How a Professor Ruined His Life and Marriage for a $5k Raise

The amazing story of how a professor ruined his life to get a $5000 raise…

…by forging this letter.

McNaughton did a Google search for University of Minnesota letterhead. The fake offer had to look real.

He filled the document with details, which together amounted to a wish list for a career that he thought he deserved: Minnesota would give him a $107,500 salary — a nearly $30,000 bump, 3,000 square feet of lab space, and $1.7 million in research support.

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24 thoughts on “How a Professor Ruined His Life and Marriage for a $5k Raise”

  1. Wow! That story was interesting. I felt sympathy for the professor and a want for him not to get away with it. I wish I could have heard the wife’s side of the story.

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  2. What a very unwise person! He needs to go on a course of self-improvement. There are so many gurus out there teaching maturity, there is really no excuse nowadays to be so foolish. All it takes is an entry into Google, and there are long lists of people who could help him grow up and smell the coffee.

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  3. I’m afraid this episode is emblematic of the pervasive sense of entitlement which is epidemic in 21st century America; that and the “by any means necessary” political mindset among progressives (I bet he is one).

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  4. I have sympathy but no empathy.

    Often, we do not make decisions based on what is ethical but other factors. Clearly, he was desperate and wrecked his life. Reminds me of the Skyhi IQ episode of Columbo.

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  5. Bryan G. Stephens:
    I have sympathy but no empathy.

    Often, we do not make decisions based on what is ethical but other factors. Clearly, he was desperate and wrecked his life. Reminds me of the Skyhi IQ episode of Columbo.

    What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? I had to check what “em-“ was. It comes from “in” in Greek. “Sym” means “with”.  I think “compassion”, Latin roots, and “sympathy”, Greek roots are the same. Funny that “impassion” is a verb not a noun and not equivalent to “empathy”.

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  6. 10 Cents:

    Bryan G. Stephens:
    I have sympathy but no empathy.

    Often, we do not make decisions based on what is ethical but other factors. Clearly, he was desperate and wrecked his life. Reminds me of the Skyhi IQ episode of Columbo.

    What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? I had to check what “em-“ was. It comes from “in” in Greek. “Sym” means “with”.  I think “compassion”, Latin roots, and “sympathy”, Greek roots are the same. Funny that “impassion” is a verb not a noun and not equivalent to “empathy”.

    Empathy means feeling another’s pain. Compassion, in its old terms, means to suffer with.  To me, sympathy means I can feel for the person, but I don’t experience the emotions with them. High empathy people do.  Modern understanding of compassion is somewhere in between but I think closer to sympathy.

    I can feel empathy in the feelings of being driven to make more money based on wanting to give my family a better life.

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  7. What I have seen time and time again is a person getting off on their own deciding to “fix” things in a crazy way. One good friend would have changed things but they kept it to themselves. Humans also have an unlimited ability to rationalize and minimize things when it comes to themselves. “I am not hurting anyone. Yes, it is bad but I am not killing anyone. It is better to lie and get the money and save my marriage. I am doing it for the kids.” I could have gone on.

    I really wish I could write I would never do the terrible thing. Unfortunately I know if I put myself in the wrong situations I would do probably worse. “Bigger battleships than me have been sunk.” 🙂

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  8. 10 Cents:
    What I have seen time and time again is a person getting off on their own deciding to “fix” things in a crazy way. One good friend would have changed things but they kept it to themselves. Humans also have an unlimited ability to rationalize and minimize things when it comes to themselves. “I am not hurting anyone. Yes, it is bad but I am not killing anyone. It is better to lie and get the money and save my marriage. I am doing it for the kids.” I could have gone on.

    I really wish I could write I would never do the terrible thing. Unfortunately I know if I put myself in the wrong situations I would do probably worse. “Bigger battleships than me have been sunk.” 🙂

    This is so true. The first step to ethical failure is “It cannot happen to me!”

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  9. This guy’s story made me think of Breaking Bad. Both involve chemists being unethical, albeit to different degrees. Both had scolding, judgemental wives. And both are doing it for the money. Left unexplained is why a much worse counteroffer (e.g., $5k vs. $30k raise) was made and accepted. If his offer from Minnesota had been genuine, he would have taken it.

    Pro-tip for the Colorado State administrators: if one of your employees uses an offer from another institution to get more money, let ’em go. Give in to blackmail once and they own you.

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  10. drlorentz:
    This guy’s story made me think of Breaking Bad. Both involve chemists being unethical, albeit to different degrees. Both had scolding, judgemental wives. And both are doing it for the money. Left unexplained is why a much worse counteroffer (e.g., $5k vs. $30k raise) was made and accepted. If his offer from Minnesota had been genuine, he would have taken it.

    Pro-tip for the Colorado State administrators: if one of your employees uses an offer from another institution to get more money, let ’em go. Give in to blackmail once and they own you.

    The story is unbelievable for we know that professors and universities are paragons of virtue. They would never debase themselves and think about money like the greedy capitalists in the corporate world. Also the faculty lounge is one of congenial cooperation. Their goal is always to help and not be in competition like the private sector. I know I have seen talking heads on cable tell me this.

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  11. Interesting story, very human.  I know several people, maybe most people i know, who would claim to be ethical, and many are.  That is until a situation/decision becomes too ‘up close and personal’.  Then as someone else here mentioned the rationalization begins.  Folks will create ‘reasons’ that generally work to neutralize any sense of conscious guilt, at least in the short term.  Problem for them is, the sub-conscious, knows the truth.

    That said, most of the key players in this story:  professor, ex-wife, private dick, emailers, etc.  seem to all be cut of the same skunk stinky cloth.  Lots of dirty hands methinks.

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  12. TempTime:
    Interesting story, very human.  I know several people, maybe most people i know, who would claim to be ethical, and many are.  That is until a situation/decision becomes too ‘up close and personal’.  Then as someone else here mentioned the rationalization begins.  Folks will create ‘reasons’ that generally work to neutralize any sense of conscious guilt, at least in the short term.  Problem for them is, the sub-conscious, knows the truth.

    That said, most of the key players in this story:  professor, ex-wife, private dick, emailers, etc.  seem to all be cut of the same skunk stinky cloth.  Lots of dirty hands methinks.

    This was an unforced error on the part of the chemist and his wife. It’s not like they were starving or in danger of foreclosure. This was just greed and hubris. There was no distress here, except the self-imposed kind.

    I’m not seeing how the private dick was bad. Sure, he used deception to get information. Isn’t that what they all do, cops included? Without him, this would have never come to light and the University of Delaware (among others) would have been ill-served. That chemist could fabricate data or repeat his previous trick at his new job. He could have also ruined some grad students. Once a sleazeball, always a sleazeball, especially if there are no consequences.

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  13. @drlorentz, my comments follow from my thinking that there are too many unasked/unanswered questions in the story as told.  My personal investigator instincts reacted with, ‘something here does not quite make sense, too many pieces missing’.  I’d really like to know who really sent the email from the dead person.  Lots of folks, time and energy involved for $16,000.  I just don’t think we getting the whole story.

    Perhaps I should have written:   I get the sense there is a whole lot of deception going on in this story involving many of the characters besides the professor.

    I think it is possible the guy learned his lesson.  No gain and all loss is what his deception paid him, I don’t see him trying it again real soon.  But if he does, punishment should occur when and if a crime occurs, and not before.

    I don’t agree about punishing folks for the possibility they may commit a crime in the future, or even for a potential future CoC violation for that matter.  (Sorry, @MJBubba I could not resist.)

    🙂

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  14. TempTime:
    I don’t agree about punishing folks for the possibility they may commit a crime in the future, or even for a potential future CoC violation for that matter.

    Punishing future crimes might have made some sort of sense if there had been some actual crime.

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  15. MJBubba:

    TempTime:
    I don’t agree about punishing folks for the possibility they may commit a crime in the future, or even for a potential future CoC violation for that matter.

    Punishing future crimes might have made some sort of sense if there had been some actual crime.

    “We reserve the right to do whatever we please especially if it is a Tuesday and we don’t like you.”

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  16. TempTime:
    @drlorentz, my comments follow from my thinking that there are too many unasked/unanswered questions in the story as told.  My personal investigator instincts reacted with, ‘something here does not quite make sense, too many pieces missing’.  I’d really like to know who really sent the email from the dead person.  Lots of folks, time and energy involved for $16,000.  I just don’t think we getting the whole story.

    Perhaps I should have written:   I get the sense there is a whole lot of deception going on in this story involving many of the characters besides the professor.

    I think it is possible the guy learned his lesson.  No gain and all loss is what his deception paid him, I don’t see him trying it again real soon.  But if he does, punishment should occur when and if a crime occurs, and not before.

    I don’t agree about punishing folks for the possibility they may commit a crime in the future, or even for a potential future CoC violation for that matter.  (Sorry, @MJBubba I could not resist.)

    🙂

    I’m interested in your perspective because you’re closer to the legal side.I’ll give you the science side. This is mostly not about $16k.* This guy was a researcher. People rely on integrity when you report results, mostly because they’re hard to check every time. Sure, important results get replicated (or should) but lots of them are not double checked. When someone fabricates data and is caught, it’s a huge deal. It’s not like when your used car salesman says, “this is the best car on the lot.” Puffery is not OK. This doesn’t mean that researchers are always honest or more honest than the average person or anything of the sort. It does mean there are higher expectations and punishment is severe when there are transgressions. Science is a high-trust enterprise.

    I take your point about future crime. However, dishonesty is in a category all its own. A pattern of lying is reason to distrust a person in the future, even if there is no additional evidence. As it happens, I was just reading this article by Michael Crichton in which he cites

    the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but it’s my understanding that previous lies impugn the veracity of a witness in court. That’s the principle at work here. The folks at Colorado and Delaware were properly concerned with integrity. Certainly, Delaware had no financial stake in this. I was disappointed that the CSU folks sought to sweep this under the carpet, thereby foisting this liar onto Delaware. In that sense, the investigator did Delaware and the grad students a service.

    He was punished for what he did, not for what he was gonna do. The original settlement was way too generous to him because he was able to leverage his lie to get his new position:

    The terms allowed McNaughton, who is 40, to line up a job at the University of Delaware, where he would be an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry with the expectation of an expedited tenure vote.

    Had that been allowed to stand, his crime would have paid.

    *Please note that it’s not only $16k. There were other concessions as well (lab space, expedited tenure).

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  17. MJBubba:

    TempTime:
    I don’t agree about punishing folks for the possibility they may commit a crime in the future, or even for a potential future CoC violation for that matter.

    Punishing future crimes might have made some sort of sense if there had been some actual crime.

    There was only a veneer of equity in the application of the CoC. Often the veneer was so thin you could see the particle board underneath.

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  18. drlorentz:

    MJBubba:

    TempTime:
    I don’t agree about punishing folks for the possibility they may commit a crime in the future, or even for a potential future CoC violation for that matter.

    Punishing future crimes might have made some sort of sense if there had been some actual crime.

    There was only a veneer of equity in the application of the CoC. Often the veneer was so thin you could see the particle board underneath.

    But if you pointed to the particle board and called it “particle board,” that was interpreted as a new violation.

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  19. DocLor,

    You wrote “once a sleazeball always a sleazeball” and referenced the Latin phrase with similar sentiments. Is there no way for a person to “unsleazeball”?

    I see two sides. I see the objective side of the actual crime and the inner side that felt the push or need to do this. I was thinking Colorado might have been kinder to this man because they had actually met the ex-wife. I am not into condoning bad actions but I do try to understand the roots of the action. The root problem here seems to be the bad marriage.

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  20. MJBubba:

    drlorentz:

    MJBubba:

    TempTime:
    I don’t agree about punishing folks for the possibility they may commit a crime in the future, or even for a potential future CoC violation for that matter.

    Punishing future crimes might have made some sort of sense if there had been some actual crime.

    There was only a veneer of equity in the application of the CoC. Often the veneer was so thin you could see the particle board underneath.

    But if you pointed to the particle board and called it “particle board,” that was interpreted as a new violation.

    Doh!! What do you guys think the veneer was for? Here we have a veneer of particle board to protect the hardwood from you animals.

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  21. 10 Cents:
    DocLor,

    You wrote “once a sleazeball always a sleazeball” and referenced the Latin phrase with similar sentiments. Is there no way for a person to “unsleazeball”?

    I see two sides. I see the objective side of the actual crime and the inner side that felt the push or need to do this. I was thinking Colorado might have been kinder to this man because they had actually met the ex-wife. I am not into condoning bad actions but I do try to understand the roots of the action. The root problem here seems to be the bad marriage.

    Well, I was appealing to a principle in law and in everyday life. Once trust is broken, it is hard to mend. This is not to say that redemption is not possible, just that the original settlement was not in service of that end. Keep in mind that while the ex-wife was a nasty piece of work, this guy was constantly complaining and trying to extract more praise and money all on his own. They’re both culpable. I don’t think it’s right to blame only the wife. Even if his wife pushed him to it, he could have divorced her. That’s the way it ended up anyway. “I was just following orders” is not the best excuse.

    Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never well mended.
    – Ben Franklin

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  22. drlorentz:

    10 Cents:
    DocLor,

    You wrote “once a sleazeball always a sleazeball” and referenced the Latin phrase with similar sentiments. Is there no way for a person to “unsleazeball”?

    I see two sides. I see the objective side of the actual crime and the inner side that felt the push or need to do this. I was thinking Colorado might have been kinder to this man because they had actually met the ex-wife. I am not into condoning bad actions but I do try to understand the roots of the action. The root problem here seems to be the bad marriage.

    Well, I was appealing to a principle in law and in everyday life. Once trust is broken, it is hard to mend. This is not to say that redemption is not possible, just that the original settlement was not in service of that end. Keep in mind that while the ex-wife was a nasty piece of work, this guy was constantly complaining and trying to extract more praise and money all on his own. They’re both culpable. I don’t think it’s right to blame only the wife. Even if his wife pushed him to it, he could have divorced her. That’s the way it ended up anyway. “I was just following orders” is not the best excuse.

    Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never well mended.
    – Ben Franklin

    I wasn’t thinking “I was just following orders” but “If you make this propaganda video, we will give you extra privileges”.

    I have no idea if the wife was really bad because I haven’t heard her side. The article played into  that cruel wife stereotype well.

    What if a “friend” is not really a sock puppet and has gotten ahead by padding his insole? Forgiveness, right?

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  23. 10 Cents:
    I wasn’t thinking “I was just following orders” but “If you make this propaganda video, we will give you extra privileges”.

    I have to say, you made me laugh with that one. It’s not like McCain exactly covered himself in glory later on. But maybe that’s not where you were going.

    10 Cents:
    I have no idea if the wife was really bad because I haven’t heard her side. The article played into that cruel wife stereotype well.

    Even the bad-wife version still makes the chemist look bad. Her version could only make him look worse.

    10 Cents:
    What if a “friend” is not really a sock puppet and has gotten ahead by padding his insole? Forgiveness, right?

    Sure. After all, just a sock, right?

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