5 Politicos With Questionable Academic Credentials

6 minute read

The world may not be fair, but at least the classroom is supposed to be — unless you’re in class with these politicians. Here are five politicos with questionable academic credentials.

Seb Gorka

Let’s start small-ball at home. Appointed deputy assistant to the president in January 2017, Seb Gorka endeared himself to the U.S. President by being one of the most on-message, belligerent and fanatical supporters of the “Make America Great Again” worldview, particularly when being interviewed on cable television. He was pushed out of the White House in August 2017, reportedly by incoming Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Gorka, who was born in the U.K. to Hungarian parents, received his PhD in political science from Corvinus University in Budapest. When Gorka rose to national prominence alongside Trump as a national security “expert” in Islamic extremism and jihadist movements, other academics began parsing the academic record of this virtual unknown. The reviews were not flattering. Regarding his thesis, one academic opined that: “It’s not remotely something that I would consider scholarship. It does not deploy evidence that would satisfy the most basic methodological requirements for a PhD in the U.S.”

“Gorka’s thesis is about as legitimate as if he had been awarded it by Trump University,” retorted another U.S.-based academic, noting that of the three individuals who endorsed Gorka’s PhD, two weren’t even academics, and the third was a right-wing Hungarian member of the European Parliament and noted Islamophobe with family ties to Gorka. It’s entirely possible that different countries have different qualifications for the award of PhDs, but even by that standard, Gorka’s academic record leaves much to be desired. (The former White House adviser declined to comment to Rolling Stone about the allegations).

Saif Gaddafi

Saif Gaddafi is the son of former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, and was once his father’s heir apparent, though the 2011 Libyan uprising saw to that. Saif was apprehended by a militia brigade in 2011, the same year he was charged by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. He was imprisoned for nearly six years, but was freed this past June. There are rumors that he is eyeing a return to Libyan political life. Given his academic record, that’s much more likely than his taking up a post in academia.

Saif attended the London School of Economics (LSE) between 2003 and 2008, receiving both a master’s and a PhD in philosophy for his thesis “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions.” In 2009, Saif pledged to LSE a £1.5 million donation from his family’s philanthropic foundation for research funding. LSE originally accepted the donation, and had received £300,000 of it when plagiarism allegations against Saif — including that he used a ghostwriter and had copied at least 16 sections from his thesis from other academic texts — had surfaced, ensnaring LSE in a publicity maelstrom. Some even cheekily referred to it as the “Libyan School of Economics.”

Gaddafi later defended himself against the allegations. “I am proud of my work at the LSE, and of being an alumni,” he told the Daily Mail. “This is the reason I became a benefactor. The way these people are now disowning me is disgusting.” But even so LSE eventually agreed to establish a £300,000 scholarship fund for North African students. It’s an association that still mars LSE to this day.

Hassan Rouhani

A “reformist” relative to Iran’s more conservative “hardliners,” President Hassan Rouhani has been more proactive in engaging with the West than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ever was. In part, that may be because Ahmadinejad was educated exclusively in Iran, while Rouhani spent time in the 1990s as a student at Glasgow Caledonian University, earning his PhD (while simultaneously serving as the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament).

The charges of plagiarism by activists outside Iran — that he copied parts of a book by noted Islamic law scholar Mohamad Hashem Kamali without proper citation or attribution in his thesis — surfaced in 2013 when he was first elected president. They have since subsided. But the accusations reappeared as Rouhani’s reelection campaign heated up in 2017. But this time, the charges were leveled by students with the alleged support of his conservative election opponents. Rouhani rejected the allegations without specifically rebutting them (and went on to win anyway).

Vladimir Putin

By any measure, Vladimir Putin is one of the world’s most accomplished politicians. That real-world success comes with a not-particularly-accomplished academic record. Putin attended the St. Petersburg Mining Institute to complete a “kandidat” degree (somewhere between a master’s and a PhD) in economic science, receiving his degree in 1996. But it wasn’t until a 2006 Brookings Institute investigation found “evidence of extensive plagiarism” that the story really found its legs. The investigation found heavy “borrowing” from a 1978 textbook entitled “Strategic Planning and Public Policy” written by two American (!) professors from the University of Pittsburgh. And while the book was indeed mentioned in Putin’s bibliography, the report found that nearly 16 pages of the thesis were copied word-for-word from the textbook without quotation marks, page citations and footnotes.

Putin apparently never responded to the claims. However, the reality is that plagiarism is endemic among Russia’s political and business elites, so much so that Russia’s Education minister was forced to acknowledge in 2014 that the rampant plagiarism is “a severe reputational problem for Russian science.”

Enrique Peña Nieto

Mexico’s beleaguered president also has an academically suspect history. Elected president in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto has never been considered much of an intellectual — when asked on the campaign trail to name three books that changed his life, he managed to reference the Bible before flubbing the other two. It was an embarrassing moment, but one that could also be chalked up to a simple misspeak, and even came across as a bit endearing. The plagiarism allegations against him, not so much.

Peña Nieto received his law degree in 1991. Twenty-five years later, an investigative reporter from a local newspaper discovered that nearly a third of Peña Nieto’s thesis (28.9% to be exact, or 197 of 682 paragraphs) were plagiarized from other works. For his part, Peña Nieto’s spokesman called the accusations of academic impropriety as “style errors.” The plagiarism allegations helped sink his then-popularity to 23%; by January 2017, it had fallen further to 12%. His seeming inability to defend Mexico’s honor against attacks by Donald Trump probably didn’t help.

The greatest irony? One of the people Peña Nieto is accused of plagiarizing from was former Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid, which is rather brazen. If imitation is the best form of flattery, plagiarism may well be the dumbest.

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