Beyond The Bubble

By Danny Zhang

“A health minister doesn’t need to be a medical doctor, but if he is one, then he can’t have committed malpractice. An education minister doesn’t need to have a Ph.D., but if he does, then his dissertation cannot be plagiarized,” Dr. Volker Rieble, professor of law at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University, told the New York Times.

These comments were made in response to a high-profile plagiarism scandal that took down Germany’s Minister of Education and Research last Saturday. Dr. Annette Schavan, though that title remains dubious pending appeal after her alma mater in Düsseldorf revoked it last Tuesday, announced her resignation in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel (also a doctor) at her side.

The 57-year-old Minister had held the education portfolio for nearly eight years, since the start of the Merkel chancellorship. Before her career in federal German politics, she served for a decade as the minister of culture, youth and sports for the large southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.

Schavan is one of Merkel’s closest Cabinet colleagues and a trusted confidante. However, Merkel had little choice but to accept her resignation. She has appointed Dr. Johanna Wanka, the 61-year-old minister of science and culture in Lower Saxony, to fill the federal education portfolio, effective today. Wanka received her doctorate from the University of Leipzig in 1980.

This latest plagiarism scandal comes less than two years after the resignation of Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in March 2011 over similar charges. The young rising political star had his title revoked from the University of Bayreuth.

In a country where 125 of 622 members of the current Parliament hold doctorate degrees, the per capita rate of doctorate degrees awarded annually is double that of the United States. As Rieble said, there is a certain obsession with doctoral titles in Germany in the quest for academic distinction. However, the real meaning of the use of such titles outside medicine and academia has been called into question, especially in the wake of recent scandals.

In addition to the two disgraced federal ministers, titles have been stripped from a German member of the European Parliament, a former vice president of the European Parliament, and the leader of the Christian Democratic Party in the Berlin city council, all within the last two years.

Many of the plagiarism cases were uncovered by crowd-sourced websites where anyone is welcome to read academic works and look for fishy details. One popular such site is VroniPlag, which uncovered several of the previously mentioned high-profile scandals.  Schavan’s case was uncovered by another anonymous blog in late 2012.

American politicians have seldom paid a high price for charges of plagiarism. One of the most notorious cases was the suspension of Vice President Joe Biden’s 1988 presidential run. Then-Senator Biden was accused of plagiarism on a paper he wrote in law school.

A former speechwriter for Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada resigned in 2008 after it was discovered that Harper’s 2003 parliamentary speech on the invasion of Iraq contained entire passages lifted from then-Prime Minister John Howard of Australia’s speech on the same topic.

In November 2012, plagiarism accusations were brought against Zsolt Semjén, deputy Prime Minister of Hungary on his theological dissertation. Semjén’s case came just seven months after Hungary’s then-President Pál Schmitt (also former Olympic champion) resigned after a lengthy plagiarism scandal during which his doctoral title was revoked by the renowned medical school Semmelweis University in Budapest.