Academic Degrees

February, 2013

Berlin -- In Berlin for a few days I'll be asking citizens what they think of a second member of the Merkel cabinet having an academic degree withdrawn by a German university on account of plagiarism. First it was the defense minister; now it is the education minister, of all people.

Germans take their academic degrees seriously. The correct way to address a professor with a doctorate is "Professor Doktor" so and so. If he or she has two doctorates, then it is "Professor Doktor Doktor" so and so. The withdrawal of doctoral degrees from two ministers might otherwise cause the government to fall were it not for Frau Doktor Merkel's (so far) steady hand on the wheel of the Euro crisis.

Americans are less title conscious, even though a customary American doctorate and its German equivalent represent roughly the same academic accomplishment. Nevertheless, some academics in each country hold the other's degree under suspicion. Improper reference in Germany is frowned upon, to say the least. Properly referred to, they are not interchangable; when adding initials to a name, the former is Ph.D and the latter is Dr. Phil.

I've often wondered about Louise Pound's degree. The great Nebraska English professor and folklorist (and remarkable athlete) is always referred to in Nebraska as Louise Pound, Ph.D. But because her degree was awarded at the University of Heidelberg, I suspect it is really Dr. Phil. (As a woman she was not admitted to the doctoral program of the 19th century University of Nebraska, and therefore went to Germany for her doctoral studies.) I've asked both of her biographers but neither has seen her actual degree. From her own descriptions of the degree process, it seems to me it is a Dr. Phil. I am a Dr. Phil., not a Ph.D., and never confuse the two, lest someone think it is an offense against academe in one country or the other.

As to plagiarism, it is a serious offense and I am glad to see the German ministers' degrees withdrawn if the evidence warrants (unlike the case in Wendy Wasserstein's play "Third", where an English professor accuses plagiarism from a student she takes for a Republican, as surely he is unable to write coherently). My mother was a teacher and later in life took a job in administration at the Lincoln (Nebraska) Public Schools. She was a fine writer and typist, and often was imposed upon to write dissertations for fellow employees who were getting doctorates (Ed.D's) at the University of Nebraska. They would give her long texts by other authors to weave into their works, unattributed. I advised her not to do it; it was cheating. She said they all did it. I don't know if any of these plagiarists are still in responsible positions in education, or even alive, but if so I hope the news of the German education minister's problems reaches them and that they have some sleepless nights over it.