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USF professor is impugned, but employed

TAMPA — The findings by University of South Florida investigators were damning:

Dajin Peng, a tenured professor and former director of USF's Confucius Institute, took thousands of dollars from the university by claiming he was attending conferences when he was on vacation or working as a paid instructor at other schools.

He misrepresented his authority in official USF documents to help Chinese students and visiting scholars get visas to enter the United States.

He had employees in the institute he ran work dozens of extra hours without pay. He gave two graduate students an unfair advantage on exams.

Those were the conclusions from investigations launched in 2009 by four different USF departments.

Yet Peng, who was paid $63,000 by USF in 2010, can return to the classroom this spring. That was stipulated in his settlement with USF that required Peng to take a year of unpaid leave and reimburse the school $10,000.

Why wasn't he fired?

It's complicated, says USF spokesman Michael Hoad.

"Tenured faculty have rights that typical employees do not," he said.

• • •

In a phone interview last week from China, Peng, 53, disputed all of the university's findings. If he broke any rules, he said, it was only because he didn't fully understand them.

He said he agreed to the settlement because he was afraid he would be thrown in jail if he didn't.

Peng says that USF started the investigations in conjunction with the U.S. government. He said the FBI initially suspected him of being a spy working for the Chinese government, but when they realized he wasn't "they decided to force me into a spy for the USA."

"This scheme goes all the way to President Obama," Peng said.

FBI spokesman Dave Couvertier declined to comment.

A native of China, Peng moved to the United States in the 1980s to study economics at the University of Akron, in Ohio. He already had bachelor's and master's degrees in English and international relations from Chinese universities and was on his way to another master's in economics.

Next was his doctorate, which he earned in international affairs at Princeton University.

In 1995, Peng was hired by USF for a tenure-track teaching position. Until the recent investigations, he never had any disciplinary issues, Hoad said. He has published articles in dozens of academic journals.

In the 2001-02 school year, the year after he secured his tenure, Peng received USF's Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award.

And when it came time to build a bridge to China — an important goal for USF — Peng was tapped to help lead the way.

USF's Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institute, the first such institute in Florida, opened in 2008 with Peng at the helm. It would provide Chinese language courses for K-12 teachers and incorporate Chinese culture lessons into a variety of classes, including business, public health and geography.

Peng said he built the institute into the success it is today.

"When I went to get my letter of suspension, I thought I was going to get an award," he said.

• • •

According to the USF inquiry, Peng's troubles began at least seven years ago, when he took a weekend trip to Miami in 2004.

On a travel reimbursement form, Peng told USF officials that the trip was for research at Florida International and Florida Atlantic universities, and at the University of Miami. He requested $220 in travel costs, and USF gave it to him.

Investigators later discovered that Peng took his father and another person to a museum and the beach. Photos showed them swimming in the ocean.

USF investigators wrote that they couldn't find any evidence Peng did any research. Peng said he most certainly did, and "nobody said when you go and do research you cannot swim."

Later that year, Peng took a similar seven-day trip to California, where he told USF he would "do research at Los Angeles East Asian Libraries." The findings show he went to the zoo, a Christmas parade and toured cities along the coast. USF gave him $456. Investigators say it seems he was only at the UCLA library for one day.

"That's outrageous," Peng said. "You can ask anybody. There are witnesses."

Peng was reimbursed about $10,000 more by USF for at least a dozen other trips, nearly all to China. He said the excursions were conferences, speaking engagements and workshops. But officials later determined that Peng went overseas for other paid teaching engagements, sometimes being reimbursed by both USF and the Chinese institutions for the same trip.

The investigation shows he taught at Nankai University, which is USF's partner in China for the Confucius Institute, as well as Wuhan University, Tianjin University, Chongqing University and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu.

Peng said even when he went overseas to teach at the other universities, he did official business for USF.

University guidelines require faculty members to annually disclose any outside compensated activities, anything that could create a conflict of interest, either financially or in time away from USF responsibilities. Though he was notified of this requirement by e-mail every year, Peng never told the university that the primary purpose of many of his trips was for other paid engagements, according to the investigation.

Peng said he only learned of the requirement years later, right before the investigation began, and he asked his supervisor, dean of international affairs Maria Crummett, whether he needed to retroactively report past activities. He said Crummett said no.

University spokeswoman Lara Wade disputed that, saying Peng was well aware of the requirement, which is clearly spelled out in the employee handbook and collective bargaining rules. Wade said computer records show Peng received and opened that reminder e-mail every year.

According to the investigations, the reimbursements Peng claimed for many of those activities "appear to meet the definition of theft." The incidents were referred to the University of South Florida Police Department for further investigation.

Lt. Christopher Daniel, a police spokesman, said this week that the case was closed without any charges filed. He said there was enough evidence to charge Peng, but USF declined to prosecute once they signed the settlement.

Daniel said police could have moved forward anyway and submitted the case to the Hillsborough County's State Attorney's Office, but it's often difficult to prosecute without a cooperating victim.

• • •

USF's findings also noted possible violations of federal laws.

In more than 30 instances, investigators said, Peng penned unauthorized USF letters to Chinese nationals, inviting them to USF without permission to help them obtain travel visas, the findings show.

In one case, investigators said, someone Peng invited to USF to be his assistant ended up also cooking meals for Peng's family and helping him with personal errands.

In e-mails to potential students, Peng promised to steer them to bright futures and paid graduate positions. In one letter investigators found, Peng expressed fear that a student's visa application would be denied due to her young age, "so I have to think of some good strategies," he wrote.

Peng says he only thought he was doing his job: "I kept thinking I was promoting the U.S.-China exchange."

USF referred that part of the investigation to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A spokeswoman there said there was no public information regarding any charges against Peng. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office would neither confirm nor deny an open investigation.

• • •

Hoad, the university spokesman, said USF has done all it can to punish Peng.

Most of Peng's misconduct fell under his administrative capacity as director of the Confucius Institute, he said.

If Peng was only an administrator, he would have been fired, Hoad said. And under the settlement with the university, Peng, the administrator, essentially was.

He was relieved of his duties with the Confucius Institute and lost his authority to sign off on financial matters for five years. He agreed to reimburse USF $10,000 and agreed that he wouldn't file any claims against the university.

But in his role as a tenured professor, the accusations against Peng were limited to interfering with the USF admissions process and improperly helping students on exams, Hoad said.

According to an investigation by Peng's academic department, government and international affairs, Peng gave two graduate students questions and answers to written exams completed by previous students. Peng told investigators those students needed extra help because of their lack of proficiency in English.

In another instance, investigators determined that Peng by-passed the graduate director and department chair to make sure a student's English-language proficiency test was accepted. Peng said he didn't know the action was a violation of the rules.

All are significant transgressions, Hoad said, and a year of leave without pay is a severe penalty.

"It was entirely appropriate to remove him from his administrative duties," Hoad said. "But based on the evidence so far, that's as far as we could go."

Asked by the Times to evaluate the punishment, Bob Welker, a business law professor who serves as chief negotiator for USF's chapter of the United Faculty of Florida collective bargaining team, said he was not aware of a requirement that administrative and teaching duties be considered differently when it comes to discipline.

Welker did not know the details of Peng's case, but he said according to union guidelines, "just cause" for terminating tenured faculty is vaguely defined as "misconduct or incompetence." Nowhere is it specified that the misconduct must be performed through faculty duties.

He said USF is expected to dole out progressive levels of discipline after misconduct, but added "our language is very, very broad. What it comes down to is, they just decided to keep the man, for whatever reason."

• • •

Peng said he plans to be back in the classroom in the spring semester, teaching undergraduate international relations courses.

He called the affair a "witch hunt'' and said he's a victim of discrimination and harassment.

"I am hunted by the university together with the most powerful agencies of the nation," Peng wrote in an e-mail. "As a weak individual coming from China, which happened to be considered (at least by some) as a potential enemy of the USA, I have had no chance to defend myself.

"I am not sure what will happen to me in the future."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813)-226-3337.

USF professor is impugned, but employed 06/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 9:53pm]

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