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Investigation into U of Alberta dean who plagiarized speech not public

09/12/2011 03:24 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST
EDMONTON - The University of Alberta will not release the results of its investigation into the medical dean who resigned after admitting he plagiarized parts of a speech to graduates.

But if Dr. Philip Baker returns to teaching on campus next term, an official with the students' union thinks he should talk openly with students about what happened.

"We feel that it's important for Dr. Baker to take personal responsibility for his actions, if they are raised by students in class," student vice-president Emerson Csorba said Monday.

He said the students' union trusts the university conducted a thorough investigation and took appropriate action. But he hopes officials change their minds about releasing details.

"It's important that the university is transparent about the process," Csorba said.

Baker apologized in June for a "lapse in judgment" in stealing parts of an inspirational speech he gave to future doctors at a convocation banquet.

He said that when he was researching the speech, he was inspired by the text of a convocation address given by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

The "Velluvial Matrix" speech, given last year to graduates at Stanford University in California, was published in the New Yorker magazine.

Some students listening to Baker's version of the speech quickly found Gawande's original address online using their smartphones, and some said they were able to follow along with what he was saying.

Baker quickly apologized to students. But after weathering a week-long firestorm of criticism, he offered his resignation as dean and took a four-month administrative leave.

University president Indira Samarasekera said at the time staff would further investigate the matter and Baker could face further discipline.

University spokeswoman Deb Hammacher repeated Monday that Baker will not be reinstated as dean and an international search is underway for his permanent replacement.

She said Baker is set to return as a professor in October. It's not known whether he will be teaching students or focusing on research. He is listed on the university's website as an adjunct professor in the school's physiology department.

Hammacher said the university cannot make its investigation public because it is an employee disciplinary matter and the faculty agreement requires the process remain confidential. But Baker and the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta can agree to release the information.

The Canadian Press has requested details through the union but no decision has been made.

Hammacher said the same private process is in place for students who plagiarize. She added it's a common misperception that students are expelled for stealing other people's work.

"That's just not true," she said. "A first offence would never result in expulsion. There would have to be a pattern of behaviour and multiple offences for that to happen."

Hammacher said she doesn't believe the university's reputation will be damaged by secrecy over the investigation. "As far as the institution is concerned, it's a closed issue. And it's behind us, and it was dealt with appropriately. I think the academic community feels like it was handled appropriately as well."

Jeremy Richards, a professor with the university's earth and atmospheric sciences department, publishes a regular blog about academic issues at the school and thinks Baker has suffered enough by leaving the dean's office.

"It's all very unfortunate," Richards said. "Most of us were just stunned that someone in that position would let that happen. But I guess when you're busy, you do things. It's a very strange situation, and no one can really figure it out or understand why that happened."

London's Daily Mail newspaper reported last month that the General Medical Council, which grants licences to doctors in the United Kingdom, could remove Baker from its registry for plagiarism. A spokeswoman said any investigation is confidential and Baker remains on the registration list.

Baker received his training as an obstetrician and gynecologist at Nottingham University Medical School and was director of the Manchester Biomedical Research Centre before he joined the U of A in 2009.

Dr. Trevor Theman, registrar with Alberta's College of Physicians and Surgeons, said it's rare for the organization to investigate a complaint of plagiarism. He could not confirm whether the college is reviewing Baker's status.

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