KSU failed to verify ex-professor’s degree

Rachel Abbey

Last year the university hired about 260 full- and part-time faculty. Every department, school and college handles these hirings based on their individual policies within the university’s guidelines.

This year already welcomes a new president and dean. Additional faculty positions have been approved in fast-growing fields such as journalism and fashion design. Those don’t even touch on the routine replacements and part-time faculty the university hires every year.

In 2003, the university hired an assistant professor to teach history at its Stark campus. They thought she had the master’s and doctorate degrees she claimed to have from University of Oxford in England.

She didn’t.

Kent State officials said the case of Jaclyn A. LaPlaca shouldn’t have fallen between the cracks and don’t know how it did.

LaPlaca worked at Stark for two years, quit and took a job at a university in Pennsylvania in 2005, where she is currently employed.

How can the university ensure that this doesn’t happen again?

What happens next

Gayle Ormiston, associate provost for faculty affairs and curriculum, said Kent State will not take any action against LaPlaca or make any policy changes when it comes to hiring faculty. The university does not know of any harm to students, he said, and any courses she taught still count.

“We (the Stark campus) employed her,” Ormiston said. “We assigned her to teach. We assigned her to teach under the assumption that whatever she told us was the truth. We’re not going to go back and tell the students it doesn’t count.”

This doesn’t happen often, he said.

How did it happen?

Ormiston said individual departments develop their hiring policies with their colleges and schools. They all have to follow equal opportunity and affirmative action policies and abide by a basic outline that includes creating a search committee and placing advertisements, but can design their own way of conducting interviews and narrowing down candidates.

Without a regulation process, what can the university do to make sure a case like this one doesn’t happen again?

Search committees and people in charge of appointing faculty need to put a little more work into confirming applicants’ backgrounds, Ormiston said. The dean or chair of a department should be calling references or registrars at the universities where applicants say they received degrees.

“These kinds of phone calls are easy to make,” Ormiston said.

In this case, history Chair John Jameson said there should have been more background research especially because LaPlaca did not have a transcript. Oxford provides certificates, not transcripts.

“If documentation is not there, it should be caught,” Jameson said. “Otherwise, it undermines the integrity of the process and the whole university.”

The university normally does background checks, Ormiston said.

“In this case, it clearly didn’t happen,” he said. “It’s done to ensure that this doesn’t happen.”

Questions arise

Someone at the Stark campus had anonymously contacted Oxford questioning LaPlaca’s degree completion, Ormiston said. Frances Lannon, a principal at Oxford, contacted Ormiston in August 2005 to inform him that LaPlaca did not have a valid degree from her university. A principal is like a provost, Ormiston said. Several phone conversations and a letter were exchanged.

At this time, LaPlaca had already left Kent State and was employed at Marywood University in Pennsylvania.

LaPlaca was never granted a doctoral-level degree and her master’s-level degree was revoked when she was found guilty of plagiarism, according to a letter from Lannon to Ormiston. Oxford in turn expelled LaPlaca.

The Daily Kent Stater obtained copies of this letter and all other documents in LaPlaca’s personnel file through a freedom of information request.

The paper trail

Kent State requires transcripts from the universities where faculty members say they received degrees, Ormiston said.

LaPlaca included a copy of her Doctorate of Philosophy certificate from Oxford, their equivalent of a doctorate degree, when she accepted the position at Kent State. When she applied, she said she had defended her thesis and was waiting for faculty approval. The degree had to be completed before she could begin teaching, Ormiston said.

According to the letter from the principal, Oxford officials had asked LaPlaca to return the certificate they had given her before she was expelled, but she had not. Ormiston said this throws all her other supporting documentation into question as well.

Junior Proctor, Professor Ronald Daniel, confirmed that LaPlaca did not hold any degrees at Oxford.

When contacted, LaPlaca denied not having her degrees and refused to be quoted.

The appointment chain of command

In this search, the search committee made recommendations to the dean and assistant dean about who to hire, said David Baker, associate professor of political science at Stark. Baker was the assistant dean at the time of LaPlaca’s hiring. Someone in the assistant dean’s office usually checks the candidates’ backgrounds.

“It was a little unusual because they didn’t have a transcript that matched U.S. transcripts, but we had a copy of the diploma,” Baker said about LaPlaca’s case.

In those kinds of cases, the university looks for alternate forms of documentation, such as the confirmation of graduate work, transcripts or diplomas, Baker said. LaPlaca had references, including a letter from her adviser, and a copy of the diploma. Baker said the university did call the references.

Her adviser was the principal, Lannon, who later told Kent State that she did not have a degree from Oxford. When contacted by the Stater, Lannon had no comment.

Contact reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].