Opinion Piece

Marelise van der Merwe: The Other News Round-Up: In Fraud We Trust

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the world’s more peculiar news. This week: when both Grace Mugabe and your cat can get a PhD.

Sometimes, one is hard-pressed to find a suitably odd topic to write about that doesn’t involve a member of the Jenner family inspiring a creepy baby manicure or riots over Nutella (actually, many here at Daily Maverick might understand the latter).

Not this week. You might say a column is handed to you on a platter when the former First Lady of Zimbabwe is declared a possibly innocent bystander in the mix-up when she received a PhD, err, two months after enrolling and around four years before her thesis was published.


According to the state-owned Herald newspaper, the country’s anti-corruption unit is investigating University of Zimbabwe lecturer Professor Claude Mararike, who supervised her thesis, over alleged abuse of office.

Mararike faces possible arrest. The university’s vice-chancellor, Levi Nyagura, has also been arrested for awarding the PhD, but was later granted bail and is expected back in court on 5 March.

The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) reportedly denies that its investigation might lead to Grace’s arrest, however.

Some have asked whether perhaps it’s a bit of a cloak-and-dagger move to facilitate a later, bigger investigation of Grace. But if that’s true, chair of the investigations committee, Goodson Nguni, is making a royal pig’s ear of broader public accountability in the process.

There is no evidence to probe Grace,” Nguni told media.

Grace is not a University of Zimbabwe official; she does not know the rules of how people are granted PhDs.

We are investigating those people who knew the regulations and who fraudulently did whatever they did,” he said.

And here’s the kicker: “If you go to a company on the internet called Pacific University, they award PhDs after small examinations which are not recognised by anybody.

If someone decides to go and buy a degree from them, they cannot be charged for that.”

Now, that’s a heck of a statement to make out loud. Whatever one may think of Grace Mugabe, it’s innocent until proven guilty. So besides mentioning that it appears very unusual to get a doctorate a whole four years before your thesis is published and a mere two months after enrolment, I’m going to leave Grace herself alone for the moment.

Maybe she did submit the work on time and we just didn’t know about it. Maybe she writes really, really fast. Consider me putting my hands up.

But can we take a moment to consider the extraordinary statement that “if someone decides to go and buy a degree [our emphasis]… they cannot be charged for that”? Did I really just read that, or did one of those rioters slip something into the Daily Maverick Nutella jar?

Come on, guy.

Apparently I’m getting unnecessarily uppity about this, though, since half the bloody world is doing it, or worse, and making a fortune to boot. If Grace Mugabe submitted her thesis – even if it’s been described as “weak theoretically and [falling] of the mark of the minimum standard for a PhD” – she seems to be ahead of many in the pack. There is an exploding market for humans to buy degrees, with the BBC reporting last month that there was a “staggering” number of qualifications being ordered, including (worryingly) in the medical profession.

And if that’s not enough to blow your hair back, welcome to the world of animal academics.

In a 2014 article for Inside Higher Education, Scott McLemee writes: “Last year a dog received his MBA from the American University of London, a non-accredited distance-learning institution. It feels as if I should add ‘not to be confused with the American University in London’, but getting people to confuse them seems like a pretty basic feature of the whole AUOL marketing strategy.”

The dog, McLemee added, was identified as “Peter Smith” on his diploma, but is known as Pete. He was granted his degree on grounds of “previous experiential learning” (in what?) for a cool £4,500, paid up by a BBC Newsnight investigation. AUOL’s requirements said they needed evidence of his qualifications, plus a photo, but Pete didn’t submit these. Because, as the BBC (understandably) explained, “the qualifications didn’t exist and the applicant was a dog”.

Pete is not the only four-legged graduate. A comprehensive list of animals with distance learning degrees can be found on Wikipedia, including Colby Nolan, the domestic cat with an MBA.

If you think it’s just online universities that let any old name slip through the cracks, you’d be wrong. Celebrated researchers have been having a big fat laugh at their peers’ expense for decades. According to Academia Obscura, animal academics, credited on research papers, are much more common than you’d think.

Animals are all over academia, from the long-suffering lab rats to levitating frogs,” they write. “But one wouldn’t expect our furry and feathered friends to be appearing as authors on published peer-reviewed papers.” Yet that’s exactly what happens.

Notably, there’s the paper titled Detection of earth rotation with a diamagnetically levitating gyroscope, which has the peculiar distinction of being authored by Dr Andre Geim, the only known academic to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Ig Nobel Prize. But Dr Geim’s co-author on the paper is H.A.M.S. ter Tisha – a hamster named Tisha.

Perhaps even more peculiar is the case of F.D.C. Willard, who has not only co-authored but been the sole author of papers on low temperature physics. F.D.C.

Willard is the pseudonym of a cat named Chester, who belonged to the mathematician Jack H. Hetherington. Hetherington was criticised for using the “royal we” in his papers and didn’t feel like editing them, so added a second author – his cat.

The plan only really went pear-shaped when Willard was considered for a university position. A similar issue came up when Galadriel Mirkwood (not only an LOTR character, but also an Afghan hound belonging to immunologist Polly Matzinger) was considered for tenure after being given co-author credits on Matzinger’s danger model of immunology.

In fairness, the above-mentioned animal academics appear to function more as an in-joke than an attempt at outright academic fraud. And the buying of degrees for animals is often done to draw public awareness to how easy it is to buy fake degrees.

But both these examples tell us something: it’s a little too easy to jump through the hoops, isn’t it? And they remind us that by now, we ought to be aware that it’s a little too easy to jump through the hoops. Qualifications, after all, are there to protect consumers.

So forgive me, Nguni, if I respectfully disagree. If someone buys a degree with the intention of abusing it, I’d want them to be held accountable. And you can quote my dog on that. DM