Whistleblowers: Students challenge support for Monash v-c

July 5, 2002

The selection panel that appointed David Robinson vice-chancellor of Monash University was not aware that he had admitted to "a serious violation of scholarly standards" during his early career in England until The THES revealed his plagiarism late last month.

Although the Australian university's governing council has issued a statement of support for Professor Robinson, students want a fuller explanation. The Monash Student Association, which represents 20,000 students, said the declaration of support was "inadequate and premature".

President Rebecca Tomilson said: "A full and frank discussion of the issues is imperative to address the growing disquiet. Academics and students have real concerns about the message of tolerance of academic misconduct being sent by the university council's continued support of the vice-chancellor and dismissal of any need for any further investigation or debate. The possibility of adverse ramifications for Monash researchers and students is real, and Monash must consider the interests of the university."

The matter was not raised formally at Monash until a special discussion by the council in late June, called after The THES revealed that Professor Robinson had admitted to two cases of plagiarism in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This week, the university's spokesman said: "It appears that Professor Robinson's selection panel at Monash University did not know of these matters. However, this has been overtaken by the extensive discussion that took place at council on Monday night (June 24)."

In one plagiarism case, Professor Robinson's publisher had to publish an erratum with a 1983 book pointing out that he had copied "at least 20 sentencesI verbatim" from another author. Professor Robinson offered his "unreserved apologies" for the "serious violation of scholarly standards".

In a separate case, a notice was published in 1981 in the British Journal of Addiction , pointing out that "four pages" of a 1979 book chapter written by Professor Robinson "rely, with minor alterations" and an inadequate reference, on another academic's work.

Professor Robinson was appointed to lead Australia's biggest university in 1996. The Monash spokesman said: "Council, which includes student and staff representatives, fully considered the university's most appropriate response to incidents that happened 20 years ago, at other universities, in another country, that on all available evidence seemed to be fully resolved.

"Council then decided unanimously to issue a statement which, while clearly affirming the university's commitment to the highest ethical standards, fully supported Professor Robinson in his current role."

The university said chancellor Jerry Ellis was "maintaining a close monitoring and communications role involving senior academics, students and others, and is advising council of the opinions and views expressed".

Concerns were also raised this week that Monash has an apparent record of leniency towards scholarly lapses by its senior staff.

In 1987, Suzanne Uniacke, a respected Australian philosopher now at Hull University, complained that the deputy director of Monash's Centre for Human Bioethics, Helena Kuhse, had used large parts of her work, without proper acknowledgement, in her Oxford University Press book, The Sanctity of Life Doctrine in Medicine , which was based on Dr Kuhse's Monash University PhD.

After Dr Uniacke complained, the OUP published, with Dr Kuhse's agreement, a special announcement that Dr Kuhse had "insufficiently acknowledged" Dr Uniacke's paper. It issued 11 extra footnotes acknowledging the debt to Dr Uniacke. A similar notice was attached to library copies of Dr Kuhse's PhD thesis at Monash.

Monash investigated the affair in 1989 and 1990 to check the integrity of Dr Kuhse's Monash PhD. It appointed an external investigator who was a close colleague of Dr Kuhse and who had been thanked in the preface of the criticised book. Although her PhD had to be amended to include the proper acknowledgements to Dr Uniacke, the investigation found that "the integrity of the thesis was intact".

In 1996, Dr Kuhse was promoted to associate professor, but has since left the university.

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