UNI instructor twice accused of plagiarism seeks court review of probe

A UNI committee concluded Professor Gayle Pohl had committed “research misconduct” in 2019 and the university disciplined Pohl in April 2019.

Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capitol Dispatch

A University of Northern Iowa instructor who has twice been accused of plagiarism is taking the school to court over its most recent investigation of her actions.

Gayle Pohl, a tenured public relations instructor at UNI, is seeking judicial review of UNI’s decision last year to discipline her for allegedly violating the school’s policies on research.

Court records indicate that in December 2017 and January 2018, a UNI faculty member complained to the university’s research integrity officer that Pohl had committed plagiarism with respect to two separate publications issued in 2013 and 2017.

The officer notified Pohl of the allegations made against her and the school’s provost convened an inquiry panel to look into the allegations. The panel, which was instructed to limit its work to the specifics of the complaint, ultimately recommended the matter proceed to a more formal probe that would be handled by an investigation committee.

Before the panel had finished its work, the research integrity officer allegedly asked the complainant in the case for recommendations as to who should serve on the investigation committee. The lawsuit alleges the officer selected one member to serve on the committee, despite that individual expressing some form of bias by stating, “I’m not going to lie. I am definitely interested in this.”

The lawsuit alleges that the research integrity officer suggested to the provost that the committee members be paid $1,200 each for their service. The provost allegedly decided each member should be paid $1,500 – although, the lawsuit claims, UNI policy does not provide for compensation of investigation committee members.

According to the lawsuit, the committee interviewed the complainant as part of its work. Through that interview, committee members learned that in 2014, the UNI provost determined Pohl had committed plagiarism concerning articles that had been published in 2008 and 2011. The research integrity officer provided the investigation committee with the file pertaining to the old plagiarism charges.

The committee eventually concluded that Pohl had not committed plagiarism but had committed “research misconduct” generally. 

As a result of those findings, the university disciplined Pohl in April 2019 by revoking her status as a graduate faculty member; barring her from working with non-tenured faculty on research and scholarly projects; prohibiting her from applying for promotion to full professor; prohibiting her from receiving any type of research award sponsored by UNI; and barring her from serving on any UNI committees.

Pohl contested the discipline, and the dispute was decided in favor of UNI by an arbitrator in September 2021.

Last December, UNI made the final decision to accept the arbitrator’s recommendations and impose the planned discipline. Pohl appealed the arbitrator’s decision to the Iowa Board of Regents, which in January declined to review the matter.

In seeking judicial review of UNI’s actions, Pohl’s attorney claims the generalized offense of “research misconduct” does not exist. The lawsuit also alleges UNI policy directed the investigation committee to identify whether misconduct relates to falsification, fabrication or plagiarism of information.

The lawsuit also alleges the research integrity officer directed the committee members to delete their files relating to their investigation of Pohl. It challenges the decision to have the investigation committee consider the previous charges and discipline levied against Pohl.

“All members of the Investigation Committee should have been disqualified once they were made aware of Dr. Pohl’s past discipline,” the lawsuit states. “They were improperly motivated to find ‘research misconduct’ based on knowledge of past discipline” and by the $1,500 payment they each collected for their work.

The lawsuit seeks a judicial order that would reverse, modify or remand the university’s final decision in the matter.

Through its attorneys, the university has denied any allegation of wrongdoing. The university admits that because the school’s director of research ethics had retained copies of all the documents the investigation committee members were provided or worked on, she advised them to destroy their own copies.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for July 15.

Pohl joined the UNI faculty in 1993 and has served as the faculty adviser for the Public Relations Students Society of America, according to UNI. Her research includes books on public relations, papers on social media, health care, corporate social responsibility and educational techniques used in teaching public relations.