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Civic Skinny

April 26, 2012
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Great GOP Statehouse minds think alike. Or plagiarize.

Life is full of coincidences: On March 23, retiring legislator Scott Raecker wrote a column for his newsletter raising questions about the tuition set-aside at state universities, saying the schools should disclose to tuition-payers that more than 20 percent of their payment is actually used to fund scholarships for other students.

It then appeared in a blog he wrote for The Des Moines Register on March 26.

Knowing a good issue when they see it, a half-dozen or so other Republican legislators latched on to it. Between March 29 and April 13, they, too, wrote about it in blogs or newsletters. That’s not unusual. What is unusual is that some of the paragraphs were identical.

Raecker wrote:

“Each university sets the amount of tuition set aside for scholarship of other students. The percentage and amounts vary between each school, undergraduate and graduate, and resident and non-resident tuition. The following percentages of resident tuition are set aside for each institution: Iowa — 24 percent, ISU — 18.6 percent, UNI — 15.3 percent.”

State Senator Brad Zaun (author of “Charging higher tuition to offer scholarships to other students is unjust”), Representative Erik Helland (author of “Bill seeks accountability on tuition”), Representative Dave Deyoe (author of “Tuition set-asides”), Representative Dwayne Alons (author of “Tuition used for scholarships needs to be disclosed”) and Representative Renee Schulte (author of the equally catchy “Tuition used for Scholarships Needs to be Disclosed”) wrote virtually the same paragraph. Some were identical; some changed a word or two. Other paragraphs also were similar.

A friend of Skinny pointed this out, and — clearly a man with time on his hands — he then Googled the phrase “the following percentages of resident tuition are set aside for each institution” and found it attributed to Representatives Tom Sands and Chuck Soderberg as well as Raecker and the other five who seem to have turned his phrases into their own.

The friend noted there’s an academic word for this. It’s called plagiarism. He looked up the “academic dishonesty” policy in the schools’ handbooks.

The Code of Academic Honesty at Iowa’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences defines “plagiarism” as “claiming the words, sentences, arguments, rhetorical structures, or ideas of another as your own; ‘borrowing’ or copying a friend’s lab report, homework, research data, or essay and presenting it as your own; failing to properly use quotation marks or to cite sources correctly” and “submitting any materials as your own that were created or written by someone else.”

Iowa State and UNI have similar definitions. Iowa State notes that “Such behavior is abhorrent to the university, and students found responsible for academic dishonesty face expulsion, suspension, conduct probation, or reprimand.”

Or, if you’re a legislator, re-election.

Of course, if Raecker willingly passed his work to others, he, too, would be on the carpet, were he a student at a Regents school. The ISU code states the honesty policy is violated if a student “knowingly assists another student in such acts or plagiarism” and faults an author who lets others copy his or her work as well as the person doing the copying.

But Raecker, who runs the Iowa operation of Character Counts, a character-building program for schools and agencies and communities, says he was surprised at the coincidences and did not offer up his work to his colleagues, though the House Republican newsletter did pick up some of the points. “I write my own stuff,” he says.

Irrespective of the similarity of his writing to that of his colleagues, Zaun deserves credit for one original thought. His April 13 article observed, “Iowans deserve better from their state government. As a parent of a son who attends the University of Northern Iowa, I am outraged.”

And exposed. ...

Here’s one addendum to the whole issue of tuition set-asides. When an athletic department at a Regents school gives a scholarship, it pays the university not the full tuition but rather the full tuition less the set-aside. This somewhat reduces the scholarship money available to others, but the main impact is it lowers the expenses of the athletic departments — and thus makes it easier for them to say they break even on their finances. ...

Life is full of ironies:

On Friday, Bill Brown of the Brown Winick law firm attacked an earlier piece by Chief Justice Mark Cady discussing his view of constitutional interpretation, basically that times change and neither the Constitution nor equality is “frozen in time.” Brown attacked the unanimous gay-marriage decision by the court and said the court in effect amended the constitution by judicial fiat. He said the court disenfranchises the people and the legislators by mandating its own belief system.

Oddly — and this really is a coincidence — that same morning the court ruled in a long-awaited case and came down basically on the view of Brown, saying it wouldn’t mandate state-wide education standards, that due process for students and equal protection of students aren’t being denied simply because some districts have better outcomes than others. The suit alleges “disparate impact, not disparate treatment,” says the majority opinion, written by Justice Ed Mansfield. Justice Cady was in the majority in the ruling, which prompted opinions by five of the seven justices.

“This court in its past decisions...has historically deferred to the policy decisions made by the political branches of government in this area,” the opinion stated. And Justice Cady, in his concurrence, said, “The petition, if true, may be a call to action, but it is a call under our constitutional structure for the legislature, not the courts.” (This time a dodge, not a fiat, one wag told Skinny.)

Some things to note: One, the lawyer arguing in effect for a judicial fiat was Doug Gross, Bill Brown’s partner and, in fact, the most influential partner of Brown Winick. (“This is too good. Doug Gross seeks to disenfranchise voters,” emails a pretty-well-known Democrat.) Two, Gross is a longtime close adviser to Gov. Terry Branstad, and it was Branstad’s new appointees to the court — Mansfield and Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager — who joined with Cady to form the majority against Gross. And three, this is an old case whose principle was cherished by the late Marvin Pomerantz, a major supporter and adviser and bruising arm-twister of Branstad’s. ...

Reuters had a story the other day noting that four United States Supreme Court justices will be 74 or older at the start of the next presidential term, and it speculated on names of possible appointees should Mitt Romney be elected. On the short list: Steve Colloton, 49, of Des Moines, a graduate of Princeton and Yale Law School, a onetime clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, onetime U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in Iowa, and, since 2003, a judge on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. CV



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