The summer of 2012 was a very hot one in Romania, and I am not talking only about temperatures frequently passing 40 degrees Celsius (triple digits Fahrenheit). There was a change precipitous of government, the local election were overwhelmingly won by the new political coalition, and one could hear louder and persistent calls to impeach Traian Basescu, the President.
The population was (and is) fed-up with the economic hardship made substantially worse by the egregious mismanagement and rampant corruption of the previous governance. Traian Basescu was and is regarded as embodying that corruption.
Outside Romania, very high officials in Hungary and Germany were accused of plagiarism and had to resign. On May 15, 2012, Ioan Mangu, the Romanian Minister of Education had to resign due to accusations of plagiarism. He was replaced by Liviu Pop as temporary Minister of Education. Remember his name because this character will appear again in our story.
In the spring and summer of 2012 Victor Ponta represented the country's hope for better days. Born in 1972, he is the first Romanian leader without an institutional memory of Communism. The only passing shadow on the overwhelming popularity Ponta was enjoying in June of 2012 was Adrian Nastase's attempted suicide a few hours before he was to start his jail sentence. Mr. Nastase is a former Prime Minister, fading eminence grise of the Romania's left, Ponta's political mentor and doctoral adviser.
This is when the allegations of Ponta's plagiarism exploded on the scene. The immediate reactions were predictable and ran the whole gamut: this is a political witch hunt, he should resign, we have more pressing issues to worry about. None of these points of view can be easily dismissed because they reflect undeniable experiences.
I will try to stay away as much as possible from the political ramifications of this accusation of plagiarism and discuss the academic aspects of it.
The plagiarism is the ultimate sin in Academia, and has to be dealt with promptly and seriously. This is what CNATDCU believed and decided to act. (The CNATDCU acronym refers to a governmental council charged with the accreditation of academic degrees and diplomas of all kinds.) This is when all hell broke loose.
On June 29 2012 CNATDCU issued an official statement confirming the copy-paste nature of Mr. Ponta's dissertation. Well, it's not that simple. A day before, on June 28, Minister Liviu Pop issued an order disbanding this Council and changing its attributions. The order was officially published two hours after the Council made its public statement concerning the plagiarism. It turned out that things were much uglier under the surface.
On the evening of June 28 2012 Liviu Pop, interrupted the CNATDCU debates, and gave the participants a cease-and-desist order. Mr. Viorel Barbu, one of the participants at those debates, Vice-President of the Romanian Academy, member of the European Academy of Sciences and arguably one of the most influential Romanian mathematicians, officially protested this arbitrary decision and had a heated exchange with Liviu Pop widely reported in the press. (For disclosure, Viorel Barbu is one of my former college professors and is one of the people who had a tremendous positive transformative influence on my becoming a mathematician.)
A few days later Mr. Viorel Barbu issued an official statement, partially reproduced below.
"This Council legally expressed an opinion, and it was abusively disbanded. This is an egregious abuse of Power given that I and my colleagues have investigated the allegations of plagiarism of Prime Minister Ponta and we have offered evidence that it was a clear case of "copy-paste". It is inadmissible that the members of this committee be threatened with criminal prosecution by a minister of the Ponta cabinet. "
Soon after that, Mr. Barbu resigned its position as head of the local section of the Academy. The media attacks against Mr. Barbu became so poisonous that University "Al. I. Cuza", where Mr. Barbu is Professor Emeritus, sought to intervene. On July 5, 2012, the university Senate issued an official declaration supporting Mr. Barbu.
Mr. Barbu is a person who shuns media spotlight, and his intervention was motivated purely by his desire to defend the principle of academic integrity. That did not do him any good.
More disappointingly, some influential members of Romanian Intelligentsia who normally seek the media spotlight and always find a public platform to air their opinions were quiet or dismissive of the whole plagiarism incident. I will mention here two names, well known in Romanian circles.
One is Mrs. Zoe Petre, a politically connected, distinguished professor of history, member of the Romanian Academy. When asked her opinion about plagiarism she commented that "it is difficult to believe that the five members of the doctoral committee were that naive to accept a plagiarized dissertation". (One of the sources plagiarized by Mr. Ponta is a book written by one of the members of his doctoral committee.)
The other person I would like to mention is Mr. Andrei Marga, currently the head of the Romanian Culture Institute. When asked his opinion, he deflected the question by pointing to other unnamed cases of plagiarism. He also hinted that the Romanian legislature is not very clear on the definition of plagiarism. Two years earlier, in a newspaper interview, Mr. Marga was less shy on what he believes constitutes plagiarism and the dangers this phenomenon poses. It should be required reading for anybody confused about this issue.
If you are a young Romanian at the beginning of her academic career, what would you make of these events? Influential public figures such as Zoe Petre and Andrei Marga turn a blind eye, while a Vice-President of the Academy who took a stand for academic integrity was tarred and feathered in the media. What's a poor schmuck to expect?
I was personally disappointed and genuinely worried by the opinions I heard in private exchanges with some members of my hometown intelligentsia. The amount of profanity and baseless accusations thrown at Mr. Barbu were well beyond I would call acceptable in an intelligent debate. The sense I had was that plagiarism was so prevalent in the system, they became imune to its occurrence and they were telling me in so many words, "you should get used to it buddy".
To its credit, the University of Bucharest, the institution that awarded Mr. Ponta the title of doctor, met soon after these tumultuous events and investigated the accusations of plagiarism and concluded that the Prime Minister dissertation was indeed plagiarized. Alas, in Romania things are not as simple as say in US. Legally the title of doctor is conferred not by the university where you attended the doctoral program, but by the Ministry of Education. In September 2012, the University of Bucharest sent a report to the Ministry of Education with the recommendation that Mr. Ponta should be deprived of the title of Doctor. Ecaterina Andronescu, Minister of Education at that time, wanted to stay as far away from this report as possible. (I turned out she was also involved in a plagiarism scandal of her own. She's now blacklisted by several influential scientific publications.)
The reply from the Ministry came only in March of 2013, only after it was threatened with a lawsuit by the newspaper Gandul. Mr. Ponta gets to keep his title because, according to the ministry experts, there was no plagiarism.
Also, the Romanian Parliament, in its infinite wisdom, modified the existing law which allowed universities to rescind degrees in proven unethical violations. Under the new law, a university has to initiate a lawsuit and go through the courts.
Some would say that this battle was lost. That may well be the case. However, I do believe that some good came out of Ponta plagiarism scandal. The subject of plagiarism in Romanian academia finally got a lot of attention. The stigma attached to this type of behavior is hitting closer and closer to home. I personally hope that intellectuals that are not outraged by this will understand that the only power an intellectual has in society is the power of persuasion. This power is effective when it is backed by credibility, and the tolerance of plagiarism is a credibility buster.
Ultimately there is no immediate or easy solution to this problem. One has to be constantly on guard, draw public attention to cases of plagiarism, and help grow the public opprobium towards this activity. Plagiarism should be perceived as so shameful and so degrading that the cost of committing or condoning it would be too high to make it an acceptable choice.
The new web initiative hosted by Integru.org seems to me an important first step in the right direction. If you are one of the three readers of my blog who has academic expertise, please volunteer your services at Integru.org It is important to put the fear of God into intellectual thieves.
Intellectuals living and working in Romania take a lot of personal risks defending academic integrity. Intellectuals outside Romania, and especially the intellectuals in the Romanian diaspora can do a lot to help them. This is my first attempt to contribute to this process. It won't be the last.
- Războiul gazelor de şist: între profiturile de mil...
- How much is Notre Dame coughing up for Charlie We...
- Nooney Tunes: spin one for the Gipper
- Remarkable and surprising progress in the prime g...
- How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled by Paul Kr...
- Surprise Winner in Thomas Friedman Porn-Title Cont...
- Plagiarism in Romanian academia
- The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform – The New In...
- Cazul plagiatului de la Cuza: Ai impresia că toți ...
- Plagiarism: editia Iasi
- ▼ May (10)
- ► 2012 (136)
- ► 2011 (104)