Even though no major media have been reporting it, by now you already know that the web site Peščanik (that has a link, but it may not lead you to the page because of persistent denial-of-service attacks — you can still get the English translation at Balkanist, though) published on Sunday an article by three academics from Serbia working abroad. The article examined the doctoral thesis submitted and approved last year at a fairly notorious private university by a fellow who was at the time the speaker of the Serbian parliament and is now Interior minister, Nebojša Stefanović. You probably already know basically what the article says. It gives several instances of plagiarism and is generally thin. To give an example, it has just 41 footnotes of which 29 are to the same two sources (to give an example for comparison, my latest book — which you can buy! buy! buy! — has 671 footnotes, though you might say that I am a bit of a footnote freak because, like the sitting prime minister of Serbia, I am a fan of Max Weber). That is to say, one more story of a person claiming to be something he is not, an “educational” institution claiming to do something it does not do, a government pretending to know something about itself that it does not know, and a media failing to report on the things it does know.
If you know all that then you know the story as it developed over the evening and the following day. Bots brought the site with the article down, a bunch of other sites mirrored the article, and by Monday you had the good doctor minister coming out to tell media no, trust me, I’m a doctor and the head of the “university” saying no, trust us, we’re a university. Though the rector was a little more fun because he promised a “Commission for the Defence of Megatrend.” Well, as Roxanne Shante said in a bygone age, bring it on.
Well, so what? A person does not need a doctorate to be a politician, and most politicians get by without a doctorate just fine. And it’s not like diploma mills are anything new or unknown. They’re just a symptom of a society that cannot distinguish a human quality from a credential, and people like me in the profession of credentialling sort of grudgingly tolerate these parasites much in the same way that we are not moved to fits of fury by the existence of “cheese food products” or “talent” shows on television. Plagiarism is a bit of a different matter, at is a violation of the basic principle that people in our field use to defend our ever more precarious existence, which is the credibility of our contention that we know some things because we have done some work. But even that we increasingly tend to dismiss as failures of (everyone else in) the educational system and farm out the interest in it by doing what universities do best, shovelling public money to private corporations.
In any case Mr (scusing me, Dr) Stefanović is hardly the first politician to go around with a fake or unearned degree, neither in the region nor elsewhere in the world. One of those people even had the word “zu” in the middle of his name, so it sparked a little bit of at least comical interest. But not a unique or even especially fascinating case. So why the mega interest in a micro player?
First of all, the media silence on the story comes on the heels of the flood disaster that hit Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia, and one of the big elements of the story in Serbia was that voices critical of the official mismanagement of the emergency were pretty well silenced. Milica Popović has a nice summary of the concerns about censorship emerging out of the crisis, and these have not subsided. Plus people have not really forgotten about PM Vučić’s interesting engagement with the media when he was Information minister under Milošević.
Second, the incident is reflective of a lack of accountability generally. It speaks to the failure to maintain standards in education, to profiteering, to the arrogance of politicians, and to a general lack of public or regulatory control over things that matter.
Third, there is a resonance between powerful people who purchase “degrees” and the persistently high unemployment and underemployment of people who have actually earned them. It is to be expected that people who actually work in education and research would be appalled by the trade in fake credentials, but it also touches on the lives of people who have real ones that they are unable to use in the places where they live.
And finally, the various efforts to silence the story, from attacks on websites to the blockage of media coverage, seem to pull together all of these strands. The plagiarising minister has a bit part in this perfect storm of disappointment, anger, frustration and growing awareness. That it has built up around him has a bit to do with timing and luck. It is a good thing that it has built up at all.