Title Fight US Academics Harassed over 'False' Credentials

German authorities have harassed American scholars for using the “Dr.” title. It seems Nazi-era laws reserved this distinction for holders of European degrees. But German officials as well as academic directors have moved to quash the scandal.

By Christian Schwägerl

Ian Baldwin must have felt flattered by the parliamentary debate last Thursday. The 49-year-old American is one of the few international academic elites to find himself recruited in a recent German drive to attract specialists from around the world. Speaking to parliament, German Research Minister Annette Schavan said Germany had to become even more attractive for top foreign researchers -- for people, in other words, like Baldwin.

He directs the renowned Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena. He also has first-hand experience of just what it means to be an American academic in Germany. On Jan. 9 he received a summons from the city’s criminal investigation department, saying he was a suspect in “an investigation into the abuse of a title.” He was wanted for questioning. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Baldwin says. “And what followed was simply Kafkaesque.”

On Feb. 18, the Ministry of Education of the state of Thuringia detailed the charges against him. He had apparently adapted too well to local practices. “Within the context of your work, you have used the abbreviation ‘Dr.’ to reflect your American ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ (‘Ph.D.’) degree,” wrote the ministry. But the German designation "Dr." was available only to holders of doctorates from EU nations, the ministry said -- not to Americans. Procedures were set in motion to fine Baldwin for violating Thuringian state law.

The American has, admittedly, called himself “Prof. Dr. Ian Baldwin” on his business cards and on the institute's Web site. Baldwin had taken to using this title because it was exactly how his German colleagues addressed him. A letter he received back in 1996 from the Max Planck Institute, for instance, welcoming him as a new staff member, was addressed to “Professor Dr. Ian T. Baldwin.” Invitations to hold lectures at universities were also invariably addressed to “Prof. Dr.” Baldwin.

But it's technically verboten in Thuringia and other German states for academics from elite universities like Stanford, Harvard and Cornell to use the “Dr.” title in Germany. The laws on the books are based on legislation dating to 1939, when the Nazi government eyed all foreign degrees with suspicion and required that non-German doctors be authorized by the Reich Ministry of Science, Education and Culture.

Baldwin was told that calling himself, instead, a “Ph.D., Cornell University, Ithaca, (NY)" would be acceptable. The maximum sentence for willful misuse of an academic title included a prison sentence of up to one year.

Willing Government Officials

The directors of the elite Max Planck Institute were outraged by the state government's bureaucratic zeal, especially since Baldwin's is not an isolated case. Disciplinary action has been set in motion against two other directors at the institute in Jena, and at least four directors at other locations. Fearing more investigations, the institute retained a law firm.

There are serious concerns that these legal issues could tarnish the image of the Max Planck Institute, which has been especially successful in headhunting foreign directors. A quarter of its top researchers and half of its recently appointed directors come from abroad. Foreign professors, by contrast, make up 5 percent of the academic staff at an average German university. Americans are viewed as particularly sought-after and underrepresented in German academia -- but is there any chance of wooing them when they can be badgered over such technicalities?

Police and authorities in Thuringia did not act entirely on their own. According to the Max Planck Institute, a frustrated individual with a foreign doctorate -- who is not allowed to call himself “Dr.” in Germany -- is behind the whole matter. He has bombarded Max Planck directors with complaints of legal infringements -- and he’s found willing government officials to do the legwork.

On Feb. 28, Baldwin wrote back to the state Ministry of Education with his apologies. He told them he had always dispensed with the “Dr.” title in his private life in Jena. “I haven’t even used the title on the nameplate for my doorbell,” he wrote, not without a measure of irony.

Baldwin is taking the affair in stride; in fact he claims to feel right at home in Jena. He's even turned down an offer from Harvard.

And since last Thursday, he may have another reason to stay. Alarmed by the investigations, state education ministers met in Berlin and decided to put an end to the public-relations nightmare. Americans with a Ph.D. are now allowed to call themselves “Dr.” in Germany -- and make themselves at home. It’s the academic equivalent to rolling out the red carpet.


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