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?