Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, announced that he is voluntarily surrendering his 1999 DEA from the University of Lorraine in France.
The move follows allegations in October that his 1998 thesis, written to obtain the degree, was heavily plagiarized. According to reports, of the 56 pages only two were free of plagiarized content, the introduction and conclusion, and one 20-page section was lifted wholly from the European Parliament website.
The university offered Bettel an opportunity to revise and resubmit the thesis, but he declined to do so. Instead, he has opted to ask the school to rescind the degree.
When the story first broke, Bettel acknowledged the plagiarism but said that he felt he had done nothing wrong. He said, “I did it with the right knowledge and a good conscience.” He promised to accept whatever decision the university reached in the matter but claimed that academic integrity standards were different in 1999.
Now, he is asking the school to rescind the degree, “to remove any doubts about the merits of the DEA and to avoid a loss of confidence in the academic work.”
Bettel joints a long list of high-ranking European politicians that have been caught up in plagiarism scandals. This includes multiple politicians in Germany, Romania, an Austrian Minster and several who attended a university in Spain.
To that end, what makes Bettel’s case unique is not so much what happened, but how he chose to conclude it. By deciding to surrender his degree, he may have found a way to short circuit the scandal, which was already hurting him politically.
A Familiar Story with a Twist
In many ways, Bettel’s case is very much a familiar one. He earned his DEA (which is a post-masters degree that’s often seen as a precursor to a Ph.D.) in 1999, before plagiarism detection software was widely available.
He went on to have a very successful political career until a French reporter chose to examine his thesis and found that it was heavily plagiarized.
If the reports are accurate, that plagiarism includes the entirety of the document, including a 20-page section that was simply copied and pasted from the European Parliament website. That section alone represents more than one-third of the thesis, which should be more than enough to show that the thesis needed to be retracted and serious action taken against its author.
However, the University of Lorraine never took a very strong stance. Instead, it reached out to Bettel and asked him to redo the thesis and include “the missing citations” in the work. Bettel, in his statement, said that the university found that he had undertaken an “original work” but that it could be considered, “a form of plagiarism” due to the way he included references.
That’s a far cry from the allegations that the paper was three-quarters from non-cited sources.
It appears that the university was prepared to bend over backwards to help Bettel retain his degree. However, Bettle decided instead to simply give the degree up. He has a Master in Law from the same school and that degree is not impacted.
The decision was likely driven by politics. Shortly after the original story broke, Bettel’s popularity dropped seven points in the country. Though he remained in good graces with his colleagues, it was actively hurting his public perception.
This brings an end to the story itself, though it remains to be seen what long-term impacts this will have on Bettel’s career.
In the end, there are two things that separate Bettel’s story from that of countless other European politicians.
First, is the university’s apparently willingness to work with Bettel despite the serious nature of the allegations. If nearly as much of this paper was plagiarized as reported, there’s effectively no hope for Bettel, or anyone else, to quickly address the issues.
This wasn’t a matter of a few omitted citations or quotation marks that were left out, this was dozens of pages copied and not cited. Retraction of the paper and revocation of the degree should have been an easy choice. However, that was not the path the University of Lorraine chose.
Second, is Bettel’s choice simply to give up the degree. Most politicians caught in these kinds of scandals fight for their degree tooth and nail and, generally, only surrender it voluntarily when it becomes clear it is going to be revoked.
Bettel didn’t have to do that if the school was so willing to work with him. However, he recognized that even if he “fixed” his thesis, a cloud would always hang over it and the degree he earned with it.
It was the smart move for him if he wants to move on from this quickly. It will be interesting to see if this move works out better for him in the long run, by cutting the story short and making himself the one that revoked his degree.