University of Texas at Dallas administrators are backpedaling from their earlier accusations of academic fraud against three professors who say the school publicly scapegoated them, according their lawyer.
Robert Taylor, John Worrall and Galia Cohen are criminology professors at the university. The three came under fire for a program they helped lead that granted class credit for off-campus courses taken by certain graduate students, most of whom were law enforcement officers.
The three filed the lawsuit in district court on Feb. 12. On Thursday, two of the three professors met with the university president for the first time since the administration threatened to fire them seven months ago on accusations of academic fraud.
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In a meeting Thursday, the university rescinded its academic fraud charges, said Frank Hill, the professors’ lawyer.
“I think UTD realized they made a terrible mistake and they’re trying to find a way to back out of it,” Hill said. “UTD blew this thing up, told the world they had an illegitimate program and now they know there was no illegitimate program.”
A spokeswoman for UTD said the university has “acted lawfully in all respects with regard to all individuals involved with this matter and will not comment further on pending litigation.”
The legal battle centers on the Justice Administration and Leadership Graduate Program, in which students would enroll in a UTD course, take an equivalent course elsewhere and receive UTD credit for it.
The parallel courses took place at the Caruth Police Institute and Institute for Law Enforcement Administration, both of which collaborated with UTD to offer graduate law enforcement programs, according to the suit.
Members of the UTD administration told The Dallas Morning News, which published an investigative story on the program, that the program was not in accordance with UTD policy and they did not know about it.
However, Taylor, Worrall and Cohen said the administration has known about the program since July 2016 and explicitly supported it.
For example, Hill said, UTD’s vice president for academic affairs and provost, Inga Musselman, sent a memo on Feb. 21, 2018 approving the program as a whole, calling the courses “fully legitimate.”
In the memo, Mussleman says the program’s transfer credits have been awarded by an unapproved method and suggests a policy to resolve the problem, which was approved by the school’s voting faculty and the regional accreditation commission, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
However, in March, Musselman launched an investigation into the program headed by UT System’s Chief Inquiry Officer. Hill said it is unclear why she did so, but believes another professor or employee may have been involved.
“We can’t explain why Mussleman would write that letter on the 21st and shortly after they’re conducting an investigation into this system,” Hill said. “Unless one or more of the different employees or professors continued to pound away at it.”
The investigation was completed in May 2018 and found no evidence of academic fraud, according to the suit.
Despite the report, the university sent letters to the three professors in July, telling them termination proceedings against them had started because they had committed fraud.
Shortly after, Hill said the Morning News received an anonymous tip about the professors’ pending terminations and requested the letters.
For the next seven months, Hill said, neither he nor the professors heard anything more from the university. Days before the Morning News story broke on Jan. 31, the administration sent three more letters telling the professors the university was moving forward with their termination.
Notably, Hill said, the letters sent on Jan. 31 did not include charges of academic fraud against the professors.
“The irony is, Musselman and the president branded their own university of academic fraud and decided, ‘We better fire somebody.’ And there is no academic fraud,” Hill said.
Taylor, Worrall and Cohen are still employed at UTD but termination proceedings have not been dropped. Two of the three professors met with President Richard Benson on Thursday. On March 8, the third professor will meet with him.
“After the third meeting, the president will make his decision to either refer to a due process panel or stop this silliness now,” Hill said.