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UA professor who plagiarized student gets tenure

A University of Arizona architecture instructor who plagiarized the work of her former student has been granted tenure.

Susannah Dickinson, who was formally admonished for plagiarism by the UA last year, recently received a promotion to the rank of associate professor and a $5,000 raise, bringing her annual pay to $70,000, the Arizona Daily Star has learned.

Details of the tenure award — effectively a permanent job contract for a professor — are being kept under wraps by UA administrators who say the information is protected from release by the board that oversees the state’s public university system.

UA Provost Andrew Comrie, who’s responsible for overseeing the quality of the school’s academic workforce, has barred employees from talking about Dickinson’s plagiarism case to the media, to students or to each other, an internal email shows.

The case is rare in academia, where plagiarism complaints typically involve professors accusing students, not the other way around.

The affected UA alumnus, Nicholas Johnson of Tucson, who earned a master’s degree in architecture in 2012, said he’s disappointed but not surprised the UA gave tenure to the professor who poached his work.

University officials seemed intent on protecting Dickinson and downplaying his complaints throughout the year-long investigation, Johnson said in an email.

“The standard has been set: Professors at the U of A now know the university will protect them and even promote them when they steal student work,” he said.


Comrie’s directive tells employees to refer questions about the case to UA administration. Dickinson and her dean, Janice Cervelli, declined comment and referred questions to UA administration when reached by the Star.

Robert Miller, director of UA’s school of architecture, cited Comrie’s order in an email in which he cautioned his faculty and staff to keep quiet about the case. Miller wrote the email last October, a few days after the Star initially reported that Dickinson had been censured by UA for plagiarism.

“You can readily imagine how damaging this story could be for the university,” Miller wrote. “The provost has ordered that all questions from outside the university be addressed with one voice through a spokesperson in his office.

“The provost has explicitly prohibited us from discussing with anyone particulars related to the individuals mentioned or implicated in the story, including the media. Including the faculty. Including students.”

Miller also cautioned employees to be “careful about believing what you read,” in the Star — even though the UA has never challenged the accuracy of the newspaper’s reporting on the Dickinson case.

The UA declined to release documents related to the tenure award. In response to a recent public records request, the school provided the Star with a version of Dickinson’s personnel file stripped of any information related to the plagiarism case or the tenure decision.

Miller’s email cited an Arizona Board of Regents policy that “prohibits the release of most personnel information other than name, title, dates of employment and salary.”

UA spokesman Chris Sigurdson released a three-paragraph statement last week on Comrie’s behalf. It did not mention Dickinson by name but talked in general terms about how the UA awards tenure.

“A tenure decision covers an entire body of an individual’s scholarly endeavor and takes all work into consideration,” it said, adding that the process includes internal and external evaluation.

Tenure “would not be given nor denied on the basis of a single occurrence,” it concluded.


There’s only one plagiarism finding in Dickinson’s personnel file, even though the UA’s investigation confirmed two cases — in 2010 and 2013 — in which she used Johnson’s work without attribution.

The UA has not publicly released the documents related to its internal investigation, but Johnson provided them to the Star.

Dickinson was Johnson’s thesis advisor for his masters dissertation, a role that requires professors “to exercise the greatest care not to appropriate a student’s ideas, research or presentations to the professor’s benefit,” according to the website of the American Association of University Professors.

“To do so is to abuse power and trust,” the association’s statement on plagiarism says.

Johnson and Dickinson shared an academic interest in the field of biomimetics, which looks at aspects of nature, such as construction of a beehive, for ways to solve human problems.

The 2010 case Johnson complained of involved an application Dickinson wrote for a visiting professorship overseas, which Johnson said he found online as he was about to graduate. Two of the application’s nine paragraphs were lifted from Johnson’s work, the UA ruled in giving Dickinson a “formal admonishment” for plagiarism.

The 2013 case was more extensive, involving a nine-page paper Dickinson authored for an architecture conference. About 20 percent of it was taken word for word from Johnson’s master’s thesis without footnotes or citations, the UA’s internal investigation determined.

One review panel said that amounted to a second case of plagiarism. While Dickinson included a one-sentence mention in the conference paper that said Johnson had done much of the research it covered, the professor still should have attributed the sections of text she took directly from his thesis rather than presenting Johnson’s writing as her own, that panel said.

But another review panel, with whom UA’s provost sided in his final decision, excused Dickinson’s use of Johnson’s work in the conference paper.

The second review group found that although Dickinson “did not cite Mr. Johnson’s work conventionally,” her “use of Mr. Johnson’s work in this context did not rise to the level of misconduct — i.e. plagiarism,” Comrie said in his decision letter to university President Ann Weaver Hart in May  2014.


Comrie’s final ruling on the conference paper directly contradicts what the university tells its students about plagiarism.

One of the UA’s plagiarism prevention websites, for example, uses bold type and asterisks to emphasize that plagiarism occurs when “using another person’s exact words without including quotation marks *and* citations.”

The UA typically receives about five complaints a year of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism involving professors, but most can’t be substantiated and are closed after initial review, school officials have said.

The public seldom hears about such cases, even when misconduct is confirmed, because of the university’s closed-door investigation process and the practice of keeping results confidential. Dickinson’s misconduct only came to public attention because Johnson decided to speak out.

Johnson said he hopes his case raises questions about the lack of accountability for professors who break the most basic rule of their profession.

“How can a research institution like the U of A have any credibility,” he asked, when its professors “are held to a lower standard of integrity than students?”

Contact Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or

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Carol Ann has been with the Star since 1999, but has been an investigative reporter for more than 30 years. She's won numerous awards in the U.S. and Canada. In 2003, she was a war correspondent in Iraq and was a Knight-Wallace Fellow in Michigan in 2008.

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University of Arizona workers are barred from talking to media, students or each other about a professor's plagiarism case.

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