The University of New Brunswick has been facing a scandal of international proportions. In September 2022, media outlets broke the news of alleged fraud in the doctoral dissertation of Republican Pennsylvania State Senator Douglas Mastriano. What ensued was a litany of confusion, silence, and mixed responses from UNB. 


Who is Douglas Mastriano?


Douglas Mastriano is a character shrouded in controversy. He is a close ally and supporter of Donald Trump and achieved national prominence when he argued for the overturning of the 2020 election. Mastriano was also present at the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol protest-turned-riot. Although he claims he left before it turned violent, campaign finance records show his campaign spent thousands of dollars on charter buses days before the Washington D.C. protest. 


His opinions are a cacophony of conspiracy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mastriano opposed lockdown and vaccination measures alike. “And whoever heard of this idea that you need to get the shot to protect other people?” Mastriano asked, in 2021.


“You know when I was deployed overseas, and then you get all these things shoved into your body, like any veteran does, it is not there to protect Afghans or Iraqis, it protects you. This is not even reasonable or logical,” he opined. 


The Confederate uniform debacle was another fiasco in his political career. In 2020, Reuters published a picture of Mastriano sporting the uniform of a Confederate soldier at the Army War College. The picture was taken in 2013 or 2014, around the same year in which Mastriano received his PhD in History from UNB. 


Most striking, perhaps, was the argument used by Mastriano’s senior legal advisor, Jenna Ellis, to defend him. She took to Twitter to say: “And? He has a PhD in HISTORY. The left wants to erase history. @dougmastriano wants us to learn from it.”


While some outlets took Mastriano to task over posing in the uniform, we recognize that the historical reenactment scene has a need for both sides of a conflict to be portrayed. The issue at stake here is not his involvement in the reenactment scene, but rather, how his degree, one invariably granted by UNB, has been utilized to silence his critics. This was a matter which James Gregory, a University of Oklahoma PhD candidate who is an outspoken critic of Mastriano’s academic work, spoke with The Bruns about. “He used it against me, whenever I first reported on him, and he’s [said] ‘like what? some grad student?’ As if I’m somehow lesser than he is.”


“He uses it as if he’s better than everyone else and his work is above scrutiny because he’s got the PhD,” said Gregory. “But now we know it’s founded in academic fraud and through a program that did not follow the proper channel.”


The revelation that Mastriano’s PhD may have been built upon shaky foundations poses a problem to UNB. It raises questions about a lack of ethics and research rigor in the graduate programs, bringing all UNB degrees into questioning. This scandal threatens UNB’s reputation as an institution and the reputation of the researchers it propels.


The Dissertation

Mastriano’s Dissertation, and later book, centered on the First World War U.S. Army Sergeant Alvin York. Part of the controversy lies within the claim by Mastriano that he knew with 100% certainty where Sgt. York led a group of U.S. soldiers to kill 20 German soldiers and capture 132 (AP). However, according to scholars familiar with Mastriano’s work and Alvin York, the dissertation is filled with fake footnotes and problematic archeological practices.


In March 2021, James Gregory raised concerns over Mastriano’s work with UNB and the University Press of Kentucky. Despite listing 35 potential instances of fraud, UNB’s Vice-President Research, David MaGee, dismissed the complaint. In October 2022, after Mastriano’s dissertation was finally released, Gregory submitted another complaint with 213 additional allegations, prompting a formal investigation.


Equally concerning was the embargo Mastriano’s dissertation was under. When Gregory first reached out to UNB, seeking to see the dissertation, the university claimed it was under embargo until 2030. After months of pressure, the dissertation was finally released in August 2022. 


As Dr. Roland Kuhn from the National Research Council Canada noted, “Academic research is meant to fuel open discussion & debate. The embargo was also a misuse of public funds: taxpayers in New Brunswick & Canada paid for the thesis.”


UNB’s Investigation

In May 2023, UNB launched a formal investigation into the matter. A board of three external examiners had a 60-day window to review Mastriano’s dissertation and submit their findings and recommendations to David MaGee. UNB has evidently opted to keep the findings confidential, citing privacy concerns.


In an interview with CTV last year, James Gregory said that he asked MaGee if he could be kept abreast of the findings and noted, “He was very quiet when I asked how long it would take and if I would be told the results.” Continuing, “The answers were very vague.”


At the time of our interview, Gregory had reached out and was waiting to hear back from David MaGee concerning the results of the investigation. Days later Gregory forwarded us this response from MaGee:

“Thank you for your email. Per our Responsible Conduct in Research Policy and New Brunswick’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, I cannot say anything to you beyond what you are already aware do [sic] to UNB’s privacy obligations.”


The university seems to have either indefinitely extended the timeframe or opted to keep the results confidential. UNB students, graduates, and faculty should be concerned about the university’s secretive handling of the matter, and there should be demands for the investigative board’s findings to be made public.


Dr. Jeffrey Brown’s Insights

In our attempt to get some answers, The Brunswickan spoke to Dr. Jeffrey Brown, a history professor at UNB and a member of Mastriano’s examining board. Dr. Brown has been outspoken on the issue, talking to various media outlets such as The New York Times and the CBC. He characterized his experience in the Mastriano affair as “frustrating.”


“The dissertation had lots of problems, and I worked with Mastriano to correct those problems. And he never did. I think he had an agenda with his dissertation, and that was to give a certain interpretation of Sergeant York’s life and his exploits on the battlefield,” said Brown. 


“He was determined to do that whether that interpretation could be supported by the historical record or not. Also, a large part of the dissertation was [based on] archeological work that he had done on the battlefield in France,” he continued. “I didn’t think that I, or any of us on the examining board, were qualified to evaluate that, because none of us were archeologists.”


Missing Perspectives

Besides Dr. Brown, sociologist Lawrence Wisniewski and fellow historian Steven Turner, now both retired, sat on Mastriano’s examination committee. The Brunswickan reached out to the other members seeking interviews with limited success.


Steven Turner declined an interview but still provided us with a comment:


“As far as I know, the University Administration’s request that its faculty members not talk to the media is still in effect,” said Turner. “While technically that doesn’t cover retirees, I’d feel I should respect the Administration’s wishes in this matter. Also, everything I remember about the episode I’ve already said to other media prior to the request from the University, or reported as part of the University’s internal investigation.”


Taking him up on his word, we found Turner’s statements from last year. He stood by his decision to grant Mastriano his doctorate according to the Associated Press. Turner was also quoted in The National Post on September 15th, 2022, stating, “There was no reason to question the authenticity or accuracy of the sources cited in the footnotes.” Moreover, he noted that he, “didn’t recall Jeffery Brown raising any concerns about the quality of the research in 2013.”


“I’ve been concerned about this for a decade” 

– Dr. J. Brown, Oct. 18th, 2022. 


Interestingly enough, in an interview with The New York Times on October 18th, 2022, Dr. Brown “shared documents he wrote in 2013 spelling out his own objections, including an email he said was sent to Mr. Mastriano’s dissertation supervisor raising ‘serious misgivings.’ Nonetheless, the Ph.D. was granted. Dr. Brown’s name appears on the dissertation, which, he said, surprised him because he had been told he was no longer needed on the evaluation committee.


Efforts to contact Lawrence Wisniewski and Marc Milner for interviews were unsuccessful.


Stonewalling appears to be the company line, and decorum her handmaiden. Despite the university’s best efforts and faith that the whole thing will blow over, UNB has much to answer for. What is it about the Mastriano affair that the university feels the need to keep under wraps?


A Call for Transparency

Regarding the investigation into Mastriano’s dissertation, Brown thinks that its findings should be made public.


“Mastriano is a public figure, he is a member of the Pennsylvanian Senate, he has run for Governor of Pennsylvania, he has millions of followers, he is part of the Republican Party in the United States. And I think that records of public figures should be available to anybody,” Brown stated. 


“Mastriano’s constituents deserve to know about his past just as they know about his criminal record, just as they know about his employment history. They should know about his academic history because they need to assess his character and decide if he is fit for public office.”


UNB’s Reputation is at Stake

The affair raises doubts about the credibility of UNB degrees for students, graduates, and faculty across all programs, not just history. UNB has garnered negative attention from academic circles. 


In June 2023, Dr. Kuhn presented “The Mastriano PhD Scandal at UNB” at the Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity at the University of Manitoba, directly calling out the university.


Dr. Brown argued, “The university’s reputation, and the reputation of the Gregg Centre, are on the line, the credibility of degrees of the History Department and the Gregg Centre are open to question. And all of these institutions, and the individuals associated with them, have a right to know whether the process went off the rails at that time and what has been done to correct it.”


“The university has been more concerned with its reputation, and it has been worried that going public with this information about Mastriano will harm its reputation. I actually think that its reputation is called to question more by the fact that the information hasn’t been made public,” Brown opined. 


“It’s a trickle-down issue,” noted James Gregory, “So now UNB is tarnished and now University Press of Kentucky has been tarnished because they put out a book full of fraud.”


Gregory continued, “The heart of it is that UNB allowed this poison into the historical field and they’re proud of it. If they don’t do anything about it, then they are supporting that and they are supporting people who completely ruin other members’ work.”


Hiding Behind Statutes?

Dr. Brown expressed that UNB’s reluctance to disclose the investigation’s findings is attributed to the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (RTIPPA) in New Brunswick. According to Dr. Brown, this decision remains a “gray area,” and UNB might be “overly cautious” in its interpretation of the RTIPPA. “I’ve been warned by the university that some of what I have said may have violated the RTIPPA,” he concluded. 


But what exactly is the RTIPPA?


According to the Government of New Brunswick’s own website, RTIPPA, “is founded on the principles of openness and accountability, while ensuring that the personal information about individuals held by public institutions is well protected and handled only in accordance with generally accepted privacy principles.”


It then goes on to list the purposes of the Act: 


“(a) to allow any person a right of access to records in the custody or under the control of public bodies, subject to the limited and specific exceptions set out in the Act.

(b) to control the manner in which public bodies may collect personal information from individuals and to protect individuals against unauthorized use or disclosure of personal information by public bodies

(c) to control the manner in which public bodies may collect personal information from individuals and to protect individuals against unauthorized use or disclosure of personal information by public bodies

(d) to allow individuals a right to request corrections to records containing personal information about themselves in the custody or under the control of public bodies, and;

(e) to provide for an independent review of the decisions of public bodies under this Act.”

How does an Act “founded on the principles of openness and accountability” square with the university’s interpretation of it? 

For those seeking answers, it does not square. James Gregory has noted his frustration with the RTIPPA, noting, “they keep hiding behind [RTIPPA], whether it’s the law or not, whatever it is in Canada, the idea that someone is a student or was a student – it’s private, so they’re not going to tell us.” 

He later commented, “Mastriano benefits because UNB says ‘we can’t confirm or [deny] anything about a student,’ which I guess technically means I could run around and say ‘I have a PhD from the University of New Brunswick’ and no one can double check it because New Brunswick can’t give out student information.”

Stay Tuned

The Brunswickan’s ongoing investigation into allegations of PhD dissertation fraud by Douglas Mastriano raises significant concerns about transparency, academic integrity, and reputation at the University of New Brunswick. In our next installment we will take a closer look at the university administration’s response as well as the response of the graduate student body.

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