Faculty members at West Liberty University recently accused W. Franklin Evans, president of the university, of plagiarizing multiple sources in several public speeches and presentations.
Evans, who became president of the West Virginia public university in January, first drew ire from faculty members and students for plagiarism in his fall convocation speech on Sept. 15.
“During the convocation, several faculty members were looking at each other and talking about how some things just didn’t quite sound right,” said a West Liberty faculty member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “People started actually googling during the convocation speech — faculty and students, from what I saw — and, long story short, people started just reading along.”
“Here are five other tips I want to share with you,” Evans told students during the speech. He proceeded to elaborate on each one: “always go to class,” “be proactive about your college education,” “focus on networking,” “take care of your mental health” and “be mindful about money.”
Five days later, Evans sent a memo to university employees and students explaining that he failed to properly attribute the advice to Robert Farrington, a personal finance writer and author of the Forbes article “5 Tips for College Freshman [sic] to Help Maximize Year One.”
In a recording of the speech on the university website, the captions contained citations, but Evans did not cite the original author verbally during his speech.
“That is a failure on my part,” Evans wrote. “However, that mistake is in no way indicative of a pattern, or a ‘bigger picture.’ It was merely an oversight, and one for which I am apologetic.”
Faculty members soon discovered it was not a one-time offense. They found that several of Evans’s other speeches and presentations contained language lifted from online articles. The president plagiarized several sources in a speech he gave on Juneteenth, ripping entire passages from the Smithsonian website, an op-ed in the Deseret News, a New York Times article and a LitCharts study guide for Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. In a presentation for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Evans quoted an author without attribution and pulled lines from an NPR article.
The Faculty Senate, which represents all faculty members at the university, met on Sept. 24 to determine if the president did indeed plagiarize in these speeches.
“It was on Zoom. You could pretty much see some people were clearly looking at it for the first time, and just jaws dropping. They didn’t realize it was that bad,” the faculty member said.
In one instance, during an event in Flushing, Ohio, Evans began his speech about Juneteenth by giving a history of the holiday, pulled nearly verbatim from the Smithsonian’s website without any attribution.
“On ‘Freedom’s Eve,’ or the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free,” the website said.
Evans’s words were almost identical.
“January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place and on that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and in private homes all across this country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect,” Evans said. “At the stroke of midnight, there were prayers that had been answered and all enslaved people in Confederate states were declared legally free.”
In the same speech, Evans recited an op-ed by Greg Bell, president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association, almost in its entirety. While reciting a passage from the op-ed, published in the Deseret News in 2017, Evans excluded an attribution to another source that Bell had included himself. Evans changed the order of some lines from the op-ed and swapped some words with synonyms, but even so, usage of the op-ed without attribution is still plagiarism, according to Sarah Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and expert on academic integrity.
“That’s a particular kind of plagiarism, where people take words, often nouns, and swap them out for a synonym using a thesaurus,” Eaton said. “If I write the word ‘small,’ and you substitute it with the word ‘little,’ well, it’s still basically my words.”
The 21-minute Juneteenth speech also contained language from a New York Times article and an American Battlefield Trust article about the holiday, as well as entire passages from a LitCharts study guide for the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, the faculty discovered.
In a keynote address Evans gave during a Belmont County NAACP Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in 2021, he recited a quote from Doug Williford, an American author, without crediting him.
“If my wife comes to me in obvious pain and asks the question, ‘Do you love me?’, an answer of ‘I love everyone,’ would be truthful, but also hurtful and cruel in the moment. If a co-worker comes to me upset and says, ‘My father just died,’ a response of ‘Everyone’s parents die,’ would be truthful, but also hurtful and cruel in the moment,” Williford wrote. “So when a friend speaks up in a time of obvious pain and hurt and says, ‘Black lives matter,’ a response of ‘All lives matter,’ is truthful. But it’s hurtful and cruel in the moment.”
Evans recites the passage nearly verbatim, but made no mention of Williford and suggested that he came up with the analogy on his own.
“Those who lack the sensitivity to understand the Black lives movement, here goes my attempt at enlightening you,” Evans said. “If my significant other comes to me in obvious pain and asks ‘Do you love me?’ and the answer I give is ‘I love everyone,’ that would be truthful, but also hurtful and cruel in the moment. If a colleague comes to me and says, ‘I’m upset because my father just died,’ you know a response of ‘everyone’s parents die’ would be truthful, but hurtful and cruel in the moment. So when a friend speaks up in a time of obvious pain and hurt and says ‘Black lives matter,’ a response of ‘you know, all lives matter’ would be truthful, but it is hurtful and cruel in the moment.”
After police officers killed George Floyd in May 2020, Williford’s words were included in several messages about the Black Lives Matter movement. Rob Putaansuu, the mayor of Port Orchard, Wash., cited the quote in his message on June 10, 2020. Peter Ndoro, a broadcast journalist, pointed to the quote in a tweet on June 23, 2020. Charles Harley — the assistant to the athletic director for facilities at the Landon School, a private boys’ school in Bethesda, Md. — used the passage in a school magazine article, although he also failed to attribute it to Williford.
Rich Lucas, chairman of the West Liberty University Board of Governors, acknowledged plagiarism by Evans in a statement Monday and said that “the board believes that this was an oversight by Dr. Evans.”
“It has come to my and the Board of Governors attention that Dr. W. Franklin Evans, president of West Liberty University, did not give proper attribution to the original authors in his recent speeches,” Lucas wrote. “Dr. Evans has apologized to the faculty and has vowed that in the future he will be more diligent in giving proper attribution when drafting his speeches.”
Lucas also reiterated his support for Evans as president of the university.
“There are many important issues that all universities across the country are facing at this time. The WLU Board of Governors believes Dr. Evans is the right person to lead and grow WLU now and for our future,” he wrote.
West Liberty’s academic dishonesty policy for students defines plagiarism as “the use, by paraphrase or direct quotation, of the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgment. It also includes the unacknowledged use of materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in the selling of term papers or other academic materials.”
Students found plagiarizing may be subject to a disciplinary hearing that could result in a warning, suspension or expulsion, among other disciplinary measures.
While plagiarism policies for students are quite common at academic institutions, there are fewer written rules for college and university employees, Eaton said. Occasionally, rules against plagiarism appear in research integrity and ethics policies, but few such policies exist for staff members and administrators.
“The reason for that could be an underlying assumption that we expect that faculty and administration already know better,” she said. “If we’re having somebody plagiarize in a nonresearch way — like a commencement speech or public address — many institutions actually don’t have policies and procedures around that, apart from a code of conduct. So it can be quite difficult if an institution hasn’t faced this before.”