Q&A with Jerry Mulherin, Dean of Students

Posted: April 22, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.

By Jeremy Lasich

Jerry Mulherin
Jerry Mulherin
Photo by Evan Cantwell

What are some of your responsibilities as the dean of students?

Right now, I’m spending most of my time with the Honor Committee. There has been an explosion in the number of honor code cases, especially those involving plagiarism. This year, it looks like we are going to match last year’s 250 cases. In addition, we handle other nonacademic discipline cases. Associate Dean of Students Pam Patterson and I deal with cases involving vandalism, drugs, alcohol abuse, disruptive students, assaults, and almost any other kind of problem you want to name. We also are in the business of helping students who have unique problems. For example, we will meet with students who are not adjusting to college life and need gentle encouragement to seek counseling or who have questions about their financial standing with the university. Every day is different.

What are some of the trends you have noticed in student violations since your tenure began here 19 years ago?

Plagiarism is the most obvious one. Not only are we dealing with it, but every other school in the country is, too. Ten years ago, plagiarism involved a professor who had by happenstance read an article at about the same time a student submitted a plagiarized paper based on that article. Today, a professor reads a paper and recognizes that it is just a bit too polished for a college freshman. They do a Google search on the Internet, and the paper appears. Instead of 30 cases 10 years ago, we now have 250 cases. And instead of the violation passing largely undetected, there is a good chance that the violation will be recognized. We have one professor this year who has filed 19 plagiarism cases with the Honor Committee. She is becoming our expert.

The frequency and severity of other offenses is also increasing. Ten years ago, we were reprimanding underage students who were having a beer with their friends. Today, we have students using and selling illegal drugs. We recently had a student arrested on campus with a whole pound of marijuana in his car. The one thing that Dean Patterson and I have to keep in mind is that the students we deal with are those who have gotten themselves in trouble. For every 200 students I interact with, there are 28,000 who are responsible citizens working hard at their studies. And it is important to remember that the vast majority of students we meet with for disciplinary reasons are people of good character and high intelligence who have done something that all of us have done—made a bad judgment or mistake. We take an imperfect product coming out of high school or community college and try to develop him or her into a better person. They are never going to reach perfection, and we are never going to have someone enter or leave George Mason University having reached perfection.

The Honor Code was revised in spring 2003. Why was it modified and what were some of the changes?

The change was based on the provost’s desire to get what we refer to as a “plain language code.” The prior code was two pages of eight-point type. It was written in a legalistic language and missed the point that the purpose of the code was to foster academic integrity. The revision states the code in clear and unambiguous language: “Student members of the George Mason University community pledge not to cheat, plagiarize, steal, or lie in matters related to academic work.” The rest of the document deals with the connection between the code and the Honor Committee.

Two happy results came from the revision process. We have a clearly defined honor code in simple terms, and the legalisms that obscured the fact that the Honor Committee process is educational rather than punitive have been removed.

The Honor Committee is a group of students selected from George Mason to promote academic integrity as a core value for our university community. Members serve on hearing panels established to investigate and resolve alleged violations of the code.

You will be taking over temporarily as the interim vice president for university life on May 1. What do you see as your role in that position?

First of all, it is a short-term position—probably two or three months. It is not a case of changing the vision or instituting changes. I will have two goals: to assist in maintaining the momentum generated by Karen Rosenblum during her time as vice president, and to communicate with the new vice president so he or she can arrive on campus with some current understanding of the department’s resources and needs.

What do you see as some of the popular issues right now in University Life that you and the new vice president will have to deal with?

The needs of the student body are constantly changing. We all live in a world that has new pressures and concerns. There is a constant threat of terrorism and the resulting stress. We have to be prepared to deal with that stress, as well as the results of any new terrorist attack. There has been a noted increase in students evidencing psychological problems. You never know what is just around the corner, but you have to be alert and prepared to respond to emerging student needs.

Another issue is the change in the nature of the workforce in this country. There is a higher level of technology involved in many jobs, and some entry-level positions are being transferred to other countries. With the increase in technological demands, we can never neglect the arts and the fostering of an appreciation for the arts. At George Mason, we have done a very good job with that so far by utilizing the resources of the Center for the Arts. I believe that this connection to the arts can bring balance and beauty into the students’ lives that will offset many of the pressures of modern life.

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