Academics under political pressure over plagiarism ruling on PM's thesis

The ethics commission at Bucharest University has ruled that Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta plagiarised much of his doctoral thesis, an allegation he has again denied. Academics involved in this and a similar separate ruling by another body three weeks ago have faced heavy attacks on their integrity – and the body that made the earlier ruling has been closed down.

Professor Mircea Dumitru and Professor Marius Andruh of the University of Bucharest have vigorously rejected criticisms levelled against them.

Andruh was the president of the Romanian National Council for Attesting Titles, Diplomas and University Certificates (CNATDCU), which ruled on 29 June that Ponta plagiarised part of his 2003 PhD thesis on the International Criminal Court.

The council was dismantled by order of the ministry of education on the same day as the ruling.

The response to the ruling appears to fit with a wider pattern of the government and its supporters refusing to accept independent decisions that do not go in their favour.

On 18 July, the European Commission published a report highlighting Romania’s failure to observe European Union legal standards.

It said: “Political challenges to judicial decisions, the undermining of the constitutional court, the overturning of established procedures and the removal of key checks and balances have called into question the government’s commitment to respect the rule of law and independent judical review.”

Ponta’s political enemies have been quick to make political capital out of the plagiarism ruling. Monica Macovei, a member of the European parliament, wrote on her blog: “Ponta plagiarised, I am expecting his resignation, as he promised.”

Macovei, a former justice minister, is a member of the Romanian Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL) of President Traian Basescu, who is in an open conflict with his prime minister.

In the meantime, Dumitru and Andruh have had to fend off attacks on their reputations. A press release published on 30 June by Ponta’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) claimed Andruh was a beneficiary of a €1.6 million (US$1.9 million) grant awarded by the Ministry of Education during the office of Daniel Funeriu, a former minister and a supporter of the president.

Then an article in the daily newspaper The National Journal alleged this amounted to a political bribe.

Andruh told University World News: “It is not worth responding to such a stupidity.” He cited the strict rules that regulate research grants from the National Research Council.

The University of Bucharest also dismissed the accusations, stressing in a communiqué that the beneficiary of the research grant was not Andruh, but the university itself.

“This means that the €1.6 million will be transferred to the accounts of the University of Bucharest and used strictly for research purposes,” it said.

Andruh is the coordinator of the research team implementing the project, the university explained.

The National Journal is owned by the Intact Media Group, whose president Camelia Voiculescu is the daughter of senator Dan Voiculescu, founding member of the Conservative Party (PC). The PC is one of three parties in the ruling Social-Liberal Union coalition, with Ponta’s PSD and the National Liberal Party.

Andruh said he was attacked by “a certain part of the press”, but defended by “another part of it” as well as by the University of Bucharest and by the Romanian Academy.

Meanwhile Dumitru, rector of Bucharest University, found himself under attack after the decision of his university's ethics commission to investigate the allegation of plagiarism.

He has had to defend himself against ethical criticism after the news website published an article alleging that a Romanian translation of a book by Ludwig Wittgenstein from German had been ascribed to him, when he was allegedly not proficient in that language.

Dumitru told University World News that this was a distortion of the facts.

“I translated from the English edition of Wittgenstein’s book. Professor Mircea Flonta (who translated the book from German) and I confronted then the two translations and finalised the [Romanian] manuscript.”

He stressed that he had not felt threatened following the Bucharest University ethics commission’s decision to check the prime minister’s thesis.

A government spokesman said: “We are not aware of any kind of pressures from any representatives of state institutions on the professors involved in the analysis of Prime Minister Ponta’s PhD thesis."

Ponta has dismissed accusations of having copied about 85 pages of his 307-page thesis, claiming the allegations are politically motivated.

The issue is politically sensitive: two education ministers from Ponta’s government have already resigned this year following allegations of academic plagiarism.

A senior Romanian academic in the United States has warned that the rows could damage the reputation of Romania’s higher education sector.

Professor Radu Bogdan, of Tulane University in New Orleans, said: “You have to follow the impact of all this on university education in Romania.”

He told University World News: “If nothing is done to clarify the situation [regarding the plagiarism accusations], there will be a massive impact…”

Bogdan said that the political atmosphere could wreak long-term damage, since high quality academics might henceforth refuse senior positions in universities and ethics commissions.