FREDERICTON — The president of the University of New Brunswick says he's kept a lid on publicly discussing the controversy surrounding an American politician's PhD because the institution did not want to be accused of interfering in U.S. politics.
Paul Mazerolle said that with U.S. midterm elections slated for next Tuesday, it was decided the university should refrain from commenting on allegations of academic fraud levelled at former history student Doug Mastriano, who is now running for governor of Pennsylvania.
"We have an allegation of academic fraud and it's happening … on the eve of an election," Mazerolle said in an interview late Tuesday.
"In effect, we're talking about a politicized process. If we undertake activities that could sway people's views of any particular candidate, I think we have a responsibility to be very careful on how we could influence an election."
Until now, members of the university's administration have declined requests for interviews from The Canadian Press.
Richard Yeomans, a PhD candidate in UNB's history department, said it was a stretch to suggest that public debate at the university could influence a U.S. vote.
"I think the president's approach is indicative of how this issue has been poorly handled at all levels," Yeomans said in an interview Wednesday. "If the decision from the get-go was to wait until after midterms, then why was that decision not made public sooner?"
Mastriano, a retired U.S. army colonel, was a little-known state senator until he took an active role in the movement to overturn Donald Trump’s 2020 election defeat, and in May he won the Republican nomination to run for state governor — with Trump's endorsement.
Since then, Mastriano's 2013 doctoral degree from UNB has been called into question. Several scholars have alleged his dissertation was plagued by factual errors, fabrications and amateurish archeology.
Earlier this week, he addressed the issue during an online interview, telling the website Real America's Voice that professors at UNB held biased views about his background.
"The left wing goes after our academic work on the right," said Mastriano, whose hard-right platform has gained national attention since the Trump endorsement. "Of all the things I’ve done, it was brutal . … And I did have concerns that some of the left-leaning professors there would hold my politics or my military background against me."
Meanwhile, Mazerolle confirmed the university recently received a written complaint about Mastriano's dissertation, which has prompted a preliminary assessment that could lead to a formal, confidential investigation under the school's Responsible Conduct in Research policy.
"We have some work to do as a university to deal with the allegations," Mazerolle said. "This has raised lots of questions for me as the president."
If the university decides the complaint has merit, it could appoint an investigation committee, which must report its findings and recommendations within 60 days. At that point, disciplinary action could be taken, but the policy does not spell out the options.
"I really don't want to articulate the range of options," Mazerolle said. "If the president of the university is forecasting possible options, that's not appropriate."
UNB's response to the formal complaint is in addition to an independent administrative review announced Oct. 6, which will examine the school's policies for awarding doctoral degrees. The review won't deal with the allegations against Mastriano, but it might be released to the public within the next three months, Mazerolle said.
As for the formal complaint, Mazerolle did not disclose who filed it. But it would appear it came from James Gregory, an instructor and PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma.
Gregory shared with The Canadian Press an email he received Oct. 8 from UNB's vice-president of research, David MaGee. The email confirms an investigation was launched in response to a complaint from Gregory.
"An immediate investigation into the allegations will begin as per our policy on Responsible Conduct of Research," MaGee's email said.
In an earlier interview, Gregory said he became concerned about Mastriano's research after he discovered more than a dozen problems within a book Mastriano had written in 2014, which was based on his dissertation about U.S. army Sgt. Alvin York, a highly decorated First World War infantryman.
In March 2021, Gregory sent the university a list documenting 35 instances of potential academic fraud in the 2014 book. That complaint was dismissed by MaGee, who said the problems cited were only minor transcription errors.
After the dissertation was released in August of this year, Gregory submitted another complaint on Oct. 6 — the same day the administrative review was announced. The second complaint documents 213 allegations of academic misconduct in the dissertation.
"I'm glad they're looking at it, but this should have been done a year ago when the exact same thing was reported," Gregory said in an interview Wednesday. "It's very unfortunate that it took a publicity debacle for the university to actually take these allegations seriously enough."
Stories about UNB's response to complaints about Mastriano's work have made headlines across the United States, including reports from the New York Times and The Associated Press.
Gregory said Mazerolle's concerns about interfering with U.S. politics ignore the fact that his original complaint was made more than a year ago.
"It feels like they've been trying to push this under the rug," he said. "They tried to do that to me last year. I'm hoping there's enough pressure for them to take a look at it seriously."
Jeffrey Brown, a history professor at UNB, said he's keen to learn more about how the process will work. He said if there's an investigation, it should be conducted by people independent of UNB, and its findings should be released to the public. As for the U.S. midterms, he said that shouldn't be a factor in how the university responds to questions raised in public.
"I think the importance of academic integrity outweighs internal U.S. politics," said Brown, who was among the first to raise red flags about Mastriano's dissertation in 2012-13 when he was a member of the dissertation's examining board.
"The university has an obligation to address this issue."
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax, with files from The Associated Press.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2022.
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