Professor Lucia D. Sonii-Gbala Opens Up -Clarifies Dean Jallah Barbu’s Allegations

When she resigned from the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, University of Liberia, on June 23, 2023, Assistant Professor Lucia D. Sonii-Gbala said she was resigning because of the unilateral change of the final grades of the Applied Legal Studies II which she taught; the arbitrary clearance of students, who failed ALS II for graduation, and the fact that a request for investigation still remains unaddressed by the University of Liberia. But hardly had the ink dried from her resignation letter when the Dean of the Law School, Cllr. Jallah Barbu clarified that Cllr. Gbala did not only refuse to attend any of the meetings called by the investigative committee that was set up to resolve the issue between the professor and her students, but that the Assistant Professor unilaterally made decisions while administering the Applied Legal Studies II course that was jointly taught by two Law School professors. In an attempt to finally clear the air about what really transpired as opposed to what Dean Barbu claimed to have happened, Cllr. Gbala has provided a detailed perspective on events leading to her resignation as captured  below:

Clarification on Key Issues raised in Dean Jallah Barbu’s June 28, 2023 Communication
By Cllr. Lucia Diana Sonii-Gbala, BBA, LLB, LLM.

 Course Requirement and Plagiarism

The Course Applied Legal Studies II has several objectives, one of which is to: “Enhance skills in legal research, drafting, and analysis, especially in the context of preparing notice of arbitration, complaints, motions, trial memorandum, stipulations, bills of Exception, rulings and appellate briefs”.

After three months of discussing these legal instruments, giving assignments and providing all the necessary templates to prepare students for their final exams, any professor would reasonably expect the students to demonstrate in return the knowledge obtained during the semester. In the event where twenty-one (21) students locate previous exam answers, and instead of using their analytical and drafting skills obtained during the semester to INDEPENDENTLY provide answers, rewrite verbatim the answers from the previous exams, the course objective stated above was not achieved. The grade such students deserve is an “F”, irrespective of whether the course was assigned to a “senior lecturer” and/or an Assistant Professor.

An explanation provided by the Harvard University on what plagiarism is indicates that, “in academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn’t matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a website without clear authorship, a website that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else’s work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident”

In view of the foregoing, I’d like to dispel the notion that a student needs to only copy from a published material in order for he/she to be held for plagiarism. As Harvard University aptly puts it, “copying from anyone’s work is stealing…” and any experienced instructor/professor is reasonably expected to uphold this academic principle.

To further illustrate this point, excerpts of exam answers of 2 students are quoted verbatim in Annex 1.

Consequently, the Complaints filed with both the Louis Arthur Grimes School (“LAGSL”) and the University of Liberia’s (“UL”) Administration concerning the ALS final grades were bordered on Plagiarism and the students’ failure to do independent work. The abundance of evidence from the exam books (illustrated Annex 1) shows that some of the answers therein are identical or directly copied from one source. It is indeed recognized that the probability of students having the same answers whilst doing independent work is slim or non-existent. Moreover, in exercising the right for review, the students admitted to having used previous exam materials to answer their exam questions, but unfortunately wrote verbatim therefrom.

Markings of Exam Books

Given the non-involvement of the Dean during the semester, I approached the instructor of Section 1 of the ALS Course to permit me to draw a joint exam for both sections. He agreed and shared with me previous exam questions from 2020 & 2021, which I restructured and prepared for the joint exam. This exam was administered to both sections of the ALS II course. There is precedent for this approach of administering joint exams for sections of a course.

During the administration of the final exam, the Dean visited the exam hall and registered his dissatisfaction about a joint test with the Section 1 class of the ALS course taught by Dean Warner, and his interest in reviewing the results of the final exam. After the Exam, I visited the Dean’s office and provided an explanation as to why the exam was jointly administered in keeping with the Common course outlined submitted to him at the beginning of the semester. I out rightly apologized for any offense he had taken as a result of this approach and he accepted. Dean Barbu thereafter requested for a copy of the same exam to personally administer to a student who had requested an excuse from him.

On May 9, 2023, a briefing session on the marking process was held with the Dean, during which he was informed about the plagiarism issue. Thereafter, on May 12, 2023, thirty-one (31) exam books were hand-delivered to the Dean in addition to an email which submitted the exam raw scores and a notation about the grading of the exam books. Attached as Annex 2 is the May 12th email.

On May 17, 2023, being 5 days after the delivery of the exam books to the Dean for review, the students were notified about the marking process and the exam books which were considered disqualified. The Dean’s admission to receiving and reviewing the copybooks prior to their distribution and the submission of final grades, is contained in the Dean’s May 20th mail. The email also noted to the students the opportunity to meet and discuss their papers. Attached as Annex 3 is the May 17th email.

Each of the Exam books was individually marked with numerical values in addition to comments on each of the answers provided (confirmed on Pg. 4 of the Dean’s communication). The additional marks (Paraphrased (P),Verbatim (V), Independent (I)) placed on the back of the exam books were intended to distinguish between the exam books for the benefit of the Dean and to communicate which exam books were disqualified. As mentioned above, these marks, which were in addition to the regular grades were explained in 2 separate emails to the Dean and the Students. Attached in Annex 4 are samples of the exam books with numerical grades and the additional markings and the referenced emails.

Students’ Engagement Post Exam

During the week of the 19th of May 2023, more than 15 students met with me at my office to either individually and/or jointly discuss their exam books. All of the students (including the graduating ones), who met with me could but did not challenge the results, rather, they pleaded for a new exam to be administered or an allowance for a pass. Attached in Annex 5 are text messages and email from some of the students.

In considering the students plea, consultations were had with the instructor from the other ALS II section who confirmed that the few students from that section, who copied the same answers my class did, were given “F”. It is only but concerning that no questions have been asked in respect of these students from Section 1 or the Dean having no interest in reviewing and remarking their papers. It can, however, then be inferred that the review and remarking of Students from section 2 was because (i) there was a belief that the final grades I submitted, under the Dean’s authority, could be easily compromised, and (ii) a young assistant female professor could be bullied into submission.

At NO TIME did I refuse to meet any of the students who had concerns about their exam copybooks. There is also no evidence of any student complaint in this respect. Throughout the 3 years of service as an Assistant Professor at the LAGSL, I have been liberal in my style of teaching, respectful of all students’ rights and views, and available to all of my students. This can be substantiated by one of the student’s messages relative to my engagement with them, which is stated verbatim below: “I just want to express how much I’m grateful that you accepted an audience with us at your office yesterday & today. It takes an instructor with meekness and modesty to have such interaction with students. I’m truly thankful for having the opportunity under your tutelage last semester. Thanks…” (Dated May 19, 2023)

Dean’s Request and Approval of Final Grades

On May 16, 2023, Law School Administrator, Sam Dahgbe, requested the submission of the final grades on the instruction of the Dean. The Dean also followed-up on Sam’s email requesting my submission of the final grades. The final ALS II grades were submitted on May 22, 2023 following email exchanges with the Dean about making a joint decision on the student’s exam books and the grades. A verbatim statement of the Dean’s response on May 20th, 2023 to an email requesting a decision be jointly reached is as follows: Thanks for submission. On the decision about the exam books, you explained and I advised you to take the appropriate action. I only asked to have the opportunity to review some of the books. In any case, thanks for settling the matter.”

Attached are copies of the (i) May 22nd email on email submission and May 20th email on decision on the exam books, and (ii) the final ALS II grades in Annex 6.

It is relevant to note that the submission of the final grades came only AFTER (i) consultations were had with the Dean on copybooks’ review; (ii) hand-delivery of copybooks to the Dean for his own review; (iii) An email sent to the Dean to explain the extra markings; (iv) A request to the Dean to jointly make a decision on the final grades; and (v) Dean’s authorization to make the decision and submit the final grades.

On May 24, 2023, the Dean thereafter requested and a meeting was held to discuss the possibility of changing the final grades he instructed me to submit, wherein I confirmed my decision. This meeting comes after I had met with the students and the authorized submission of the final grades. I was informed during the meeting that the President and the VPAA were aware of the situation. AT NO TIME DID THE DEAN REGISTER ANY CONCERN ABOUT OR NON-ACCEPTANCE OF THE “STRANGE MARKING”, UNTIL HIS JUNE 28, 2023 COMMUNICATION.

Request for Investigation

On May 25, 2023, the Dean communicated that an investigation was to commence based on my insistence for the same. My response email clarified that I needed no investigation given the submission of the final grades. Therefore, if there was a challenge, a copy of the students’ complaint/challenge should be shared with me prior to the commencement of the investigation.

On the same May 25, 2023, I received a telephone call from a faculty member, who informed me that “he had others with him”, and that the issue of the ALS grades was shared with them. I responded by informing them of my response email to the Dean requesting a copy of the complaint. There was no other information provided by the faculty member. AT NO TIME WAS I CALLED TO ATTEND AN INVESTIGATION OR RESISTED ANY SUMMON FOR AN INVESTIGATION.

On May 26th, 29th, & June 1st, and prior to the graduation date, I sent follow-up emails requesting a copy of the complaint, inquiry on the conduct of an investigation, and a request to have access to the ALS II final grades-given the rumor of an override. It is only puzzling that a person who requested and followed up on the conduct of an investigation can be deemed to have resisted investigation. Attached in Annex 7 are copies of the emails sent to the Dean on the matter.

No response on the issue was received to the mail, follow-up email, text-messages, calls and visit to the law school campus. The follow-up emails had the President, Dr. Nelson and the VPAA, Dr. Zinnah copied therein but neither of them acknowledged the mail.

Course Outline and Tutoring

Upon the assignment of the ALS Course Section 2, I, with utmost regard for the Dean, preemptively visited his office to discuss the development of the course outline. The Dean promised to share a previous outline for the course but never did until classes were about to commence. I assumed the responsibility, given the Dean’s busy schedule, to work with the professor teaching Section 1 of the Course to review and modify his outline as a common course outline for Sections 1 and 2.

The common course outline was submitted to the Dean on behalf of both sections, and no objection was recorded. AT NO TIME DID THE DEAN REGISTER DISSATISFACTION ABOUT THIS OUTLINE SUBMISSION. As a matter of fact, the Dean requested for his use a copy of the same outline in his email of December 9, 2023.

“Good afternoon, Prof. Gbala. I searched my email but did not find the course outline, though you informed me you sent it earlier. Could you kindly share it again or forward that email to me please? I would really want to be prepared for classes since I share to some extent, THE TEACHING RESPONSIBILITIES YOU HEAVILY CARRY.”

Following the submission, this outline was again shared with the Dean and the Associate Dean to continue lectures whenever I was away. On most of those occasions of my absence, no one continued the lectures. I always had to resume lectures from where I stopped during the previous class session. Copies of the Emails sharing the outline are attached in Annex 7.

AT NO TIME were there ever a need for clarity on a subject that was requested by the students and provided by the Dean in my presence. All lectures, notes, slides and templates were prepared by me, with no input from the Dean. The two (2) times the Dean was present during lectures, he was only observant. The Dean’s comments after the lecture were only complimenting the manner in which the lectures were conducted.

Contractual Relationship

It is indeed interesting to note that the Part-time Contract the Dean refers to in his communication, was only delivered to my office for execution two (2) days before my resignation. I challenge the Dean to produce any contract which bears my signature for the ALS course he assigned us to co-teach.

At the LAGSL, contracts are mostly provided at the close of the semester for which an instructor has already completed. This explains why a semester’s contract which commenced in November 2022 was only produced in June of 2023.

As an Adjunct/part-time professor, my resignation was in respect to an oral contract, which resulted from the automatic renewal of the previous semester’s contract. The position as an Adjunct Professor I elected to maintain this status and reneged on following up on a previous application to be fully employed, due to my tight schedule. This status was a matter of choice.

Additionally, it would be safe to infer that an individual who is not considered to have the right to resign (i) will not be included in the email chain to all professors from the Dean requesting their participation in graduation ceremony; (ii) included and maintained in the Law professors WhatsApp chatroom; (iii) be sought after to sign a contract in order to have evidence of end-date of instruction; or (iv) complaint be recognized and accepted by the UL’s administration for investigation. The conduct of parties always prevails in determining the existence of a relationship. “When an agreement expires by its terms and, without a renewal, the parties continue to perform as before, an implication arises that they have mutually assented to a new contract containing the same provisions as the old”. Abi-Jaoudi & Azar Trading Co. v Nassim [1994] LRSC 10; 37 LLR 440 Sly 1. See attached in Annex 8 copy of the citation to professors for graduation.

Retaliatory actions

On the same day of verbally registering the complaint with the VPAA, a circular was issued prohibiting Adjunct professors, like myself, from entering a class without having a contract.

I was removed from handling a course I had taught 2 consecutive years, which up to today my students (some now Attorneys-At-Law) still commend me for. In any case, I am more than pleased that through this matter, reforms have come to the UL, where professors without contracts are not allowed to enter class and that contracts are now timely given.

Concluding this exercise, I am obliged to register that the Dean’s efforts to create an impression that I am an inexperienced Counsellor-At-Law/Assistant Professor is self-serving and a misrepresentation to the highest extent. It has been 12 years since I was a student of the Dean. During those 12 years I have served as an In-house counsel for a Bank, obtained a Master’s Degree in Law, sat and passed the Supreme Court Bar Exam coming the 3rd highest scorer since 2018,  served on committees of the Liberia National Bar Association, taught for 2 years before the Dean’s ascendency to the position, supervised and mentored junior attorneys, became a partner in one of Liberia’s most reputable Law Firms and now currently serving as its Managing Director, undertaken consultancies for the International Organizations (WorldBank and VPA-SU2), successfully led for five years two forestry related projects with international partners, conducted countless number of trainings and workshops, including those for prosecutors, served as a director on the Boards of several non-profit and profit organizations, and being recognized by three WorldBank Group Research projects for expert contribution.

If the foregoing doesn’t contextualize the high level of sense of responsibility and professionalism, then nothing will.

Finally, I submit on a note demystifying the “old-school” perception that professionalism and maturity are co-related or interdependent on age or a particular gender. Young women, like myself, do succeed and are highly professional in our engagement and interaction. The records are there.

2 Comments
  1. Jake Doe says

    Madam Lucia D. Sonii-Gbala, in this day and age, you should be ashamed of yourself being interested and obsessed in students repeating a class or a course after a year of attendance. Accordingly, all this copious rant boils down to the legal maxim … A DECEIVER DEALS IN GENERALITIES …. Dolosus versatur in generalibus.

    You were a mere contractor not in the employ of that higher institution of learning. You came out here and impersonated as a professor and one employed by the university. On top of that, your conduct following the university inviting you to address the matter explains your chronic mediocrity, and your being not a professorial material.

  2. J. Sayegh says

    We commend this fearless professor. Unfortunately, mediocrity is the rule of the day and there are many who vilify the one who speaks truth without fear or favor. Many who wear the robe of law are not fit to enter the halls of justice. Stand always for what is right, even when the ground shakes.

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