Dueling Professors Test Court’s Patience in Syllabus Squabble

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Putting two professors on the receiving end of a lecture, the Third Circuit criticized the pair at oral arguments Friday for making a literal federal case over their syllabus squabble.

U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas summed up the case before the three-judge panel this morning by noting that allegation itself of plagiarizing a syllabus is “something that is not a very big deal.”

Indeed, the matter was initially resolved by Rider University in under a year from when tenured professor Susan Denbo lobbed the allegations in January 2012 to the December 2012 settlement reached in arbitration that required adjunct professor Robert Kenny to send an apology, but not admit to wrongdoing, and face a two-semester teaching suspension.

What initiated the lawsuit in New Jersey, however, was the series of outraged emails that Denbo sent to the administration during the disciplinary proceeedings.

“Your client overreacted,” Bibas told Denbo’s attorney, Steven Gerber of Schoeman, Updike, Kaufman & Gerber.

Gerber was swift to answer, however, as Bibas pressed him on why Denbo fought back.

“Because we were sued,” the attorney said.

A retired lawyer and former professor of business law, Kenny had been with Rider University for 15 years before his dust-up with Denbo.

Arguing pro se before the federal appeals court this morning, Kenny said the ordeal permanently tainted his job prospects.

“I am in pain,” Kenny said. “Who is going to hire a 70-year-old adjunct with a stain on his record?”

In his complaint against Denbo, Kenny noted that he had never in 20 years of teaching seen a problem grow out of teachers sharing syllabi.

That changed in 2012 when Kenny agreed to cover a master’s course in business administration while Denbo was on sabbatical.

Denbo, who is still on staff at Rider University as a professor of sports management, marketing, and legal studies, became irate when she learned that Kenny had used her syllabus almost verbatim.

In one email to faculty and the administration, Denbo’s exact words were: “I am outraged!!!!”

“I am writing to inform you about a case of EXTREME unethical behavior perpetrated by one of our priority adjuncts, Bob Kenny,” another of Denbo’s emails had said.

“Do we want this person teaching ethics?” Denbo also asked. “I do believe that he should no longer teach at Rider.”

In his complaint, Kenny alleged defamation and that his discipline amounted to fraud. He noted that Denbo’s syllabus was not copyrighted, and that she had elected general distribution of the material by posting it to the school’s internal Blackboard intranet, but a federal judge sided with Denbo last year at summary judgment.

Attorney Gerber meanwhile disputed Friday the claim that Denbo lied about whether she had passed around a copy of her syllabus.

“There was no deliberate fraud and there was no equitable fraud,” Gerber said.

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