ATHENS, Ohio – Ohio University administrators are looking forward to a better school year this fall. In the wake of plagiarism charges, a massive theft of personal data and a thumbs-down faculty vote for the school president, it could hardly get worse.
Alumni of Ohio's oldest college are grumbling over a string of scandals. Fundraising is down. The football coach is in trouble over a drunken driving case.
"Academics work in a small circle," said journalism professor Joseph Bernt. "When we go to conferences, the question that will come up is, 'What the hell is going on at OU?"'
The public university plans to spend up to $8 million to improve computer security and is defending itself against lawsuits sparked by the data thefts and plagiarism accusations. It has fired or punished employees over both problems and has started requiring engineering students to submit papers electronically, so software can scan for similarities in other works.
In May, a committee investigating allegations of copying in the engineering graduate program said it found plagiarism in 40 master's degree theses dating back 20 years. The investigators called the problem rampant and flagrant.
"I have to admit, I've never seen anything like this," said Dennis Irwin, dean of the college of engineering and technology, who led an initial investigation.
The probe began after a mechanical engineering student, Tom Matrka, reported in 2004 that he found what he suspected was copying while reading other students' papers.
Matrka says he's pleased that the university has acknowledged the problem but believes more cases could be found if officials looked harder.
Most of the copying was in background material, and there was no evidence of falsified research data, the investigation found. Many of the accused former students haven't responded to the charges or requested more information from the school. Those found guilty will have plagiarism noted in their permanent records, and the school could strip graduates of their degrees.
Earlier in the spring, the university announced the first of what would be identified as five cases of data theft, affecting thousands of students, alumni and employees — including the president. About 173,000 Social Security numbers could have been stolen since March 2005, along with names, birth dates, medical records and home addresses.
A private consulting firm blamed the university for not having enough skilled computer staff and too few resources to fight off hackers.
Amid the upheaval, football coach Frank Solich is trying to withdraw his November 2005 no-contest plea in a drunken driving case based on subsequent testing that revealed the "date rape" drug GHB in his system. Solich believes someone spiked his drinks while he was at a local Mexican restaurant, his attorney said.
"These are certainly not the headlines we'd like to see about the university," said 26-year-old Aaron Brown, a 2001 graduate.
Founded in 1804, Ohio University has a pleasing campus rich with colonial-style architecture that's set in the foothills of state's Appalachia region. Known for a strong journalism program, the school of 20,000 students also has a reputation for heavy drinking, which it is trying to shed by expanding parental notification in cases of underage drinking.
President Roderick McDavis, who received a 3 percent raise but no bonus after the scandals broke, said he's met with alumni and heard their concerns about the school's trying year.
"No one has to ask, 'Does the president get it? Does he understand what's going on?"' he said. "I not only got it, but I was one of the victims."
The school will set aside a day in September to talk about plagiarism and academic honesty, Provost Kathy Krendl said. Plagiarism is already against the student code of conduct, and the school is considering instituting an honor code that might encourage offenders to turn themselves in.
French major Jennifer Jolly, 24, said she thinks renewed discussions are a good idea. "It probably wouldn't hurt for the school to define plagiarism more clearly" and to review ways to properly cite other people's work, she said.
Donations to the school dropped from $17.2 million in the third quarter of the school's fiscal year to $4 million in the fourth, ending June 30. The school eliminated about a half-dozen fundraising mailings and 3,000 telephone calls because the appeals didn't seem appropriate given the sensitivities over the data security issues, said Molly Mayo Tampke, interim vice president for university advancement.
Now school leaders are hoping the fallout won't last too long. Despite a symbolic no-confidence vote by faculty against McDavis, board of trustees Chairman Greg Browning said he still has faith in the president.
"I think he's addressed these issues with the seriousness that they deserve," Browning said, "and if these problems have a silver lining, it's that Ohio University will emerge a stronger, better university."