The Miseducation of Annette Schavan

Yet another plagiarism scandal is rocking -- well, not really rocking, more like poking -- Germany. This time, with exquisite irony, the victim is the Education Minister of the entire country, Dr. Annette Schavan. She got her doctorate in education in 1980 from the University of Düsseldorf. Someone got a copy of her dissertation, which dealt with the development of a personal conscience, and began looking for unacknowledged quotations and uncited paraphrase of others' ideas. The results can be found on the blog Schavanplag (g), which contains a detailed listing of all the problematic pages.

The Faculty Council of the liberal arts college of the University of Düsseldorf, after lengthy review, voted 12 to 3 to withdraw her doctoral dissertation on grounds of evidence of sustained, intentional plagiarism. They held (g) that Schavan's dissertation contained (my translation): 'more than isolated instances of word-for-word copies of other texts without acknowledgement' and found that '[t]he frequency and the construction of these word-for-word copies, along with the failure to cite relevant literature in footnotes or in the bibliography have convinced the Faculty Council, after reviewing the entire work, that the doctoral candidate systematically and intentionally, throughout the entire dissertation, presented ideas as her own that were, in fact, not.'

Not precisely the sort of thing you want to read about your country's own education minister. But the withdrawing of her Ph.D. is just the beginning: the program she completed in 1980 led directly to a Ph.D without any intervening steps, so once the university withdraws it, she will have no official, earned academic title at all past high school. The final nail in the coffin is her remarks about Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the last conservative politician to have lost his job last year over plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. Back then, she announced (g) that as someone who had a Ph.D herself and met with many doctoral candidates, she was 'ashamed, and not just privately' about Guttenberg's conduct. Schavan has pledged to challenge the Faculty Council's decision in court, and to stay in office. But Angela Merkel has professed her 'full confidence' in Schavan, which means she's probably doomed.* One German newspaper calculated (g) that any politician who earns Merkel's 'full confidence' has, on average, 18.75 days left in office.

Whenever people ask me to compare Germans and Americans, I first order them to fill me with booze. Once that's done, then I pontificate as follows: 'The average middle-class American is driven about 90% by a desire for more money, and most of these people will come right out and tell you that. A similarly-situated German will be motivated 40% by money, 20% by job security, and 40% by the desire for officially-bestowed, external signs of high social status -- especially involving education or heredity. However, they will only admit the desire for job security, and will half-heartedly deny or rationalize the other motivations'. Perhaps the ultimate status symbol is the doctoral title which, under German law, can be made an official part of your name. The sacred two letters accompany you through life, surrounding you with a diffuse aura of scholarly dignity and good breeding.

Which is often spurious, of course. The social cachet of a doctoral title (which may also entitle you to higher salaries than your co-workers) drives thousands of ambitious young Germans to seek a title. A minority of these students are genuinely intellectually talented and interested in the advancement of human knowledge for its own sake. A majority, in my experience, just wants to find some way, any way, to bolt those two little letters to the front of their name for status/signalling reasons. They may well turn to dubious 'consulting agencies' which work with shady professors (g). One step above this are people who actually write a doctoral dissertation, but do so 'outside' the university system. In the German system only one professor supervises the actual dissertation-writing process, so if you find one who's relatively lax, you don't have to work up much of a sweat to get the title.

From my inbox:

I couldn’t help reading the story on Schavan today and just thinking “reap what you sow, Germany Bildungssystem”. Years of benign neglect to plagiarism, the discouraging of originality, the lack of substantive peer rigor at the higher academic levels and deference to professors who frequently supervise topics they can’t even evaluate the originality of have just resulted in what for Germans must seem like the End of All that is Good and True. Guttenberg was a case of a ‘friendly’ degree offered to someone obviously on his way to a higher political future than the academy, and I think there is a lot of tolerance for that here (and Schadenfreude when it blows up), but Schavan just struck a crippling blow to the whole concept of there being academic merit in this whole absurd title-chasing complex. If the Ministrix of Education loses her degree, that’s as bad as the Surgeon General being found to have obtained his medical degree at the Sweetrose Nursing Academy or the Minister of Consumer Affairs having marketed Vorwerk vacuum cleaners to math club students.

That about sums it up. Schavan is clearly doomed, and her case throws light on a very weak system. The problem is that all the superficial, crappy doctoral dissertations debase the currency. I haven't thought this through, but I envision something like a 2-tier process: you can either work with one professor to write a short, workmanlike survey of a particular area in 18 months-2 years (which doesn't need to be published), or you can opt for a 'real' doctoral dissertation, which must be more substantial, and which will take 3-4 years, and be supervised by a commission of three professors. In fact, this latter option could then replace the 'Habilitation', another German academic institution which may well have outlived its usefulness. I suppose this reform would end up with the German system looking much more like the American system. But comparing the number of plagiarism and/or fake-doctor scandals each system generates, switching to something more like the US system might be just what the doctor ordered (sorry about that!).

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The Legal Flea Circus

FleaCircus-Prof-W-Heckler-4I'm reading Thomas Fischer's entertaining essay Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft (g) (h/t Markus) and came across this gem:

The most malicious parable concerning the education of lawyers is found in a short sketch by Klaus Eschen: Legal education resembles the training of fleas -- you lock them in a box and put a glass plate on top of it. When the fleas try to jump, they hit the glass plate. As time goes by, they learn to jump less high even when the plate is removed. The process is repeated, putting the glass plate ever lower, until the fleas can do no more than creep  around: "When they've learned to move around only by creeping, they have completed their training for the flea circus. In legal terms, this is about the time of the bar exam."

Thomas Fischer, 'Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft', in Festschrift Für Ruth Rissing-Van Saan Zum 65. Geburtstag Am 25. Januar 2011, p. 163.

Fischer, a criminal-law judge on Germany's highest criminal court, is here reviewing another book, 'German-Language Criminal Law in Self-Portrait', a collection of autobiographical essays by leading German criminal-law professors. Fischer's essay could have been yet another German exercise in Selbtsbeweihräucherung*, but Fischer decides to probe beneath the surface. What do these essays reveal about the character and personality of German criminal-law professors, and of the state of the profession?

His conclusions are not particularly flattering. He finds the professors, in their own portraits, curiously passionless and conformist. Their life stories highlight conventional bourgeois virtues and portray a relatively quick and painless integration into the realities of university life: the long years spent sucking up to various authority figures, tedious disputes about arcane dogmatic positions, the gradual accumulation of a thick carapace of self-importance and professional vanity.

The primary maxim of most of these professors' lives, Fischer argues, is 'don't rock the boat'. This helps explain why they did startlingly little to analyze the role of German criminal law in National Socialist times. Although the professors writing their own biographies were born too late for the war, their mentors certainly weren't and many of them were active Nazis, sometimes fanatical ones. There are many descriptions of the brilliance and harmless eccentricities of the previous generation of scholars, but their involvement with Nazism is downplayed or ignored altogether. In German professorial circles, it seems, controversies about theoretical constructs which are of no interest to anyone outside a tiny circle are welcome, but discussions about the fundamental questions of personal responsibility, individual and social morality, and other such suspiciously interesting topics must be avoided at all costs.

Altogether a fascinating, if disturbing read. Nor did it go unnoticed: saying non-complimentary and occasionally controversial things about prominent professors has also gotten Fischer into a bit of trouble (g). Is Fischer on target, or is he too cynical? Just click on this link and judge for yourself. Oh wait, there is no link. As with so much of German academic writing, the essay appears nowhere online. It exists only on dead trees, packed into a 900-page book, gathering dust at your local law library. Sad, really -- this is a lively and insightful piece which deserves a broader audience...

Continue reading "The Legal Flea Circus" »

The Conservative Plagiarism Pandemic

I note with grim satisfaction that yet another conservative politician is facing allegations of having plagiarized in his doctoral disseration. This time it's Bernd Althusmann (g), member of the Christian Democratic Union center-right party. Ironically, he is also current chairman of the conference of education ministers, an influential working group of state education ministers that is responsible for maintaining standards of quality in the educational system.

I use the word satisfaction advisedly -- not because I feel Schadenfreude about this particular guy coming into the crosshairs, but because it's a good thing for Germany to be having this dissertation crisis. There are four kinds of university systems in the world, according to my experience:

First, those which aren't well-organized enough to confer doctoral titles.

Second, those who do confer doctoral titles, but in which much of the work is derivative, the process is often rigged or plagued with cheating, and nobody cares.

Third those who do confer doctoral titles, but in which much of the work is derivative, the process is often rigged or plagued with cheating, people do care and there are consequences.

Fourth and finally, those systems in which cheating or favoritism is rare, and thus virtually all doctoral titles really mean something.

For quite a while, Germany's system was, sad to say, in the second group of countries. Mechanisms for genuine accountability were pretty much nonexistent, and it was well-known that certain professors and universities would grant doctoral titles without too much fuss and bother about standards. Given Germany's obsession with titles, it was inevitable that hundreds of people would slap together piss-poor dissertations just to get the precious two letters, which are considered so important in Germany that they officially become part of your legal name (g).

Of course, the widespread toleration of third-rate career-enhancement dissertations debased the currency of the German doctoral title, punishing the majority of scholars who followed the rules and produced interesting -- or at least their own -- work. Yet the problem, as it is so often in Germany, was accountability. In order to clean out the Augean stables of crap dissertations, you might actually have to enforce rules and punish wrongdoers, which is hard to do in a culture, like Germany's, that enforces rigid insider/outsider distinctions and lets insiders get away with an awful lot of laziness and underhanded dealing.

This latest crop of revelations seems to be changing that. Universities are finally, belatedly beginning to put in force checks and sanctions for doctoral plagiarism, although it remains to be seen exactly how stringently they'll be enforced. Germany is slowly moving into the third category, and when that happens, it may be only a matter of time before it reaches stage four. The boil must be lanced! Reaching stage four also involves, not incidentally, reducing the number of dissertations handed out by weeding out the pure careerists. I see this as a very good thing.

I have one other comment. So far, all the doctor-cheaters have been members of center-right parties. Is this just a coincidence, or does it have something to do with the mindset of the kind of people who would join these parties? Could it be that German conservative politicians are unusually subject to a combination of yearning for social distinction commingled with a superficial careerist mentality?

The Bread-Fed Scholar and the Philosophical Mind

At a party this weekend, this passage from Schiller came up during conversation:

The course of studies which the scholar who feeds on bread alone sets himself, is very different from that of the philosophical mind. The former, who, for all his diligence, is interested merely in fulfilling the conditions under which he can perform a vocation and enjoy its advantages, who activates the powers of his mind only thereby to improve his material conditions and to satisfy a narrow-minded thirst for fame, such a person has no concern upon entering his academic career, more important than distinguishing most carefully those sciences which he calls ’studies for bread,’ from all the rest, which delight the mind for their own sake. Such a scholar believes, that all the time he devoted to these latter, he would have to divert from his future vocation, and this thievery he could never forgive himself. He will direct all of his diligence to the demands made upon him by the future master of his fate, and he will believe he has achieved everything once he has made himself capable of not fearing this authority. Once he has run his course and attained the goal of his desires, he dismisses the sciences which guided him, for why should he bother with them any longer? His greatest concern now is to display these accumulated treasures of his memory, and to take care, that their value not depreciate. Every extension of his bread-science upsets him, because it portends only more work, or it makes the past useless; every important innovation frightens him, because it shatters the old school form which he so laboriously adopted, it places him in danger of losing the entire effort of his preceding life.

Who rants more against reformers than the gaggle of bread-fed scholars? Who more holds up the progress of useful revolutions in the kingdom of knowledge than these very men? Every light radiated by a happy genius, in whichever science it be, makes their poverty apparent; their foils are bitterness, insidiousness, and desperation, for, in the school system they defend, they do battle at the same time for their entire existence. On that score, there is no more irreconcilable enemy, no more jealous official, no one more eager to denounce heresy than the bread-fed scholar. The less his knowledge rewards him on its own account, the more he devours acclaim thrown at him from the outside; he has but one standard for the work of the craftsman, as well as for the work of the mind—effort. Thus, one hears no one complain more about ingratitude than the bread-fed scholar; he seeks his rewards not in the treasures of his mind—his recompense he expects from the recognition of others, from positions of honor, from personal security. If he miscarries in this, who is more unhappy than the bread-fed scholar? He has lived, worried, and worked in vain; he has sought in vain for truth, if for him this truth not transfer itself into gold, published praise, and princely favor.

'Buy Yourself a Professor'

That's the title of a recent article (g) in Unispiegel, a section of the Spiegel website) dedicated to higher education news. It details a secret contract signed by the Humboldt University and the Technical University and Deutsche Bank. The Deutsche Bank funds two professorships and an institute (the "Quantitative Products Laboratory"), and in return gets certain privileges (my translation):

A steering committee directs the research initiative, deciding among other things about the practical implementation, the research strategy to be employed, [and] personnel resources... The committee is composed of two representatives of the Deutsche Bank and two university professors. The deciding factor is the voting procedure in a tie: "If the voting results in a tie, the Managing Director will have the final say," it provides in paragraph 3 of the contract. And the Managing Director comes from Deutsche Bank.

The bank also decides which research results will be made public. Papers "will be made available to the Deutsche Bank at least 60 days before they are presented to third parties, for instance for purposes of a first publication, so that a decision can be made whether to permit their publication." The Deutsch Bank generously concedes that it will be "generous" in its decisions about publication, however only to the extent that "the interests of Deutsche Bank are not affected." Only after two years are scholars free to publish their research any way they please.

Deutsche Bank also secured influence over teaching, by specifying that "their employees will, according to valid regulations, be hired as adjunct professors and to grade student work." In Paragraph 7 the Bank specifies, under the heading "Personnel Marketing", that it will be assisted by the university in hiring new employees.

The secret contract was revealed by a professor emeritus of political science, Peter Grottian. According to the Spiegel article, the "scientific community" has reacted with "outrage". The head of the German University Association said, for instance, "One can hardly avoid the impression that this contract involves the purchase of academic work (Wissenschaft)." Yet he must know that this story is just the tip of the iceberg.

I'm of two minds about this sort of thing. People who study more practical sorts of majors such as finance or biology (and, to an extent, law) are likely to seek jobs in the private sector after they graduate, and programs that let them gain real-world experience are a fine idea. (Ideally, there should also be similarly well-funded programs for people who don't intend to go work for private industry, but I'm not holding my breath for that.) I also don't have a huge problem with naming rights. As tacky as the results might be sometimes, it's hardly a threat to academic freedom, as long as the donors don't get any influence over who will be hired for a sponsored professorship or what will be taught in the building named after them.

But this deal is bad for two reasons: first, because it remained secret. This is not unusual in Germany, in which a combination of strict privacy laws, no whistleblowing culture, and a clubby insider mentality impair transparency and accountability everywhere you turn. The Humboldt University and the Technical University are both financed by German taxpayers' money, and any important contract the University enters into should be open for public inspection. The rule should be firmly established from the very beginning, so that Deutsche Bank, or a pharmaceutical company, or an insurance company, know that any provision they negotiate with a university will be public, for all to see.

Second, this contract shows how private industry dominates in negotiations with universities. On one side of this deal you have rich, cunning, hard-charging businesspeople working for billion-euro globe-spanning corporation. On the other, you have professors and bureaucrats who may well have never spent an hour working in the private sector under normal conditions (i.e., not as interns or consultants). German universities rarely have dedicated administrators responsible for negotiating third-party contracts, and even if they do, these people are probably tenured bureaucrats who will never as hard-charging and aggressive as private-sector operators. Further, the professors are often under pressure to obtain outside funding, and the private-sector people know this. Given these incentives, it's no wonder that private firms often steamroll universities in negotiating these sorts of contracts. The universities underestimate their bargaining power.

This problem of private-sector actors seeking inappropriate concessions is definitely not limited to Berlin, it happens all over the place, including the university I work at. The key thing is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: some cooperation between the private sector and universities is desirable, it just needs to happen in ways that preserve academic freedom. Here's my preferred solution: First, pass a law simply making it illegal for a university that receives any public money to bargain away any of its academic freedom in contracting with the private sector. Any contract provision that purported to give a private company any say over publications, etc. would be unenforceable. That would set up appropriate ground rules before the negotiations even began. Second, all contracts entered into with third-party funders must be made public, preferably by being scanned in on the Internet and posted to a website. Once again, you could make this a private-law enforcability rule: any contract or provision that was not made public cannot be enforced in a court of law.

The solutions should be applicable nationwide, to prevent a "race to the bottom". These rules might deter some cooperation between higher education and the private sector, but I would hope that it would be precisely the most problematic sorts of "cooperation" that would fade away, while the healthier kind went on unimpeded.


Spiegel Online interviews (g) the operator of a satirical German website called ('buy-a-title'). Apparently they get plenty of requests from irony-impaired German's who don't realize the site is a joke:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The most famous doctor in Germany, who obtained his title through years of hard work, and plagiarism, was the jurist and former minister Guttenberg. How is it with his colleagues? Do you get many requests from lawyers?

Bücherl: The number is shockingly high. Many are qualified lawyers who now want to add a 'Dr.' to their names. Especially with lawyers, you have to assume they know what they're doing.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you actually try to find out how much money your airy-fairy applicants would be willing to pay for a title?

Bücherl: There's a box where they can enter the price they're willing to pay. It ranges from a couple Euro for a journeyman's certificate to six-figure sums for a title of nobility. We once got an inquiry from a real title-dealer. He wanted to know whether we had access to an actual member of the nobility who would be willing t to adopt someone -- for a six-figure sum.

Ahh, the blessings of winning the metempsychosis lottery! The extra syllables in your name means that people will pay hundreds of thousands of euros to be adopted by you -- an insufferably smug unemployed tenured student of 'German literature' who calls himself a 'man of letters' and lives off rents from inherited real estate! Soon you'll have your very own von Manson family.

But really, you don't have to get adopted by some lazy toff to reap the unearned respect of your social inferiors: you can just adopt a title of nobility as a your artist's name (g) for a small fee, and it's off to the races -- literally.

Should German Professors Roll 10 Deep?

"Jochen, you're my assistant, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the Lehrstuhl again. Ever."
A scholar from Switzerland, Caspar Hirschi (g) has an opinion piece (g) in yesterday's FAZ about the many problems with German universities. His principal argument is that Germany is overproducing young academics. The argument goes as follows. The career and title of professor is still enshrouded in prestige in Germany, and educated people still cherish an "admiration for intellectual acrobatics in general and research in particular." This ensures that there will never be a shortage of young people who want to enter academia, which in turn reduces pressure on universities to change the "sclerotic structures" that persist in German academia.

The most damaging of these structures is the institution of the Lehrstuhl, or "teaching chair." Most such teaching chairs are inhabited by established professors with bulletproof tenure. These professors, in turn, hire any number of research assistants at varying levels of intensity -- from full-time Assistenten who are likely to become professors themselves to a dizzying variety of full- and part-time research assistants. The key thing is that all of these people owe their jobs to the professor, and all are beholden to him or her. They are expected to show loyalty, and their success, or lack thereof, reflects back on their powerful patron. It resembles nothing so much as a "pre-modern court arrangement", in Hirschi's words, except that the professor's best students will soon enter into direct competition with him or her. Established professors thus have an incentive to keep their charges in uncertainty as long as possible concerning whether their careers themselves will end up in a professorship. To actually become a professor in German is a process that takes almost two decades you must write not only a doctoral dissertation but also a Habilitation -- two ambitious book-length academic works. Few German scholars actually become professors before their 40s.

Like medieval potentates, German professors also tend to compete on the size of their courts. Humanities profs are at a slight advantage, since they don't have to spend money on experiments or equipment. They are constantly on the lookout for more funds, which they plunge into amorphous group research projects with titles such as "Religion und Politics in Modern and Pre-Modern Cultures" (Münster) or "Asia and Europe: Changing Asymmetries in Cultural Flows" (Heidelberg). These "clusters" attract "swarms" of young would-be academics who scramble for 1/2 or 1/4 temporary positions that may or may not ever turn into secure jobs. During this time, they noodle away at pretty unspectacular articles, or try to piece together a doctoral dissertation. When the funding runs out, most of these graduate students are eventually driven away from the academic teat, only to find that they have whiled away five or ten years of their lives in a "respectable" university position that has left them with no job skills. Then it's back to live with the parents, or an entry into the exciting world of cab driving.

Hirschi's solution is to break up the system of clusters and all-powerful teaching chairs. Instead of one professor holding court over a bootlicking entourage of 10 assistants, take the same amount of resources and create three professorships which are less well-endowed but which have job security. These will be given to people who have written good dissertations, but who haven't been forced to spend their 30s writing a massive Habilitation. Hirschi calls this the path of "American and British" universities, and praises its efficiency.

It seems to me that Hirschi is somewhat too sanguine about the U.S. and British mode, although he is not unaware that American and British universities are facing their own problems. Nevertheless, he's got a point about the feudal relationships in many German universities, in which up-and-coming academics are forced to revolve like planets around the massive sun of the established professor who gave them their jobs and who controls whether their contract will be renewed after the next six months. This is an arrangement that practically invites patronage and stifles dissent. Further, having a larger number of actual full-time professors will result in a wider variety of viewpoints being represented. The law school I teach at has only 15 professors -- a law school of similar size in the U.S. (such as, say, Tulane), has three times that number. Of course, tripling the number of law professors would probably entail an increased cost, but not as much as you might think, since American law professors don't have Lehrstühle -- they share a secretary and have 1 or 2 teaching assistants, that's all.

In any case, I'm not holding my breath until Hirschi's suggestions are taken up. German professors, no matter what their secular political orientation, are some of the most conservative people on the planet. They have entourages for the same reason that rap stars have entourages -- it rocks to be surrounded by people who have a strong incentive to be nice to you all the time, and who can be sent on various errands you don't want to be bothered with yourself. If you want to take the "teaching chair" away from a German professor, as the saying goes, you'll have to pry it from his cold, dead hands.

Guttenberg Finally Stops the Drama

As I predicted a couple weeks ago with the help of an old American political saw, Karl-Theodor's days were numbered.

I never understood his attempt to cling to his job. To quote Sibylle Bedford, this sort of problem would previously have meant one of two things for a nobleman: a bullet, or the colonies. If Guttenberg's personality had as much nobility as his name, he would have fallen on his sword weeks ago, sparing his political party, his university, and his colleagues weeks of exposure and humiliation. Then he returns to local politics, builds back his reputation, and returns a few years later to the national stage, humbled and even more appealing (at least to the many Germans who seem to like him). Bonus points for a long stay in a monastery! Instead, he furnished us with weeks of exquisite political theater.

A few quick thoughts on the scandal:

  1. Germany's old-fogey network comes off rather badly. Guttenberg's doctoral supervisor, Peter Häberle, originally labeled the accusations against Guttenberg "absurd" (g), even though the website dedicated to the disseratation (g) had already documented dozens of instances of plagiarism. But who can possibly take a website seriously?! I mean, da kann jeder kommen (anyone can have access to it), which automatically means that serious people need not bother with it. After all, how many of the anonymous posters to the Wiki (whatever that suspiciously American-sounding word might mean) come from one of Germany's proudest noble families? Unfortunately for Häberle, the man with the prefix before his last name turned out to be the dishonest one, and the anonymous mass of scholars who compiled all of Guttenberg's plagiarisms turned out to be the ones upholding old-fashioned values. Häberle's initial reaction (which, to his credit, he later modified (g)) embodies two of the most mockable aspects of conservative German society: (1) the instinctive distrust of technology and innovation; and (2) the shameless cliquishness that treats every insider as automatically above suspicion, and every outsider as something you scraped off your shoe.
  2. Guttenberg's resignation does at least prove that academic standards still mean something in Germany. But did you happen to notice how Guttenberg's popularity actually seemed to increase when the cheating was revealed? I saw dozens of man-in-the-street interviews in which Germans gleefully admitted to having cheated their way through school, and if everybody's doing it, how can anyone judge Guttenberg? You don't have to be a prig to find this disturbing. Cheating and absenteeism are rampant in German universities. Whenever I've caught students cheating and punished them, they react with astonishment and anger, as if I'm denying them a time-honored privilege. This is one of the reasons German universities are so depressingly mediocre (g).
  3. Germany over-produces doctoral titles. There's no reason German universities should be wasting resources helping good students produce 350 pages of mediocre recapitulation just so they can gain a career advantage. Doctoral titles should be reserved for people who present a research and publication plan that really brings something new to the field, and there should be a team of at least 2 supervisors, preferably three, to heighten the chances of fraud-detection and ease the burden of supervision.
  4. I have no doubt that there are dozens of other politicians and professors who are quaking in their boots right now, hoping their own dissertations don't get "Guttenscrutinized". May the Web have mercy on their souls.
  5. I doubt many German universities are going to want to go through this in the future. If you haven't invested in plagiarism-detection-software companies, now might be the time to do so. 

If You Ain't a Doctor, You Ain't S**t

Over at Obscene Desserts, my friend John Wood says what needs to be said about Guttenberg:

I just listened on the radio to Guttenberg's response, which was pretty pathetic, not least since he didn't really address any of the specific issues while also trying to play on public sympathies by highlighting that he had written the dissertation while also carrying out another job and being a family man.

Poor baby: it's not like many, many other people don't manage to do the same without resorting (allegedly) to plagiarism. (He has said, however, that he will 'temporarily' refrain from using his academic title.)

Plagiarism on this scale doesn't happen by accident, and is a very big deal among us academic types. It can and should ruin academic careers, and, in a properly-run universe, will severely damage Guttenberg's political career.

Guttenberg is just the latest in a depressingly long line of Germans who have done whatever it took to get (or claim) a doctoral title. German society, as everyone knows, places an absurd emphasis on formal titles. This is not so uncommon in Europe, a place in which people have been jockeying for position at court, in bureaucracies, or in the military for millennia. However, Germany takes it even farther. If you manage to acquire a doctoral title in any discipline, you are legally entitled to change your name to incorporate the "Dr." prefix, and you may also force people to address you that way. You'll get a job more easily, and you'll earn more money.

The desire to get a doctoral title has little or nothing to do with academia: the vast majority of doctoral titles are used to gain leverage in the ordinary working world, not to pursue academic careers. Needless to say, the lickspittle lust for doctoral titles is nowhere stronger than in the legal profession (g), that eternal redoubt of mindless status-worship. If you've got relatively good grades and strong career ambitions, therefore, you'll feel pressure to go on and get a doctoral title. The system in Germany is much more flexible than it is in the U.S. In the States, you'll generally have a committee of at least three professors evaluating your proposal, and they will provide intensive guidance while you write your Ph.D. Generally, you will be expected to remain on-site at the university and to work on your dissertation close to full-time for several years. Your interaction with your main supervisor will be intense and ongoing.

In Germany, by contrast, you have only one "Doktorvater", and that Doktorvater will have almost untrammeled discretion about how much supervision to give his or her charges. Some of them are very hands-on, some pay no attention at all, and some have been willing to sell titles for the right price or the right sex act (g). Only at the end of the process is another professor involved, he or she will be the "second reader" of the finished draft dissertation. The second reader can disagree with the Doktorvater about what grade the work should receive, but rarely does so.

There are cases of abuse, but the most common product of this highly lax system is mediocrity. A student spends a few years noodling around with a thesis idea at university, but then the grad-student sinecure runs out and the student has to take up regular work. Tempted by the delusion of "I'll finish it on evenings and weekends", the student continues worrying away, adding a page here or a paragraph there. Here, it's important to note that (1) very few German students have ever had experience with a full-time job before they graduate from college; and (2) tuition fees are minimal or non-existent in Germany.

The all-but-dissertation person (ABD) soon realizes that actually working all day doing something completely different from their doctoral dissertation makes sustained, meaningful work on it all-nigh impossible. However, ABD has already invested thousands of hours of time in it -- how can they just let all that drift away into nothingness? Plus, since it doesn't cost anything to remain enrolled in the University in some fashion, there are no giant tuition bills lighting a fire under the ABD to get the damn thing done. Eventually, if they really keep at it, they will turn in something to their professor, and the professor will generally let the process come to an end, even if the dissertation is crap. The professor probably likes the ABD student, and also feels it would be a waste of so much human effort to let the matter drop without giving ABD the title she so desperately craves.

This is surely what happened to Guttenberg. In fact, he cited his competing time-commitments in his response to the plagiarism allegations. So, to a certain extent, his situation is the product of a system in which doctoral titles have, all too often, degenerated into mere career-enhancing status tokens. What I'd like to see is the Guttenberg case trigger some long-overdue reforms in German higher education. The "career-doctor" phenomenon is a waste of resources and an invitation to mediocrity.

When Will Guttenberg Go?

Apropos the plagiarizing defense minister zu Guttenberg, this seems like a good time to relay a rule of thumb from American politics which, I believe, was coined by Michael Kinsley (if I'm wrong, let me know): When a politician denies that he has any intention of resigning for the fourth consecutive time during the same scandal, his resignation is imminent.

I think Guttenberg's at two now...