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Errors mar law prof's paper

Some students question how the legal writing director at FAMU's law school got her job.

Published June 6, 2007

In 2004, the woman who would become legal writing director at Florida A&M University's law school posted a working paper online so legal scholars nationwide could see her work.

The subject was heady: environmental dispute resolution.

But Victoria Dawson's paper was so riddled with grammatical errors and mangled writing that some FAMU law students are now using it to help build a case that Dawson is not qualified to teach and was hired primarily on the strength of her personal ties.

Dawson "can neither write nor spell," one student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by law school administrators, wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "This is not an exaggeration."

Some observers say concerns about Dawson show FAMU's much-publicized oversight problems may extend beyond the fiscal realm into hiring and firing.

But law school supporters have even more pressing worries. The school, which opened in Orlando in 2002, is in the midst of an intense review by the American Bar Association to gain full accreditation. And among the areas that will get scrutiny: faculty quality.

FAMU hired Dawson, 48, in 2005. At the time, she was a legal writing instructor at Texas Southern University and a $10,000-a-year municipal judge in Houston.

The year before, either she or Texas Southern paid an online submission service run by Berkeley Electronic Press to circulate her paper to law journals in hopes of getting it published. She asked the service to post it on the Internet.

The paper -- which Dawson had removed from the site after the Times began asking questions -- is peppered with spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. Even the title is off: "Environmental Dispute Resolution: Developing Mechanisims (sic) for Effective Transnational Enforcement of International Environmental Standards."

Examples of clumsy writing can be found throughout: "Old pipes, rusty and in possible need of repair, run above ground, crisscrossing every which way in cumbersome clusters may have experienced undetected leaks."

Another example: "He consulted with government officials and he sent his general manager of asset management representative repeatedly crossed the creek to negotiate with village leaders of Ugborodo during the women's 10-day occupation."

Pat Daniel, an English education professor at the University of South Florida who reviewed Dawson's paper at the Times' request, said in an e-mail that it was "sloppily written, in need of serious proofreading."

But more than that, wrote Daniel, "I wonder if the paper makes sense. It appears to be a string of quotes with little synthesis."

Dawson did not respond to numerous requests for comment. She referred questions to the development office at the law school, which in turn referred them to the communications office at the main campus in Tallahassee. Officials there did not respond to written questions from the Times.

Jean-Gabriel Bankier, executive vice president of the Berkeley, Calif.-based company, said Dawson's paper was posted as presented by Dawson. "We do not edit drafts of articles that authors post to get feedback from colleagues," he wrote in an e-mail.

A cleaned-up version of Dawson's paper was published in the fall 2006 edition of the Missouri Environmental Law & Policy Review.

A Times search of major legal databases turned up no other papers published by Dawson. Her resume doesn't list any papers.

Then-interim law school dean James M. Douglas recommended in August 2005 that Dawson be hired as a visiting associate professor. Last year, FAMU made her a permanent part of the faculty and put her on track toward tenure. She makes $105,000 a year.

As an instructor, she's charged with teaching students how to conduct legal research and prepare coherent legal briefs. As director, she helps shape the curriculum.

One student told the Times that several students submitted written complaints to interim dean Ruth Witherspoon's office in March and again in May. The student said Witherspoon has not responded.

Witherspoon did not respond to e-mailed questions from the Times. FAMU officials said the complaints were off-limits under Florida public records law because they were submitted as part of a faculty evaluation -- an assertion one student said was incorrect.

Some students are questioning how much Dawson's personal ties had to do with her hiring.

Douglas, the former interim dean, is a former dean of the Texas Southern law school and still a distinguished professor there. And Dawson's personnel file includes four letters of recommendation -- one from a Texas Southern professor and three from Texas Southern instructors.

Douglas returned to Texas Southern earlier this year.

"Obviously I thought she could do the job," he said, when asked why he made Dawson legal writing director. "I thought she did a good job while I was there. There were no complaints."

Douglas said he only glanced at Dawson's paper and could not remember his impressions.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com Comments can be posted on the Times education blog, The Gradebook.

Fast Facts: Excerpts from the paper