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Wheelock VP used the words of others in welcome note

No attribution in letter of welcome

In her welcome-back letter to faculty last month, the second-in-command administrator at Wheelock College spoke loftily of the Fenway school and its potential.

“No institution that I know holds greater potential to shape the world of ideas and contribute to improving the human condition,” wrote Shirley Malone-Fenner, vice president for academic affairs.

But those words — while inspiring — were not her own. As it turns out, Harvard University president Drew Faust wrote them several years ago, to welcome her own faculty back to school.

Faust’s words from 2007 were these: “No community I know holds greater potential to shape the world of ideas and contribute to improving the human condition.’’


It wasn’t just that line Malone-Fenner borrowed. The four-page letter from Malone-Fenner, who holds a position similar to that of provost at most colleges, contained at least six passages from Faust’s letter, according to a review of copies obtained by the Globe.

It also contained phrases, sentences, and passages that were sometimes verbatim from two other sources — a 2004 welcome letter from the president of Rutgers University and a 2010 letter from the president of the University of the Pacific in California.

Wheelock faculty said a professor discovered the similarities after running Malone-Fenner’s letter through software the school uses to detect student plagiarism.

The incident has roiled faculty, many of whom have in recent years been at odds with the university’s president, Jackie Jenkins Scott, on a variety of issues — most recently, on the appointment of Malone-Fenner to her current post.

When questioned by the Globe via a school spokeswoman, Malone-Fenner acknowledged using words from the other letters, stopping short of an apology.

“In preparing my message, I reviewed many letters from other institutions and used words from others’ welcoming messages without attribution.

“What I intended to share is quite simple — I am excited about working with each member of the faculty to make this a most successful year,” she said in a statement to the Globe.


The copied passages are largely rhetorical, motivational language aimed at inspiring professors to work together.

Another passage that is strikingly similar to Faust’s letter reads: “One of our paramount hopes for the coming years is that more and more, when all of us think and talk about our endeavors, we will be describing not just an accumulation of individual pursuits, but the efforts of people in different parts of the college working actively toward common ends.”

After the Globe called Wheelock about Malone-Fenner’s letter last week, Jenkins Scott wrote to the college’s board, calling Malone-Fenner “a highly respected academic and a wonderful leader.” Jenkins Scott said Malone-Fenner “acknowledges that she used a few words from others’ welcoming messages without attribution.”

Specialists on plagiarism said this incident is different from most cases of academic plagiarism because the letter was not a graded assignment nor academic research nor a scholarly article. Still, they said, it was striking that a high-ranking administrator would copy boilerplate language she could have written herself.

“She should have absolutely identified those sources, and put them in quotation marks,” said Andrea Lunsford, an English professor at Stanford University who studies plagiarism.

Susan D. Blum, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame who wrote a book about plagiarism, said it is common for businesses to borrow chunks of text in-house for such communications, but never from outside sources without attribution.


Malone-Fenner is the top official in charge of overseeing cases of student plagiarism, which can lead to suspension or expulsion. The college’s academic handbook defines plagiarism as “copying text verbatim from another source without using proper citation,” or “paraphrasing from another source without acknowledgment.”

The current flap is one in a series of recent troubles at the college, which specializes in social work and early childhood education.

In April, New England’s regional accrediting agency highlighted problems at Wheelock, including financial challenges, departure of top staff, and overworked faculty.

Malone-Fenner, who made $162,600 in her former role as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of several interim leaders appointed in the last year by Jenkins Scott, who plans to step down next spring.

Faculty at the school have criticized Malone-Fenner’s appointment, saying the president passed over other qualified candidates for the interim job in favor of an ally.

Before becoming a dean, Malone-Fenner directed the school’s Urban Teacher Program, according to the college website. She has a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University.

Wheelock is set to meet with accreditors this month before the agency issues a decision on whether to reaccredit the school.

Wheelock board chairwoman Kate Taylor did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on Malone-Fenner’s letter. A Harvard University spokesman also declined to comment.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.