Last Monday, Sept. 17, former professor Carleen Basler resigned from the College after admitting that her written work contained unattributed verbatim quotations and improper references of other scholars’ work.
“My reason for resigning is simple. In certain sections of my scholarly work, I unintentionally failed to cite and improperly cited previously published materials. In the realm of academic scholarship, such mistakes are very serious in nature,” Basler said in a statement given to The Student.
Discovery and Acknowledgment
The plagiarism in Basler’s work was discovered when she was being reviewed for tenure in the Anthropology and Sociology and the American Studies departments. As is common with any tenure review, the senior members of the departments were reviewing all of her written work, closely reading it themselves, as well as sending it to outside scholars for review.
“In the course of that reading, those faculty began to have some questions and then they started to look and to find things,” Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call said.
After finding some irregularities, the senior members then approached Dean Call and showed him and the rest of his office what they found.
“Over the course of a couple of days, they transmitted material that they had found with the references to the unquoted work,” Dean Call said.
After gathering those materials, the Dean of the Faculty’s office analyzed it separately and verified that the senior members’ allegations were true. During this verification process, Dean Call informed Basler about the proceedings and presented her with side-by-side evidence.
“She readily acknowledged that there were unattributed quotations in her work,” Dean Call said. “She indicated her deep regret and then we worked through how we would handle the process.”
There is a set of procedures in place in the faculty handbook for these situations. They followed those procedures, which included meetings between Basler and Dean Call. Basler then decided to resign voluntarily.
“Resigning from my position at Amherst College was a very difficult decision but one that I believe is in the best interest of my family, my students and the greater Amherst College community,” she wrote in her statement. “I could have gone through the College’s adjudication process, but as the mistakes are mine, I believe resignation was the most honorable and ethical course of action.”
The Nature of the Plagiarism
The plagiarism was found in material dating back to her dissertation. In an email to the faculty, Dean Call wrote that Basler admitted that her work contained “unattributed verbatim quotations and/or other unattributed or improperly referenced work of other scholars.”
Although the plagiarism existed in much of her work, Chair of American Studies Karen Sánchez-Eppler explained that the unattributed quotes were only found in certain parts.
“Fairly frequently in her written work, which is work that is characterized by original research and whose central core arguments are as far as we can see original and her own, she relied on pretty large sections of prose from other scholars to provide the context, to provide the literature review or the historical background,” Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler said. “The big findings were hers and were in her own words, but a lot of the background materials she used [were] other scholars’ work.”
Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler also mentioned the way in which today’s technology makes finding plagiarism easier, while also making committing plagiarism more “tempting.”
“I think that we probably, as an institution, need to spend more time not in a punitive way, but in a really thoughtful way, thinking, what do we mean by intellectual honesty, how do you write in a world where the screen that you’re writing on and the screen that you’re reading on is the same screen?”
Struggles with Writing
Although Basler does not write in her statement to The Student why she committed plagiarism, some of the faculty believes that it was caused by her struggles and insecurities with writing.
“When we talked about it after it was discovered, she was pretty forthright with me about the things that were difficult for her in writing,” Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler said. “I care immensely about her, and I think she had really slowly over the course of her education and her career trapped herself.”
Christian Aviles ’14E, a student and previous advisee of Basler’s, who was present at a meeting the departments held last Friday, Sept. 21 for any students that had questions about the situation, explained that some of the professors expressed that Basler had always been insecure about her writing. According to the professors, he said, she refused help that they offered her when she was writing any work for publication or submitting it for her tenure review.
“Obviously there has to be some personal accountability... But, at the same time, it can be hard to ask for help in academic settings,” said Abigail Bereola ’15, an advisee of Basler’s, who was also at the meeting on Friday. “If you’re not asking for help on a lower level — high school, college — or you’re not able to get help on a lower level, at a certain point, you’re probably going to stop asking.”
Creating a More Helpful Academic Environment
Since some believe that Basler did not ask for help because she didn’t feel that Amherst was a safe and understanding place, both faculty and students brought to the forefront the issue of creating a better environment in which people feel more comfortable coming forward with their academic problems.
“I think the important part of it, I guess, is that I feel that there’s a lot that we can learn about how to support vulnerabilities and deficits,” Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler said. “How do we as an institution make it a place where when people feel that they’re getting stuck — and I think that this is true for our students as well as our faculty — that when they’re feeling stuck, they can say ‘I’m stuck, help me,’ and not try to cover it up? That’s the kind of soul-searching that we as an institution need to do.”
Alexa Hettwer ’13 was in the MRC Steering Committee as well as the Mental Health Task Force with Basler. Although Hettwer never took a class with Basler, she still interacted with her outside the classroom and grew to admire her. Hettwer too thinks that this situation should make the institution rethink the ways it does certain things.
“I don’t think the public focus should at all be on judging her personal life. I personally do not see intent to deceive, (and am not looking for evidence of personality flaws,) but do see a lot of opportunities for reevaluation of Amherst’s support for its diversity of professors and our understanding of Intellectual Property Rights, which have a very, let’s say, convoluted history,” Hettwer said.
Leaving a Mark in the Classroom
Despite the problems that Basler faced as a writer and a scholar, she was well-respected and well-liked by most of her students. Both Aviles and Bereola said in their interviews that a professor at the meeting on Friday mentioned that in their time reviewing professors for tenure, they had never seen more positive student letters for any other professor.
Aviles took "White Identity" with Basler his first year at Amherst before knowing what he wanted to major in, and it was that class with her that convinced him to declare Sociology as his major.
“As a professor, I thought she was amazing,” Aviles said. “She was there to learn from us as much as we would learn from her; that’s what she told us. I thought her methods of teaching were really effective.”
Faculty such as Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler also recognized her abilities in the classroom.
“She’s an extremely warm and engaging person both as a scholar — interviewing people — and I think as a leader of classroom discussions,” Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler said. “[She’s] remarkably good at getting people to delve deeply into complicated situations and to talk about touchy subjects candidly and probingly and respectfully.”
Despite plagiarizing in her own work, Basler still pushed her students to avoid the trap that, according to Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler, she had fallen into.
“I think that a lot of what was so powerful in her teaching was a real commitment not to let other students she was working with get trapped in the same ways, to really make sure that she was helping students to develop the skills that they needed to do the best work that they had and they could,” Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler said.
“I’ve come to see her own internal wrestles as part of the fire in her commitment to trying to figure out how you get institutions to serve all of its students well, despite the diversity of preparation with which they come here,” she added.
Impacting Student Life
Basler was not only interested in students’ academics, but she was also very invested in student life. Coming from a Mexican-American background, she was particularly interested in the diversity of the student body.
“Like you, we know Professor Basler as a superb teacher and mentor, committed fully to the students she taught and advised, and devoted to making Amherst the diverse, inclusive, and intellectually challenging place it aspires to be,” Ron Lembo, Chair of the Anthropology and Sociology department, wrote in a letter to majors of the department.
In addition to discussing student life and diversity of the student body in her classes, she also joined faculty committees which dealt specifically with those issues.
“She was an extraordinarily committed member of the College in terms of being willing to be on every Orientation panel, every discussion group, [she was] a very public actor really invested in student life and student well-being,” Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler said.
“I think a lot of the really good work that she did on all of those things are legacies that she leaves to us and are real accomplishments. I would sincerely, sincerely hope that nobody sees this as lessening that or undermining that in any way,” she added.
Hettwer attests to this commitment to student life, as she described Basler as the “the main faculty voice on both of those committees [MRC Steering Committee and Mental Health Task Force].”
As an advisor, Basler also played a role in her students’ lives. Bereola was Basler’s advisee her first-year, and she recalled that many other first-years she knew only had advisors “by name” and interacted with them only through email. Bereola, on the other hand, met with Basler often, going to her for both academic and personal help.
“Honestly, if she hadn’t been my advisor — if I hadn’t felt the connection that I had with her — I possibly could be in the process of transferring or would have already transferred,” Bereola said.
Since finding out about the situation, students have reacted in a variety of ways. Bereola, for example, described the past week as an “emotional rollercoaster.” She also emphasized the need to realize that Basler, although an esteemed professor, was human.
“People are human and they make mistakes,” she said. “Obviously those mistakes are going to have consequences, but I think that there should be room to make mistakes and to ask for help if you need it.”
Bereola acknowledged that Basler’s plagiarism was “in the academic setting, possibly the worst thing you can do.” However, she believes that the impact that Basler made on her life through her advising and mentoring is more important that what she did as a scholar and writer.
“I know that even though I didn’t personally take a class with her, she taught me a lot just by being here and by allowing me to be in her life and learn from her,” Bereola said. “I’ll always really appreciate that and she’ll always be a major part of my Amherst experience regardless of what happens after this.”
Although Bereola responded well to the discovery of Basler’s plagiarism, Aviles did not. The weeks before Basler’s resignation, Aviles had been in meetings with some members of the administration, including President Carolyn Martin and Dean Call, advocating for her tenure, as he believed her to be the perfect candidate. When he was informed of the plagiarism, he could not believe it.
Refusing to believe that Basler could have committed plagiarism, Aviles decided to do some research himself. He looked up an article written by Basler and put different sentences into Google. In the first 20 pages, he said, he found about 13 sentences which were plagiarized.
“At that point, I just stopped. I just started crying. I was really frustrated, I was really sad. I was angry. I had all these different emotions. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Understanding that many other students’ reactions align more with Bereola’s, Aviles explained that he knew that his view was “unpopular,” but that he could not understand how others could easily overlook the plagiarism.
“I guess they’re really clinging on to the goodness and positive aspects that she brought into the campus, but for me, because I held her on such a high pedestal, now … I can’t look at her the same way anymore,” he said.
Creating Doubt in Her Students
In regards to Basler’s students, Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler expressed concerns that students that looked up to her would start questioning their own abilities. She explained that Basler would not want the students to start doubting themselves and resorting to plagiarism to succeed.
“My concern with students who so admire her and who she’s been such a wonderful mentor is that I don’t want this in any way to disillusion them,” she said. “For the students who really have learned so much from her and with her, the best thing that they can do is to go on with their own highest ambitions and strongest integrity, and that’s what she would want for them.”
She also brought up this concern at the meeting on Friday. Aviles explained that for him, that did not make him feel better; instead it made him start doubting himself since he had not seen the situation from that angle before.
“It just gets you thinking, if someone who was your role model and your mentor, if someone who you really look up to was capable of doing that, where does that leave the rest of us?”
Finding New Professors
The administration, in addition to communicating with students to make sure they’re handling the situation well (President Martin reached out to Aviles to schedule an appointment to make sure he was coping), also had to find new professors for the two classes that Basler was teaching during this semester. She was teaching a first-year seminar, Race and Racialization in the United States, and an upper-level seminar, Race and Politics in the United States.
Dean Call was able to find professors to teach the classes at the time at which they were originally scheduled. For the first-year seminar, Dean Call spoke to Visiting Lecturer Benigno Sánchez-Eppler. Professor Benigno Sánchez-Eppler, whose official work when he’s not teaching for the College is translating, saw an “opportunity to make a contribution.”
Professor Benigno Sánchez-Eppler explained that the faculty understood that his area of study was not sociology; it was instead literary and cultural studies. Although he will be using some of texts that Basler had assigned for the course, which he described as very “good and up-to-date,” he will also be adding some literary texts so he can teach students through his own expertise.
“It’s still an introduction to intellectual life and how to express yourself intelligently in class and how to get the professor to work for you and how to write. So those things will get done,” he said.
A replacement for the upper-class seminar took more searching than did the first-year seminar, but Dean Robinson, Associate Professor of Political Science at UMass, was eventually found, and he accepted the role.
Her advisees, students in a Special Topics course with her, as well as the students that were working on a thesis with her, will be reassigned to other professors that most fit their area of study.
“In all of this, we ask for your patience,” Professor Lembo wrote in his letter. “We will work through this successfully.”
One of the top priorities for the administration is to begin a search to find another professor in the U.S. Latino Studies area for the departments. The faculty hopes to have found a replacement for her by the beginning of the next fall semester.
“The College is committed to the areas Professor Basler was hired to teach, and we expect to authorize a search in U.S. Latino Studies this year,” Dean Call wrote in an email to the faculty.
Reflection on the College
Despite the possibility that Basler’s resignation might create negative press for the College, President Martin does not believe that this will happen.
“It’ll be perceived that the tenure system and the peer review that is part of that tenure system worked and that the College has been open about the incident or incidents,” President Martin said. “I don’t think anyone will think any less of Amherst College as a result any more than they will think less well of the institution where she got her Ph.D. These things are rare, but they happen as things happen in all institutions that we wish didn’t but occasionally they do.”
Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler felt that although it is likely for this to be seen as negative thing by some and a positive thing by others, in the end, that is of little significance.
“I think it’s as likely to reflect badly on Amherst as it is to reflect well on Amherst. [But] I guess I don’t care about that,” she said. “The important thing is for us to be as forthright as we can be, while still trying to be respectful of Professor Basler and not parade her.”
Repercussions and the Future
Although the plagiarism was found during the tenure review at the College, the administration still had a responsibility to inform other affected parties about it.
“We do have an obligation, according not only to our own ethical standards, but also according the policies that are described by the American Association of University Professors, to inform publishers and inform any other institutions,” President Martin said.
Dean Call reached out to colleagues at Yale University, where Basler received her Ph.D., to inform them of the plagiarism, which was also found in her dissertation. Julia Adams, Chair of the Department of Sociology at Yale University, said the university is conducting its own investigation on the plagiarism before making any decisions regarding her Ph.D.
“My colleagues and I were shocked to learn that Carleen Basler had plagiarized part of her academic work while completing her doctoral studies in sociology at Yale University. Neither the Sociology department nor Yale University tolerates plagiarism, which is a fundamental breach of trust as well as an ethical violation,” Professor Adams wrote in a statement to The Student. “Besides being a breach of trust and an ethical violation, plagiarism also gives rise to a great deal of pain, suffering, and personal humiliation, and I am confident that Amherst’s academic leadership and college community are dealing with the fallout in the best and most humane way possible.”
Although Basler did not mention her plans for the future in her statement, Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler expressed what she hopes for Basler’s future.
“My big hope for her is that she will be able to make a new professional life for herself that’s all about her strengths and all about the things that she does really, really well, and not as hobbled as her time here has been.”
To read Carleen Basler’s full statement to The Student, go to: http://amherststudent.amherst.edu/?q=article/2012/09/25/letter-editor
For students that wish to write a letter to Basler, there will be a letter writing session sponsored by the MRC and the Dean of Students Office on Sept. 27, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Friedmann Room. Stationery and writing utensils will be provided.