Ten years ago, David Oestreicher was a promising anthropology student working on his doctorate. His research focused on indigenous cultures.
He received national attention for his senior dissertation on Lenape Indians, which proved that the Walam Olum – the alleged Rosetta Stone of a lost tribal dialect – was a forgery perpetrated by an eccentric Frenchman in the 1800s.
Oestreicher is 48 now and slightly graying. Despite his ever-buoyant demeanor, the middle-aged ethnographer talks a lot about regret.
“I estimate that I probably spent a couple of extra years pursuing my degree, but that was still better than some of the students who never got theirs,” he said.
It all began at a party in 1993. Oestreicher invited Professor William Powers, who was at the time the highest-ranking faculty member in the University’s anthropology department. Before that evening, the two enjoyed an amicable rapport.
Oestreicher had also invited Adriana Greci Green, a friend and fellow graduate student, who unbeknownst to him was having an affair with the professor.
The predicament was fatally compounded by the presence of Marla Powers, who’d accompanied her husband to the party.
Soon after, Oestreicher says he began noticing a change. Powers’ became cold – hostile, even.
“I remember sitting there in the meeting with him and starting to feel sick as he began to imply that I was making off with another scholar’s work,” he said.
Powers accused him of plagiarizing from another anthropologist, who decades earlier also speculated that the Walam Olum was a forgery, but never proved it.
Oestreicher says his dissertation acknowledged this point, but focused on his own discovery of original evidence that conclusively proved the theory to be true.
But Powers brushed off the findings and stood by his allegations. Unremittingly.
It took Oestreicher another two years to finish his dissertation, with help from other professors in the anthropology department.
Then in 1997, mounting complaints from both students and staff finally forced the University to initiate dismissal proceedings against Powers.
As it turned out, Oestreicher was only one of a long line of victims.
A letter dated January 2, 1997 from then-University President Francis L. Lawrence chastised the 55-year-old professor for grossly violating established University policy in his treatment of several doctoral candidates.
Lawrence specifically addressed “unsubstantiated allegations of plagiarism.” The letter also alluded to direct threats Powers had made against the professional reputations of his students.
“I must inform you that under University regulations, you are entitled to a hearing if you ask for one within two weeks. In the absence of a request for a hearing, I will recommend to the Board of Governors that you be dismissed from the faculty,” Lawrence wrote.
Powers requested the hearing.
The subsequent transcripts reveal the full absurdity of Oestreicher’s ordeal – the senselessness crystallized under sworn testimony: the embattled professor admits he never actually read the dissertation, and that he’s generally unfamiliar with the field in question.
“I mean, I read the bibliography. I read bits and pieces of it,” Powers said.
Robin Fox, founder of the Rutgers Department of Anthropology testified, “Every time David came up, I tried once again to get Bill to listen, you know, to take proper notice of what David was doing. He dismissed it as pure – I mean the phrase was ‘pure plagiarism.’ David was simply a plagiarist, and this appalled me …”
Several prominent teachers and administrators spoke at Powers’ dismissal hearing. They described a pattern of abusive behavior toward students and faculty alike.
The transcripts mention an incident in 1993, shortly after the ill-fated party. Oestreicher turned in a paper that had been output using a Dot Matrix printer, which isn’t known for aesthetic grace.
“I didn’t have a laser printer or access to one. [Powers] looks at it and in front of everyone says, ‘this looks like shit.’ I was humiliated.”
The story surprised few in attendance at the dismissal hearing. Powers’ impropriety was already very legendary within the anthropology department. According to testimony, his outbursts were so normative the faculty had coined a euphemism: “the professor’s sounding off again.”
His ranting could often be heard echoing through the halls.
Given the mountains of evidence and hours of deposition all seeming to indicate the same thing, it was puzzling when the University chose to abruptly end the proceedings by offering Powers a $92,000 settlement and allowed him simply to walk away without admitting anything, or recanting his allegations against Oestreicher.
It emerged later that Powers received the settlement after agreeing to drop a defamation lawsuit he’d filed against the University.
Feeling betrayed, Oestreicher says he did the only thing he could, and sued his alma mater for a formal apology.
That lawsuit ended in January, about ten years later. Oestreicher won.
Still, the allegations of plagiarism made against him more than a decade ago will never be recanted, because the University absolved Powers of any responsibility to do so.
As per the outcome of the litigation, Rutgers is sorry.
Oestreicher says he tries not to hold a grudge anymore.
“The fact is, you really can’t understand how Powers was able to get away with so much without understanding the other part of the equation: Why did the University allow him to get away with so much? They were the enablers and I’ve always believed that they were more guilty than him.”