German Higher Education

March, 2013

Berlin -- Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a big article about plagiarism by holders of German doctorates and suggested that German universities no longer represent the gold standard of world higher education.

As to the latter, I'm not sure they have been considered as such for a long time. It was the 19th century when they were the model for American universities.

The article suggested that it may be too easy to get a German doctorate these days; politicians especially like to get the degree for their careers. A doctorate is an asset to a German politician whereas in America such a degree would often be a liability for a political candidate.

But it seems to me the German system actually has not changed much in decades, for better or for worse. Last year I read two biographies of Nebraskan Louise Pound*, who went to Heidelberg for her doctorate at the turn of the 20th century because she was not allowed (as a woman) to take the degree at the University of Nebraska. Her main effort was her thesis, which she started under the instruction of her advisor well before she formally enrolled; her coursework was minimal; her German needed improvement before she was ready for her oral examinations. She completed the degree quickly, all things considered.

My experience was similar about a quarter century ago. At the Free University of Berlin, I started my dissertation research under Professor Ekkehart Krippendorff a semester before enrolling; I attended several seminars but spent most of my time writing the dissertation and passing the rather extensive (five exams over two days) German language tests; I read German novels to help get into the feel of the language before my oral dissertation defense.

Five faculty members read my dissertation and questioned me thoroughly; it took about three hours. The Chronicle article hinted that faculty did not read dissertations carefully and that the oral Disputation was pro forma. I did not get that sense at all.

The Chronicle also suggested that publication of a German dissertation is comparable to self-publishing in the sense of a vanity press. Not so. Dissertations must be published in Germany so that they may be distributed among university libraries. It is not optional.

*By the way, Louise Pound belongs in the Nebraska Hall of Fame. After the success of women athletes at the London Olympics, she should especially be recognized.