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Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany

Better an Academic Cheat
Than a Sexual One


By Johanna Bruckner

Translated By Ron Argentati

7 February 2013

Edited by Lau­rence Bouvard


Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung - Original Article (German)

Ever hear about the Joe Biden plagiarism scandal? How about Ted Kennedy's college test cheating scandal? Both politicians were exposed as academic cheaters but made it to high political office nonetheless. Why Americans treat academic misconduct differently than Germans do.

The best-known plagiarist is currently sitting in the White House. Barack Obama borrowed his famous campaign slogan “Yes, We Can” from a 1970s United Farm Workers union motto. Even the cartoon character “Bob the Builder” used that motto long before Obama ever ran for president. But neither the United Farm Workers union nor the master builder filed suit against him. Even when Hillary Clinton accused Obama of plagiarizing many of his speeches during the 2008 campaign, Obama got off lightly. By the end of the campaign, the accusation had turned into a gentle breeze rather than the gale-force headwind that the Clinton camp had hoped for.

Obama's second in command wasn't so lucky when he ran for the presidency himself, in 1988. The 46-year-old Joe Biden was thought to be competitive due to his relative youth and above-average rhetorical capabilities, but in the end it was his campaign speeches that were his downfall. Journalists noticed that on several occasions, Biden had lifted some of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock's speeches almost verbatim.

However, the final blow didn't come from his plagiarism but from the fact that he lied in the speeches he stole. In 2008, David Greenberg wrote “But the even greater sin was to borrow biographical facts from Kinnock that, although true about Kinnock, didn't apply to Biden. Unlike Kinnock, Biden wasn't the first person in his family history to attend college, as he asserted; nor were his ancestors coal miners, as he claimed when he used Kinnock's words.” Biden's motive here was apparently an attempt to embellish his biography.

During the course of the affair, the Democrat also admitted to having plagiarized material as a first year student at Syracuse University Law School. That incident was equivalent to the Guttenberg affair in Germany last year: His 15-page paper contained five pages that had been lifted piecemeal from legal articles already in print. The theft was discovered and Biden was given an “F” for the course and was also required to rewrite his whole paper.

The justification Biden tried back then is reminiscent of those heard in recent plagiarism cases today: He didn't purposely plagiarize, it's just that he didn't fully recognize the necessity to carefully source his quotations. Christoph Ann, Professor for Corporate and Intellectual Property Law at the Technical University of Munich, considers that to be a promising line of argument in the United States. There, he says, people usually get a college degree by age 25. If a political opponent uncovers a plagiarism scandal years later, the accused always apologizes, saying that it was just a youthful indiscretion.

Since Biden was eventually obliged to withdraw from the presidential race, Slate author David Greenberg wrote, “Biden's misdeeds encompassed numerous self-aggrandizing thefts, misstatements, and exaggerations that seemed to point to a serious character defect.” By the time that Obama had chosen him as his running mate, the apparent plagiarism affair — which was more about morally questionable behavior — had blown over. The journalists and the public seem to be “jaded by two decades of scandal-mongering,” as Greenberg put it.

American politicians are often tripped up by sexual affairs, Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky being the most prominent. Who knows: If Hillary had accused Barack Obama of marital infidelity rather than plagiarism, she might well be sitting in the Oval Office today because moral transgressions are more frowned upon in American society than are academic sins. In Germany that's not the case — at least so far.

Ted Kennedy and the Look-Alike Affair

Professor Ann says that with respect to middle class attitudes, our view of politicians is as challenging as it is uncompromising. The personal details — and especially the intimacies — of their lives remain their own business. It's only recently that we've seen an Americanization in this respect in Germany. That's why Christian von Boetticher of the Christian Democratic Union, one of the leading candidates for the post of party leader in Schleswig-Holstein, withdrew from the race after his affair with an underage girl became public knowledge.

Conversely, in the United States, it's generally improbable that an academic transgression would result in a politician's downfall. Veronika Fuechtner, Associate Professor of German at Dartmouth University, says that Americans have a totally different relationship with education, and especially with higher education. She says that the general population is skeptical of universities and that populism is the ultimate qualification for public office in the United States.

Thus Ted Kennedy, brother of ex-President John F. Kennedy, became one of the most influential Senators (he was nicknamed the “Lion of the Senate”) despite the fact that he had been tossed out of Harvard in his youth.

The youngest Kennedy was already notorious in his freshman year because of his involvement in a copying scandal. What led to his expulsion, however, was an incident that occurred in his sophomore year. Fearing that he wouldn't pass a Spanish test, he paid a fellow student to take the test for him. The look-alike was caught and both he and Kennedy were expelled.

In America, not only the perpetrator is held accountable in cheating scandals. Any accomplices — even if they only had knowledge of the misdeed — have to fear the consequences as well. While academic misdeeds may generally be forgiven by the public in general, the universities have a far stricter academic behavior code than does Germany.

Professor Ann says that American students obligate themselves in writing to report any scamming attempt as soon as they learn of it. The objective is to level the playing field for all, since the bottom line is that a student's grades often determine success later in life. Contrast that with the German credo that a good student lets others copy his work.

After two years in the Army, Ted Kennedy was re-admitted to Harvard. Shortly before his death in 2008, Harvard considered his rehabilitation complete and awarded him an honorary doctorate degree for lifetime achievement.



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