Since his eight years as a popular vice-president to Barack Obama, there has been a clamour among Democrats for Joe Biden to run for the White House himself. But if the next few weeks do see him declare his candidacy to challenge Donald Trump in 2020, he will no doubt be crossing his fingers that voters in the post-truth era are less concerned about his academic record than they were in 1987, when the then senator for Delaware was seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Ronald Reagan’s deputy, George H.W. Bush, in the 1988 presidential election.
Biden, who also headed the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, was accused of plagiarising a law review article for a paper he wrote in his first year of law school at Syracuse University. According to The New York Times, he responded to the accusations by releasing a 65-page file containing his entire, less-than-stellar academic record, relating both to Syracuse and to his undergraduate years at the University of Delaware.
At the news conference where he released the file, Biden repeated the explanation he had given to Syracuse: that he had misunderstood the rules of citation and footnoting but was “not malevolent in any way” and “did not intentionally move to mislead anybody”. Nevertheless, within a few days, the senator – who was also accused of plagiarising sections of other people’s speeches, had to withdraw his candidacy.
Since then, there have been numerous plagiarism scandals involving top politicians from around the world. Take Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s prime minister from 2014 to 2016. In the spring of 2017, Ukrainian media aired the allegation that he had plagiarised significant portions of his PhD dissertation, defended at the Ukrainian Academy of Banking, Sumy in 2004.
Yatsenyuk, who is now leader of Ukraine’s People’s Front Party, the second largest political grouping in its parliament, was at the time of his thesis defence the first vice-president of the National Bank of Ukraine, with which the academy is affiliated. A group of local scholar activists, known as DisserGate, posted online a detailed page-by-page analysis of the accusations, revealing that about 70 pages of Yatsenyuk’s dissertation, overseen by Volodymyr Mishchenko, the academy’s acting rector, contain material plagiarised from different sources, with 39 completely plagiarised and another seven translated from English without proper attribution.
Yatsenyuk became prime minister in the wake of his prominent role in the previous year’s Euromaidan uprising against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. In his 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad, Biden describes a conversation he had with him during this period, on the way to Kyiv airport: “I liked Arseniy. He was smart – a PhD economist – but no cloistered academic. He was a serious young leader who cared deeply that his home country be a functioning democracy with secure borders. [He] had a streak of idealism I appreciated…You’ve got to be the big man.” That is particularly true in Ukraine, whose largest oil company recruited Biden’s son, Hunter, to its board in 2014.
While Biden remains very popular in the US, Yatsenyuk is very unpopular among Ukrainians. That has much less to do with the plagiarism accusations – or his refusal to respond to them – than with the string of failed reforms during his prime ministership. Yet his record has not stopped him, like Biden, from contemplating a run for the presidency.
In both cases, the question must surely be whether plagiarists, popular or otherwise, should be eligible for the highest political office. For Ukraine, the question is a rather academic one given Yatsenyuk’s unpopularity. For the US, it could yet become a moot point, even as Biden’s Republican opponent trots out one “alternative fact” after another.
Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev visiting professor at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University. He is also a fellow of the Institute of International Education, United Nations Plaza, New York. He has a PhD in education and human development from Vanderbilt University, where he was a fellow of the US Department of State.