A university that does nothing when faced with clear evidence of academic misconduct deserves some public scrutiny. Case in point: The University of Houston, Texas’s third largest university, is having some trouble with academic standards. Since early this year, the University has been stonewalling allegations that a school superintendent plagiarized the doctoral dissertation he submitted as a student at the university’s College of Education.
The university received at least five complaints, including one from the man whose work was apparently plagiarized, but brushed them all aside. Why would it do that? My guess is that the University of Houston fears what would turn up if it opened a serious investigation. Revoking the culprit’s degree would be easy given the plain-as-day evidence of copying. But there may be more going on. Why did the College’s examining committee notice nothing amiss despite lots of warning signs? How many other dissertations floating through the College of Education are similarly questionable?
Schools of education across the country are notorious for lax standards and intellectual faddishness. Actual corruption appears to be rare, but it isn’t hard to imagine. And the University of Houston doesn’t seem at all that eager to find out.
Dr. Lance Hindt, superintendent of schools at the Katy Independent School District in suburban Houston, recently submitted his resignation. Some parents in Katy were concerned about stories that Hindt was once a notorious bully. Someone then looked up what lay behind the “Dr.” that festooned the superintendent’s name.
Hindt received his doctorate in education (an Ed.D.) in 2012 from the University of Houston. His dissertation, The Effects of Principal Leadership on Teacher Morale and Student Achievement, bears a remarkable resemblance to another dissertation submitted four years earlier at Liberty University. That one, written by Dr. Keith A. Rowland, was titled, The Relationship of Principal Leadership and Teacher Morale.
The resemblances between Dr. Rowland’s dissertation and Dr. Hindt’s don’t require the observational powers of Sherlock Holmes:
Rowland. 2008. “Leadership is often difficult to define and evaluate. Leaders have a multitude of roles they fill and many duties they perform each day. There are many traits and behaviors that may create effective leaders.”
Hindt. 2012. “Leadership is a quality that is difficult to define much less evaluate. Leaders in all walks of life possess a wide array of leadership traits or skills; thus, there are many behaviors and traits that exemplify and define an effective leader.”
The addition of a few superfluous words or a change of syntax doesn’t make the second version original. Switching the order of “traits” and “behaviors” to “behaviors and traits” was a nice touch. Out of such creativity springs the newly minted Ed.D.—at least at the University of Houston.
There is a feast of examples, but one more will suffice:
Rowland. 2008. “The study is significant to the field of education in that it builds upon the available body of knowledge relating teacher morale and principal leadership.”
Hindt. 2012. “First of all, the present study is significant to the field of education in general because it builds upon the available body of knowledge related to teacher morale and principal leadership.”
Hindt’s technique is to stuff superfluous words into Rowland’s core sentence. “First of all,” “present,” and “in general” do not alter the structure or the meaning of Rowland’s writing. They simply offer light camouflage to the theft.
Astonishingly, the Katy Independent School District’s board of trustees rallied to Hindt’s defense. It approved a severance package of $750,000 and indemnified him for most of his legal expenses. What lies behind this gushing generosity is for someone else to investigate. The University of Houston’s response bears attention all on its own.
I became aware of this case when I was contacted by a frustrated parent who had written to the university and had been rebuffed. I wrote to Dr. Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, urging her to conduct “a formal review of Hindt’s dissertation.” I also said that absent a response, I would make my letter public. Khator did not respond (and still hasn’t), so I did, in fact, post the letter.
University of Houston officials so far have done nothing but dodge and deflect.
- The University’s Executive Director for Research Integrity and Oversight, Kristin M. Rochford, determined that a complaint filed May 31, 2018, missed the “six-year time limit.” (If such a limit exists, it would have been May 2018.)
- Oscar Gutierrez in the University’s Office of Executive Communication, explained, “In accordance with the Family Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C.§123g; 34 CFR Part 99), UH cannot comment on allegations made about a specific student.”
- Robert H. McPherson, Dean & Elizabeth D. Rockwell Chair, University of Houston, College of Education, acknowledged “receipt of a complaint” and wrote, “In accordance to University policy, I can make no other comment about your concerns.”
- After I publicly posted the letter, however, Mr. Mike Rosen, the University’s Director of Media Relations called to remonstrate with me. Rosen said that I had not waited long enough for the very busy President Khator to reply. Mr. Rosen also assured me that, “Any allegation we investigate.”
- Keith Rowland—whose words were appropriated by Dr. Hindt—also “contacted UH and the Katy school board” both of which “refused to speak with [him] regarding the allegations.”
Soon after I posted my letter, The Houston Chronicle picked up the story, as did the Houston Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News and the Fox and NBC television affiliates. After that one of the Katy citizens who persisted in complaining received a terse response from the university’s Office of Executive Communication directed him to the university’s policy for “Degree Revocation,” which lays out in detail the steps that must be followed.
These steps are sufficiently complicated and time-consuming that the University may well be planning to use them to stall on the matter until the public loses interest.
The evidence of some unacknowledged “borrowing” in Dr. Hindt’s dissertation is overwhelming. This is what suggests the University of Houston might harbor a motive beyond simply whitewashing an egregious case of academic misconduct on the part of a degree recipient.
Did Hindt actually perform the original survey “research” on which the dissertation is supposedly based? Were UH faculty members complicit in a more substantial form of research fraud? One hint is that the formal permissions Dr. Hindt received to do his research came several years after the time in which he claims to have done it. Those permissions were not retroactive.
The University of Houston cites “privacy concerns” as a way of avoiding discussing the issue. We might imagine a best-case scenario in which UH is indeed investigating but is scrupulously avoiding saying so. I doubt that’s true. Nothing in the nation’s privacy laws prevents the university from saying that it has opened an investigation.
Worse things happen in higher education than the rubber-stamping of a dissertation plagiarized from other material. But the Hindt affair is like a loose thread that could lead to a much larger scandal.
I for one would like to know how Hindt got away with such a dubious dissertation. Within five minutes of picking it up, I spotted the tell-tale indicator of many plagiarists: they cite the source they are plundering, but in a manner that suggests it is of incidental importance. On page two of his dissertation, Hindt mentions Rowland in a single parenthetical reference, but then fails to include Rowland in the dissertation’s bibliography, although other sources cited just as briefly in the text are fully spelled out. Checking citations is among the first things that a competent reader of a dissertation does. Hindt’s dead-end reference to Rowland’s work is a flashing neon sign that something is amiss.
The University of Houston may continue to do nothing. In that case, letters to the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, will be in order, as well as complaints to the Texas legislature, the State’s Attorney General, and the College of Education’s accreditors, the Council for the Accreditation for Educator Preparation.
When does foot-dragging become complicity in academic fraud? The University of Houston may provide an answer.