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Nevada higher education agency copies think-tank report for grant

In academia, plagiarism is considered high crime.

But what if the culprit comes from the agency that oversees higher education in the state?

Documents show Frank Woodbeck, executive director of the College Collaborative with the Nevada System of Higher Education, copied large sections of a Brookings Mountain West report draft to create a competitive grant.

Emails obtained by the Review-Journal show Brookings researchers were alarmed when they discovered their unfinished work had been hijacked. Brookings Mountain West is a partnership between UNLV and the public policy nonprofit Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Brookings had shared a copy of an unfinished report to create a multi­million-dollar grant program designed to to improve the workforce in “STEM” industries: science, technology, engineering and math. The draft was labeled “do not circulate” and went to a variety of people, including Woodbeck, viewed as stakeholders for input. Sharing confidential early drafts is a common way to vet research.

No one from NSHE asked permission or told Brookings staff the draft concept would be repeated word for word, said Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West, which published and funded the project.

Lang said he was shocked. Brookings Mountain West estimates it spent $200,000 on its overall proposal.

Woodbeck presented the report to an interim legislative committee June 2, and the Board of Regents later approved it as a bill draft request for the 2015 session.

Woodbeck and NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich admit the language and idea were lifted from Brookings but staunchly deny that using the report is plagiarism.

It was an issue of timing, according to Klaich, who said the system had permission to use the report and that Brookings knew NSHE was going to do so. The Nevada agency just erred by doing this too soon, he said.

That’s contradicted by emails that show Washington director of Brookings Mountain West and lead author Mark Muro was surprised to learn NSHE staff had taken content from the Brookings’ report.

“That’s strange. This steals our language but dumbs down our proposal … we’ve barely shared. Nobody invited us!” Muro wrote in an email. Muro found out after someone outside Brookings noticed Brookings’ idea on a legislative agenda and asked if anyone from the think tank was appearing before the committee, emails show.

Woodbeck said he credited Brookings verbally at the June 2 meeting. He said his mistake was not citing Brookings on the report he gave the committee. Woodbeck said he added a citation to the final copy.

But the state’s video recording of the meeting where Woodbeck said he verbally credited Brookings doesn’t show him mentioning Brookings.

As for the citation Woodbeck added, it is an asterisk at the end of his final report, which still contains word-for-word passages taken from Brookings’ work.

Woodbeck’s citation reads: “*Based in part on a framework and study provided by Mark Muro, Senior Fellow and Policy Director, Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, Washington DC.”

“You don’t plagiarize when you identify the author,” Klaich said.

“That’s not the way it works,” said David Damore, a nonresident Brookings senior fellow and associate professor in political science at UNLV. It is common knowledge that using whole phrases and large chunks of text requires quotation marks, Damore said.

Klaich contended it is now clear Brookings is the primary author of the plan, and it is a Brookings product.

That might be confusing to the public, as Brookings unveiled its report, the one NSHE decided to use, in November.

Klaich said Brookings rolled out a broader proposal, and NSHE supports it. The acknowledgements in the final Brookings proposal thank Klaich and Woodbeck as well as dozens of politicians and business leaders.

Muro said he wasn’t too aggrieved as Brookings’ work speaks for itself. He prefers to focus on talking about the work.

Damore found it hard to believe NSHE was supportive of Brookings’ proposal, considering no one senior from the agency attended the November event where Brookings rolled out its final report. The two ideas, which Klaich insists are both Brookings’ products, likely will compete as bill draft requests at the Legislature next year.

Brookings and NSHE recommend not only different amounts of money for advancing the STEM workforce — Brookings puts it at $5 million, NSHE at $3.5 million — but that different agencies dole out that money. Brookings recommends local redevelopment agencies administer the grant funds, while NSHE recommends a council of representatives from various agencies, including NSHE, manage the money.

“This is a real breach of trust as we need stakeholder input to develop good policy, and that may be more difficult to do now in Nevada,” Lang said. “I also know of no other case involving Brookings and certainly none out of my career where trust has been so badly breached and, in fact, this could cast a real chill on the useful process of engaging key stakeholders.”

Damore bristled at Klaich glossing over the ordeal. Damore called the use of Brookings’ draft report intellectual property theft and plagiarism.

Schools work to make sure students understand not only that plagiarism is serious, but that ignorance won’t be an excuse for citing a source improperly or failing to give credit.

College code of conduct handbooks are filled with warning after warning that sloppiness can have devastating con­sequences for students.

“Plagiarism is an ugly form of dis­honesty — it is lying about your own accomplishment,” UNLV’s plagiarism guidelines state. “It is no different than taking credit for the work of others or falsifying your own credentials to get ahead. What would you think of someone who progressed past others by telling lies about his or her achievements? If you commit plagiarism, you are that person.”

NSHE’s actions are exactly what students are punished for at the colleges the system oversees, said Damore, adding that part of treating students who plagiarize so harshly is to ensure they won’t make those mistakes in the workforce.

Klaich thinks the comparison is unfair.

Damore said NSHE’s actions aren’t surprising, as the state consistently ranks poorly in higher education.

“This is largely the story of Nevada,” Damore said. “There are people in these huge powerful positions that don’t have the background you might see in other states.”

Klaich, an attorney, was appointed by the Board of Regents as chancellor in 2009 and has an extensive history with NSHE and the Board of Regents. Woodbeck was director of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation before joining NSHE in April as director of the College Collaborative, an effort to improve community colleges. He’s a veteran and has a long history in advertising sales.

Woodbeck has been discussed by regents and lawmakers as a strong candidate for the new NSHE vice chancellor position to oversee community colleges.

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @betsbarnes on Twitter.

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