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Europoliticians hold Ph.D.s in high regard

Dale Herspring: Fraudulent doctorates have brought key leaders down

By A Contributor

Individuals who have spent time in Europe discover that one of the bona fides for many politicians is to obtain a doctoral degree. It doesn’t need to result in the publication of a book or a series of articles; most important is the title “Dr.” Titles are important, including in Germany, where I went to school. 

There are big differences between the United States and Europe when it comes to academic titles.  For example, Americans seldom use them outside of a university.  In more than 20 years in the Foreign Service, never did I use my academic title.  In fact, when we had an academic who insisted on being called “doctor,” he became the butt of jokes. It was the same in the Navy. 

Not that the degree was useless. I obtained several jobs because certain individuals knew I had one, but only after I had proven myself professionally.

In Europe, a Ph.D. is often a legitimizing device.  If one is a “Dr.” then he or she must be well educated and smart. It is not uncommon to see titles like Prof. Dr. Col. or even Dr. Dr.

The problem in Europe is that the degree can be so important that even undeserving individuals often go to great lengths to get one. A few months ago, Germany’s defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, was forced to resign because one of Germany’s leading newspapers proved he plagiarized his Ph.D. dissertation.  He had copied major parts of from newspaper stories. 

Given the consequences of plagiarism, one would assume that any politically ambitious man or woman would have enough brains to write an original dissertation. One might also assume that faculty would demand decent work — and take measures to ensure that material is original. It is not too difficult to tell when a Ph.D. candidate’s work is original. A few questions and suggestions for revisions and additional sources can make the most determined plagiarist give up. 

Bribe can and do play a role. Russians I have known have claimed that an exchange of money takes place, but I have not heard of it happening in Germany.  Rather, it appears that the main problem with professors is the failure to pay close attention to the process.  Some dissertation topics are unexciting or uninteresting, but all of us in the teaching profession have an obligation to devote appropriate energy to get a high quality product from the student.

Which brings us to an incident involving Hungary’s former president,  Pal Schmidtt. An Olympic athlete, he won gold medals in fencing in 1968 and 1972. Writing a dissertation about the Olympics, Schmidtt received a Ph.D., from Hungary’s Semmelweis University.  He was Hungary’s fourth democratically elected president since the fall of communism. 

After charges of plagiarism were leveled, the university assembled a committee to review the dissertation.  And after a lengthy investigation, the committee issued a 1,157-page report saying his work did not meet the professional and ethical criteria required. 

In particular, the committee noted that the paper contained 16 pages of material translated from the 1991 work of a German author, Klaus Heinemann, combined with 180 pages from a 1987 work by a Bulgarian, Nikolay Geuorgiev. The committee also said tables and charts were copied from the Bulgarian source.  The university senate voted 33-3 to withdraw the degree.  As a result, the rector of the university, also resigned, saying he felt a “loss of confidence” from the authorities.

Much like the recent battle over the German president’s ethical behavior involving money, this scandal dominated headlines in Hungary and hit citizens particularly hard. That’s because the Hungarian president’s authority is moral, not political. Cheating undermines that authority.

Schmidtt has claimed innocence and said he plans to appeal, arguing that only a court has the right to take away a degree awarded by a state university.

Schmidtt resigned April 2.saying the situation “divides my beloved nation rather than unites it.” He comments were greeted with applause by members of parliament  

As a result of the Schmidtt and zu Guttenberg cases, public scrutiny of European politicians who claim to have doctorates has increased significantly.  I would not be surprised to see other European politicians find themselves in hot water over their degrees, which might not be a bad thing.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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