administrators in the Worldwide College of Aeronautics, and does not reflect upon the dedicated professionals who prepare and present the world class curriculum that has made ERAU the most venerated institution in aerospace education.

In academia, research findings are subject to peer review, a formalized procedure whereby scholarly articles written by experts are carefully reviewed, challenged and vetted by other authorities in the field to ensure accuracy.

It is critical to the scientific process of discovery.

After all, these writings ultimately form the very body of our collective understanding.  Because researchers use and build upon the work of others – quality control is imperative to preserving the purity and accuracy of our knowledge of the world around us.

Given the importance of research publication to the reputation and career track of college professors, a disturbing industry is emerging – predatory journals of dubious quality which, for a fee, will accept and publish academic articles from just about anyone.

This includes the practice of these “pay-to-play” publishers hosting highly questionable international “conferences.”

It is widely known that these scam forums allow unscrupulous researchers to pretend that they have presented their work at an accepted international conference, or served as “keynote speaker” at an academic symposium.

While some researchers, many from developing nations, have been legitimately duped by these open access journals and predatory conferences, others in academia have repeatedly taken advantage of this unethical practice to gain a fraudulent advantage over their colleagues for promotions, tenure and career advancement.

It is the equivalent of padding one’s resume – a practice that normally results in immediate termination in places that value honesty and accountability.

I have been told by reliable sources that in November 2017, an internal investigative report detailing these specific allegations of possible research policy misconduct was submitted to the Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, Dr. Michael Hickey, and Dr. John Watret, Chancellor of the Worldwide Campus and former interim president.

The investigative report contained multiple articles that were submitted to outlets which have been determined by scholars and information professionals to be predatory journals – to include presentations at highly suspect international conferences.

According to sources, the evidence in support of these allegations is known to several ERAU Worldwide faculty, including members of the Faculty Senate, who are described as “appalled and dismayed” by the investigative findings.

 (I have also independently verified to my satisfaction at least some of the substantial evidence presented.  The findings are compelling.)    

Unfortunately, despite an exhaustive inquiry by concerned faculty – some of whom are directly responsible for preserving the integrity of university research –  I am told that ERAU administrators claimed the evidence supporting the allegations was insufficient, and the accused remain in positions of high responsibility.

Apparently, the response from Chancellor Watret has been to simply tighten policies governing faculty involvement with predatory journals.

Unfortunate, indeed – and infinitely detrimental to the morale and professional reputation of faculty and students who work diligently to conduct and publish legitimate innovative research to advance science and technology in the aerospace disciplines.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen serious issues erupt at our Harvard of the Sky.

In 2016, a dozen former members of ERAU’s Student Government Association issued an open letter – accompanied by a petition containing some 1,500 signatures – questioning cronyism and conflict of interest by some sitting members of the Board of Trustees.

Then, professors voiced their displeasure over the wildly dysfunctional process for selecting the university’s next president.  In fact, the Faculty Senate took the unprecedented step of issuing a vote of no confidence against the board – the most powerful statement of disapproval available to faculty members.

At that time, I suggested the very real need for outside intervention at ERAU.

Given the still simmering tensions between faculty, students and the administration – coupled with these recent allegations of research policy violations – in my view, it is time for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools/Commission on Colleges – the agency which accredits ERAU – to take a hard look at these serious issues which threaten the very foundation of this highly respected institution.

According to the SACS Principles of Accreditation:

“Integrity, essential to the purpose of higher education, functions as the basic contract defining the relationship between the Commission and each of its member and candidate institutions.  It is a relationship in which all parties agree to deal honestly and openly with their constituencies and with one another.  Without this commitment, no relationship can exist or be sustained between the Commission and its accredited and candidate institutions.”

Look, I’m not an educated man – and I pass no judgement on those who are.  The depth of my research experience is limited to examining the difference between crunchy and smooth peanut butter.

I am simply telling you what has been explained to me by credible sources with impeccable qualifications and convincing supporting evidence – information in the public interest that involves a very important regional asset and recipient of public funds.

In my view, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has an ethical obligation to the thousands of airline pilots, aeronautical engineers, and countless other alumni and students whose professional reputation and credentials depend upon the unquestioned character and integrity of the institution.

With millions of dollars in public funds invested in the success of the John Mica Engineering and Aerospace Innovation Complex at Embry-Riddle Research Park – it is imperative to the recruitment of investors, partners and entrepreneurs that the university’s standing as the premiere aerospace research institute in the world be vigorously protected.

That requires complete transparency.

Quite simply, to preserve the public trust, the quality of the educational and research product must be above reproach.

I believe this begins with an independent review of these substantial allegations of academic dishonesty, a purge of anyone (at any level) who knowingly corrupts the system and an external review of ERAU’s malleable governance practices, which many believe are jeopardizing the university’s standing and future grant funding.

The dedicated students and faculty members engaged in legitimate research and the pursuit of academic excellence deserve better.

 

Photo Credit: ERAU

 

5 thoughts on “Blowing the Whistle at our Harvard of the Sky

  1. Overheard at a recent luncheon: Appalachian State Professor #1-“I know it’s plagiarism, that student has never turned in such a high level of academic writings in the past”. Professor #2 responding: “With all of our obligations to educate, how do we find time to research and weed out these papers?”. Professor #1: “Sad truth is, we can only go so far as to keying into programs that have limited data that may or may not answer that question”.

    It sounds like a coin toss, doesn’t it? So if these happenings occur at the senior administrative level in institutions such as ERAU, of course students will emulate the instructors and accountability goes down the drain…

    Like

  2. The Worldwide Chancellor flew around the world first class this month. First Japan for a graduation of 12 students. A made up meeting in Korea, then to visit his daughter in Germany and then the airshow in Britain. $30000 in air tickets bought in parts to not look expensive. Expensive hotels every night.

    The president and several others went to the airshow, total cost over $60000. No students come from Britain to study here, or any benefit. Next year all to Paris.

    Like

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