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  • Charlie Hatcher

Former Claremont McKenna Dean Investigated for Racism After Accusing Student of Plagiarism



 Photograph from Duo Nguyen.


In December 2022, CMC professor William Ascher accused a student of plagiarism. Then, the accused student and four others submitted civil rights complaints against Ascher. Subsequently, CMC launched a year-long investigation into the professor's behavior. Following its conclusion, Ascher wrote an account of the case at the request of CMC President Hiram Chodosh and the college’s Administration Committee. This article is largely based on Ascher’s narrative and other communications obtained by the Independent. 


According to the narrative, in early December 2022, Ascher received three of the student’s papers.

“The papers were submitted as email attachments, with a statement that they had been uploaded on [a classroom website] previously. The [website] clearly indicated that the papers had not been submitted. In reviewing the papers, it was clear that they were far superior in quality than the two short papers submitted earlier… Therefore, I ran the three new papers through Turnitin.com, which indicated plagiarism for all three.”

Ascher then reported the student to the Academic Standards Committee (ASC) as required by the college’s Academic Policy


Shortly after, former CMC registrar Elizabeth Morgan reportedly commissioned a visiting professor to investigate the allegations. According to Ascher, the professor found “much higher degrees of plagiarism” than the detection website. 

 

Normally, the ASC dispatches cases quickly—the committee meets every other week, and appeals are rare. One former member of the committee said that “usually cases are dealt with over the course of two weeks, and frequently they take less than that.” 


However, Ascher says he received no update after several weeks and contacted Morgan to ask about the case’s status. She reportedly informed him that Nyree Gray, CMC’s Vice President for Human Relations and Chief Diversity Officer, “had taken it out of the consideration of the Academic Standards Committee.”

 

Ascher also reportedly emailed Professor Robert Valenza, the chair of the ASC, to ask if the case was being considered. Ascher said that Valenza confirmed that it was not and that it was “problematic that the case had not been brought to the ASC.”

 

On January 18, Ascher says he asked Gray why she had pulled the case. Gray reportedly informed Ascher that the student accused of plagiarism, who is black, “had filed a complaint of racism” against Ascher, along with four other students of color. 

 

On February 2nd, Gray and Ascher reportedly spoke again: 

“Gray asked me if I would be willing to deal with the case informally. Because I believed that this would require some compromise, I refused because the plagiarism case should be pursued fully.”

Gray also reportedly outlined the complaints against Ascher. The student accused of plagiarism had submitted the first complaint, allegedly “basing his case on the allegation that I had singled him out because he is African American.”


According to Ascher, the other complaints, which he claims were submitted after the first student’s complaint, allege that Ascher once asked a black student in a discussion on natural resource policy what the difference between a natural forest and a plantation is; that he asked a black student to sit closer to him in the classroom; that he asked a black student how old her mother was when she gave birth; that in discussing apartheid South Africa’s legal classifications of “whites, blacks, and coloureds,” he did not use the term “black people;” that he spoke to a hispanic student in Spanish on their first meeting and denied the same student’s study abroad application, apparently discouraging the student from pursuing an International Relations major; and that he called on a black student in class too frequently. 


All of the complainants either declined to comment or could not be identified with certainty by the Independent

 

Gray reportedly asked Ascher if he had flagged other plagiarism cases:

“I responded that in the same semester I had also submitted a plagiarism concern for a white student from [Europe] (a Pitzer exchange student) whose papers were highly polished despite the fact that she could barely respond to questions in class, and Turnitin.com had indicated plagiarism in her case as well. Subsequently she admitted it.”

In response to the other complaints, Ascher reported having “asked several students, including white students, to move closer so that I could hear them through their masks.” He also noted that as a member of the Global Education Committee, he had been among a majority of members that “rejected is (sic) appeal to study abroad despite his poor GPA.” In addition, according to Ascher, the student ended up graduating as an international relations major. Finally, Ascher outright denied having ever asked a student how old her mother was when she was born. 

 

On March 20, Ascher says he received an email from Lynzie De Veres, CMC’s Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and a Title IX administrator. She reportedly outlined the college’s procedures for handling civil rights complaints. The policy states that “[CMC] seeks to resolve all reports of Prohibited Conduct in a timely manner.”

 

On March 29, Ascher says he emailed Gray to request an update on the case. She reportedly responded that the case was “in process, but gave no indication of timing.” The next day, Ascher says he heard from De Veres, who noted that the timeline was unclear since no chairperson for the Investigation Review Panel had been selected. Once a chair was chosen, De Veres wrote, the Civil Rights Office would confer with them about whether the case should be handled through Type 1 or Type 2 of the college’s civil rights grievance procedures.

 

Type 1 cases arise when sanctions for the alleged conduct do not rise to the severity of termination or suspension without pay. Ascher was later told by De Veres that these cases, which involve only one round of investigation and no live hearing, are more “streamlined.” Type 2 cases arise when termination or suspension without pay are possible sanctions. They involve a more extensive process that includes two rounds of investigation and a live hearing. 

 

On March 31st, Valenza reportedly wrote to Gray to inquire about the status of the plagiarism case. “To my knowledge,” Ascher wrote, “she did not respond to Rob Valenza, and, in fact, took him off of the email exchange about the case in question.”


Gray did not respond to a request for comment. 

 

Finally, on April 14th, Ascher reportedly received a formal Notice of Allegations from the Civil Rights Office. The complaint about asking a black student the difference between a forest and plantation had apparently been dropped. 

 

On April 21st, Ascher says he emailed President Chodosh, Gray, De Veres, Antecol, Valenza, and Professor Andrew Busch, the chair of the College’s Administration Committee. He noted that if the plagiarism case had gone through, the student would still have had the opportunity to appeal the ASC’s ruling. Furthermore, he claimed that “withholding the case from the ASC is a violation of the faculty’s authority,” and that it was improper for Gray to meddle with the ASC’s case docket:

“Part of my email asked: “Does the Diversity Office have the authority to block the right to expeditiously process a case of academic dishonesty? Nothing in Title 9 or the CMC discrimination policy directs the Diversity Office to withhold a case from the Academic Standards Committee (ASC).”

On May 2nd, Ascher reportedly sat for an extensive interview with Arielle Kristan, an attorney from the law firm Hirsh Roberts Weinstein LLP who CMC retained as the external investigator. Ascher had already sent Kristan documentation of the suspected plagiarism offenses and “point-by-point rebuttals of the accusations,” and supplied more documents to Kristan upon her request directly after the interview. Kristan reportedly said that based on the interview, she would likely have to recontact the students involved in the complaint and interview Ascher once more, noting that this would likely take several more weeks.

 

On May 10th, Ascher says he met with President Chodosh to ask about the delay in the ASC case. According to Ascher, “He tried to defend the delay of the ASC consideration of the plagiarism charge, that the consideration of the discrimination complaint would somehow be influenced. The logic of this defense eludes me.”


President Chodosh did not respond to a request for comment. 

 

On May 31st, almost a month after their first interview, Kristan reportedly sent Ascher her notes for comment. Ascher responded the same day.

 

On June 28th, De Veres reportedly emailed Ascher to request his approval for Antecol to serve as sanctioning officer in the case and indicated that the case was being handled through the Type 1 procedures. Ascher agreed to have Antecol serve as the sanctioning officer.

 

Ascher wrote that Kristan interviewed him a second time on July 10th. She reportedly sent Ascher her notes from the interview almost a month later on August 7th. Ascher responded the same day. 


Ascher later learned that Kristan had reportedly contacted 76 of his former students to ask if they would be willing to serve as witnesses in the case. 


When asked for comment, Kristan referred the Independent to a college spokesperson. 

 

On October 19th, De Veres sent Kristan’s investigation report to Ascher. Using the preponderance of the evidence standard—which requires that a claim be more likely true than not—Ascher noted that the report “rejected the claims of harassment or discrimination claimed by all but the student accused of plagiarism.”


According to CMC’s 2022/2023 Civil Rights Policy, discrimination in the educational environment “refers to the treatment of a person or persons adversely based on the person or persons’ Protected Status. Adverse treatment means actions which have a substantial and material adverse impact on a Claimant’s participation in educational programs, activities, opportunities or benefits.”

 

Normally, both Ascher and the student accused of plagiarism would have five days to submit a response to the report before the Sanctioning Officer makes a finding of responsibility. However, the student reportedly requested an extension, and the deadline was extended to November 7th.

 

On November 20th, Ascher says he emailed Gray, reminding her of the civil rights grievance procedure’s stated promise of a “reasonable, impartial, and prompt investigation.” The next day, Gray reportedly responded, “We are familiar with the policy and will continue to comply with all obligations as we have throughout this process. The parties will be notified in a timely manner once the decision is ready for distribution. We anticipate notifying the parties next week.”

 

On December 11th, Ascher says that De Veres sent him the final investigation report. This report did not constitute a decision, but was likely updated to reflect the student’s response to the initial investigation report. When asked why a second investigation report was distributed, Antecol did not respond to a request for comment. 

 

The next day, Ascher forwarded Gray’s response to his November 20th email to Interim President Sharon Basso, Antecol, Busch, and Jon Shields, chair of the government department. He called the delay “unacceptable,” and claimed that the student’s continued service in a prominent role in ASCMC, CMC’s student government, “dishonors our College.”

 

In response, Basso reportedly said she would contact Gray regarding the status of the case. Finally, on December 18th, Gray sent Ascher Antecol’s finding of responsibility, allegedly dated November 14th. Antecol cleared him on all charges. 


Following the conclusion of the investigation, the initial plagiarism case proceeded.


Megan Jordan, a college spokesperson, told the Independent, “We cannot comment on the details of any specific case nor confirm the existence of specific cases. The College adheres to a thoughtful and thorough process.”


None of the documents provided to the Independent were shared by Ascher. When reached for comment, Ascher declined to speak on the details of the case. He only said, “I think it’s so unfortunate that somebody violated confidentiality.” 


Ryan Ansloan, a senior program officer specializing in due process in higher education at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), noted that CMC’s handling of the case could have a chilling effect on professors. “The length of the investigation itself is cause for concern, especially if there’s been no indication from [CMC] that this is not a longer-than-normal timeline. If that’s normal, no professor is going to feel comfortable in the classroom.”


A professor who formerly served on the Academic Standards Committee said, “Nyree Gray’s interference with the normal procedures of the Academic Standards Committee, the yearlong ordeal to which the college subjected Professor Ascher, and Dean Antecol and President Chodosh’s apparent blessing of these measures, have completely gutted the ability of the faculty to maintain academic standards at Claremont McKenna College.”


“In the notification from the diversity office that the case is officially closed,” Ascher wrote, “Ms. De Veres indicated that all parties could request assistance (it would not surprise me if this was intended for the complainants rather than for me). Nevertheless, I just wrote to her asking for assistance, namely for the diversity office to contact every student and other persons who were contacted by the diversity office or the investigator to inform them that all charges were dismissed.” It is unclear whether the Civil Rights Office agreed to Ascher’s request. 




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