Academic Corruption Germany Rocked By Allegations of Ph.D. Bribes

Did hundreds of German university professors take bribes to work with specific Ph.D. candidates?
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Did hundreds of German university professors take bribes to work with specific Ph.D. candidates?

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Part 2: Reactions and Remedies


For law-enforcement officials, finding clear proof of wrongdoing has been a bit of a problem because the Ph.D. consultants operate in a gray zone of sorts. For one thing, offering databank research for sale isn't necessarily illegal, nor is helping people make contact with potential Ph.D. advisers. The thing that really put the institute on the public prosecutor's radar was the fact that the institute was moving money around in the process of offering these services. The German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV) has described this as "a practically impenetrable legal thicket." DHV spokesman Matthias Jarosch believes that the matter puts "the reputation of an entire profession into question."

That is pretty much how Annette Schavan, Germany's minister of education, sees it, too. On Sunday, Schavan said that if the accusations turn out to be true, the credibility of Germany's academic community could sustain major damage. "The public should be able to expect from universities that they handle the process of awarding Ph.D.s with the utmost diligence," Schavan said, adding that she backs the DHV's calls for stricter regulations on granting Ph.D.s. DHV managing director Michael Hartmer recently said on the public television show "MDR Sputnik" that it would be sensible to have people sign an affidavit claiming that they did not receive any unauthorized assistance while producing their dissertations because "it would have a deterrent effect."

The clients of the Ph.D. consultants are usually working academics who wanted to have a doctorate -- and were willing to pay for it. It's still unclear what consequences they might face as a result of the investigation, but Feld believes that there will be no legal ones. "Some media sources leave the impression that the institute's clients didn't even write dissertations," Feld told reporters. "But that's not right. The real issue is whether the professors were bribed to choose certain candidates." Feld adds that his office's investigations have shown that the majority of the institute's clients weren't aware of the element of bribery involved.

Ignorance Is No Dissertation Defense

Still, DHV managing director Michael Hartmer sees things differently. In his view, the clients should not be able to claim ignorance as an excuse. He notes that a simple Google search would have sufficed to clue the clients in on the shady nature of the Ph.D. consultancy business. And he believes that the clients might have their degrees annulled. "These people know that they obtained their titles through academic efforts that were not just their own and that they did so with the help of Ph.D. consultants," Hartmer told the German news agency DDP. "So it is totally clear: If they have already been awarded a Ph.D., they will be stripped of their title."

Still, the fact is that not every client succeeded in obtaining a Ph.D. In the case of the law professor at the University of Hanover, for example, only a handful of the 60 candidates he oversaw ultimately received their doctoral degree. When news of the scandal broke in March 2008, the University of Hanover promptly launched an investigation and invalidated nine of the doctoral degrees it had awarded, including ones for a judge and several civil servants and lawyers. The dean overseeing the law school there says, "We assume that all of the candidates -- and particularly all of the ones dealing with law -- knew what they were getting into." He adds that more investigations related to revoking degrees might be in the pipeline.

Widespread and Persistent

For the time being, Cologne's public prosecutor's office has chosen to refrain from announcing the particular places and people under investigation. According to a report by the German news magazine Focus, however, the investigation involves instructors at universities across Germany -- in Frankfurt, Tübingen, Leipzig, Rostock, Jena, Bayreuth, Ingolstadt, Hamburg, Hanover, Bielefeld, Hagen, Cologne and Berlin. Most of the universities have yet to make a public comment on the affair. However, officials at the University of Bayreuth have admitted to having promptly asked the prosecutor's office to provide information about which professors and Ph.D. students might be involved.

In the meantime, there are still plenty of shady companies to be found on the Internet that are eager to provide such services. Here a few choice examples:

  • "'Whether it's for term papers, B.A. or M.A. theses, or Ph.D. dissertations, our specialists are ready to help you with their expertise and specialized knowledge in all fields." (a company from Halle)
  • "Our team of over 400 academically trained ghostwriters work in all specialized fields at a high academic level, at a good price and in an interdisciplinary way. They can meet your deadline and remain confidential. We have the capacity to process even large assignments in line with your requirements." (a company from Löhne)
  • "When we say academic consultancy, we mean Ph.D. consultancy. We have much experience in this field and would like to offer this service to students wishing to receive a Ph.D. in Eastern Europe and the customary doctoral programs there." (a company with a contact address in Slovakia)
  • "Are you hoping to complete a thesis or dissertation that requires a lot of work? We can provide you a concrete program for doing so in a manageable amount of time. Short on time? We can solve some clear problems and overcome some bureaucratic hurdles. Looking for the perfect topic for your doctoral dissertation? We can provide you with advice and help you find a Ph.D. adviser." (a company from Leipzig)

* German privacy law forbids media sources from fully identifying individuals until they have been convicted of a crime.

-- with wire reports

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