Putin’s plagiarism, fake Ukrainian degrees and other tales of world leaders accused of academic fraud

A recent college admissions scandal in the United States, which revealed that wealthy parents had bribed officials at elite universities, exposed the price some people are willing to pay to say, “I went to an Ivy League school.”

In a country where the myth of academic meritocracy persists despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, many people were shocked to learn that the education system was rife with illegal and unethical conduct.

But academic fraud is nothing new – and it wasn’t invented in the United States. In certain countries, my research on academic corruption attests, some public officials have built their entire political careers on the false pretense of scholastic achievement.

Lying leaders

You’d think that former German Minister of Defense Baron Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Buhl-Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg already had a long enough name.

But in 2006, he decided to add the title of “Dr.” to it, completing his doctorate of law at Germany’s University of Beyrouth.

Or so he said.

It turns out that Guttenburg, then widely seen as the successor to Chancelor Angela Merkel, had plagiarized large sections of his Ph.D. dissertation comparing U.S. and European legal systems.

The internet sleuths who outed his fraud in 2011 gave Guttenberg yet another name – the sobriquet “Googleberg.” He was forced to resign, fled possible criminal prosecution in Germany and, in the United States, landed an honorary position at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

German Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg arrives at a press briefing to announce his resignation in Berlin, March 1, 2011. Reuters/Thomas Peter
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta initially tried a different approach when he was accused of academic plagiarism soon after taking office in 2012: He denied everything.

“The only reproach I have is that I did not list authors at the bottom of each page, but put them in the bibliography at the end,” he said.

Ponta quit his post in 2015 after going on trial for tax evasion and facing a series of other scandals.

But he still defended his academic honor.

“After…stepping down from the political scene, I wish to pursue a new doctorate while adhering to and respecting all of the standards and requirements,” he said bravely, after admitting to having plagiarized more than half of his 2004 dissertation on the International Criminal Court.

Ponta later wrote to the rector of Bucharest University to renounce his degree.

Denial: The strongman’s tactic

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been far less receptive to repeated allegations that he was not the intellectual braintrust behind his 1997 dissertation, “Mineral and Raw Materials Resources and the Development Strategy for the Russian Economy.”

Accusations against Putin first surfaced in 2006, when an investigation by the Brookings Institution alleged he copied about 16 pages of his 200-page Ph.D. dissertation from other sources.

Twelve years later, the Russian strongman found himself defending against accusations that his dissertation had been ghostwritten. According to former Russian legislator Olga Litvinenko, Putin’s dissertation was written by her father, Vladimir Litvinenko, Putin’s academic advisor and the rector of Saint Petersburg Mining University.

Putin neither confirms nor denies allegations that he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. WAW/FMS via Reuters
Also helpful in “writing” Putin’s dissertation, says Litvinenko: a photocopy machine.

Employing the only cut-and-paste technology available in the late 1990s, she says her father helped Putin cheat by using scissors to snip paragraphs from various sources, glued them together and copied them to create new pages in his dissertation.