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October 14, 2009

Law school accused of mafia ties

Security threat to state feared amid Plzeň university scandal

The safety of the state is “threatened” amid growing fears of mafia influence in key sectors of society after allegations that degrees were conferred after just a few months’ study. There have also been concerns that fast-track degrees, plagiarism and missing dissertations at a prestigious law school “were not isolated cases.”

Allegations of malpractice surfaced last month after a student at Plzeň Law School said passages in Vice Dean Ivan Tomažič’s thesis were copied word for word from another legal text. The accusation set in motion a chain of events that has cast doubts on the validity of all degrees.

“You have to understand what is going on down there,” Vladimíra Dvořáková, chairwoman of the Accreditation Commission that oversees standards in universities, said. “It is not about one politician giving an envelope to the faculty to get a degree. It concerns property worth billions of crowns to the Czech state. The Plzeň dean was also a director at the State and Law Department of the Academy of Sciences, a position of a huge importance. He gave expert opinions in areas relating to property owned by the state.”

Dvořáková said organized crime made use of the false degrees, and that politicians, policemen and members of the Czech counter-intelligence service (BIS) applied to the law faculty “in huge numbers.”

“This network threatens the safety of our country. Nobody investigated them because some police officers got their degrees there,” she said.

The Education Ministry is now considering revoking the university’s right to confer degrees, but the problem could be systematic, according to an expert on Czech higher education.

“The ministry should investigate whether this was an isolated incident or whether there is a systemic problem,” said Weston Stacey, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Prague and an author on a study of Czech technical colleges.

“It is not the only university that has been rumored to sell entry and degrees. This is important because university education is funded by everyone for a few. The few who benefit should do so because of their intellectual potential, not their political connections. Strong measures must be taken to stop it. Let’s hope they are taken, but, looking at the track record, you have to say they won’t be.”

Accusations of plagiarism

After the allegations by the student were made against Tomažič, further allegations were leveled at Dean Jaroslav Zachariáš, who was also accused of plagiarism. Professor Petr Bezouška raised the student’s concerns with college authorities. Another vice dean, Milan Kindl said the allegations were valid but that the plagiarized work had been planted in the library to uncover the identity of someone who was leaking stories to the media. He then accused Bezouška of being the mole. This bizarre explanation failed to quell mounting concerns, and Kindl, Zachariáš and Tomažič resigned.

But then more serious allegations were made that students were gaining master’s degrees in a few months instead of years. Plzeň university authorities have now admitted they are investigating around 400 former students, but they said fewer than a 10th, about 37, are raising serious suspicions.

The law faculty also admits it has misplaced copies of students’ dissertations.

Some of the most controversial cases involve high-ranking politicians who went to Plzeň including the mayor of Chomutov, Ivana Řápková, who claims not to recall her teachers’ names; the mayor of Prague 5, Milan Jančík, whose dissertation is missing; and disgraced former Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, whose dissertation is at the university and off-limits for public scrutiny.

“The key problem is when students get their degrees under funny circumstances,” said Eliška Císařová, project manager for Transparency International in the Czech Republic.

“There has been an enormous rise in the numbers of universities and colleges over the past few years in the Czech Republic. However, no one knows about the standards of these newly established colleges. The Plzeň scandal is dangerous because it concerns lawyers, and they have an enormous amount of power in society. People want to know if the lawyer is a real one with a real degree. In the Czech Republic, everyone wants to get a degree somehow, no matter from which college or university. In the U.S., on the other hand, people care which university you got your degree from.”

Former Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil was appointed dean earlier this month and is considering publishing the names of those who questionably attained degrees and bringing greater transparency to proceedings.

“Investigating the situation is a task for the police and the Accreditation Commission of the Education Ministry. My role is to set transparent rules and make the faculty work,” he said.

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