The autonomy of the University of Belgrade
UB is the largest and most reputable Serbian university. Between 2012 and 2018, it ranked between the 301st and 400th place on the Shanghai Ranking list and, since, 2018 between the 401st and 500th place.Footnote 2 UB has a long tradition of resistance to authoritarian tendencies, including the 1968 rebellion against the communist regime and, in the 1990s, multiple waves of mobilization against the authoritarian Milošević regime and its attempts to abolish the autonomy of the university.
Like the other six public universities in Serbia, UB enjoys a high degree of legal autonomy, guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia (Article 72), functionally defined by legislation (Higher Education Law, 2021, Article 4), and further reaffirmed by their statutes. According to the Higher Education Law, universities have full autonomy when appointing their senior management, whose members are recruited from the ranks of the university’s academic staff. There are no external appointments or nominations by non-UB actors. UB sets its own policy and regulates how internal policies and student-related matters are dealt with. The only area outside UB’s full control is budgeting: a small part of its funding comes from tuition fees, while the rest is provided by the state. Overall, in de jure terms, UB and the other six public universities are among the most autonomous public institutions in Serbia.
When the Mali case broke out, the term ‘plagiarism’ did not exist in the Higher Education Law; it was down to individual universities to regulate such matters internally. UB’s Statute did recognize plagiarism as a form of academic misconduct but did not provide guidelines for such investigations. This only changed in 2016 with the adoption of the UB Code for Professional Ethics, which specified a procedure for dealing with plagiarism allegations. Until then, it was the individual faculties of UB who ensured that submitted theses had met its standards of academic integrity.
In July 2014, Professor Raša Karapandža of the European Business School in Wiesbaden (Germany) published an article on the Serbian web portal Peščanik in which he alleged that Siniša Mali, then Mayor of Belgrade and one of the closest aides of the regime’s strongman Aleksandar Vučić, had plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. The thesis had just been defended at the UB’s Faculty of Organizational Sciences (FON), pending formal promulgation at the university level—a routine annual procedure. Karapandža’s article (2014) consisted of a report obtained through the plagiarism-detecting software Turnitin and a manual analysis of Mali’s thesis. The Turnitin report revealed a large number of unreferenced parts that were identical to text from previously published sources (academic papers, professional outlets, internet portals including Wikipedia, etc.). One-third of the thesis’ pages contained 33% or more of plagiarized text, and some of them featured as much as 70% or more of plagiarized material.
Karapandža’s manual analysis further revealed that some sections in Mali’s thesis were translated verbatim from sources in foreign languages, including a chapter of another doctoral dissertation defended more than a decade ago at the University of Groningen by an Eritrean graduate. Anecdotally, that chapter discussed cotton production, which, unlike in Eritrea, does not exist in Serbia but was nonetheless featured in Mali’s Chapter 2, the focus of which was the privatization and economic restructuring in Serbia in the 2000s. Further, most graphs and tables in Mali’s dissertation were copied directly from other sources without acknowledgement. It was not only the content of those figures that was identical to the original sources but also their font and colors. Karapandža (2014), therefore, concluded that Mali ‘did not just pinch a bit, but committed a massive plagiarism’ and he invited UB to revoke Mali’s dissertation (Fig. 1).
The first review
Following Karapandža’s revelations, the then UB Rector made a brief statement announcing that, if necessary, the university would support the formation of a commission to formally review the allegations (Večernje Novosti, 2014). Shortly afterward, UB decided to leave it to FON to examine Karapandža’s allegations, even though the FON Dean and other members of Mali’s viva panel had immediately stated that there was no need for a formal review as ‘the plagiarism allegations are baseless’ (RTS, 2014; Večernje Novosti, 2014). However, it did not take long before FON altered this initial position and formed a commission to look into the matter.
Within several weeks, FON produced a report concluding that Mali’s thesis was in order despite acknowledging that ‘some inadequate use of literature was found, (Mondo, 2014). The report was passed, for final confirmation, to the UB Senate, which only placed it on its agenda after a year. Once this happened, the Senate members then decided not to consider the report, suggesting that – for the inquiry to continue – it was necessary to have precise misconduct regulations at UB (Novi Magazin, 2015). Some critics were of the opinion that instead of returning the case to FON and thus restarting the review process, the university should have taken over and made a final judgment on whether the thesis was plagiarized. The academic movement Save the Science, which had just been formed with the mission to protect the integrity of the academic community, suggested that FON’s own acknowledgment of the thesis’ referencing omissions was sufficient for the university to declare it plagiarized (Spasimo nauku, 2015). Still, the Senate returned the case to FON for a second review, announcing that, in the meantime, UB would be working on a new Code for Professional Ethics to set out a precise academic misconduct procedure.
The second review and the mobilization of an academic watchdog community
Like its first report, the second FON report, released in December 2016, concluded that ‘while the contested PhD did contain omissions concerning the use and citation of other sources, these were not too problematic, especially in the light of the alleged scientific contribution of the thesis’ (Politika, 2016). Several months after its publication, this second report was rejected by the UB Senate, with the rationale that the FON Ethics Commission, which produced the report, had not been qualified to carry out the review, as three of its five members were not academics. Thus, the Senate decided to return the case again to FON, instructing it to form a new, expert commission, fully composed of scholars, which would produce – this time under the newly adopted UB Code for Professional Ethics (RTV, 2017) – another report on the thesis’ alleged plagiarism.
The decision to return the case to FON for yet another review led to growing criticism among scholars, who warned that the process was turning into ‘endless ping-pong’ between UB and FON. These developments catalyzed the rise of a small ‘watchdog community,’ which, from that point on, started to mobilize academic resistance in more organized ways than in the past, when criticism of UB’s handling of the case had been occasional and spontaneous. One of the leading voices in this rising mobilization of resistance was Dušan Teodorović, a former professor at the University of Virginia and currently Professor Emeritus at UB’s Faculty of Transport and Traffic Engineering. From early 2016 on, he made a series of public appearances repeating the claim that Mali’s thesis was a prime example of plagiarism and that the university – had it genuinely wanted to address the issue – could have done it expediently (Fig. 2) (Vreme, 2016).
In 2016, Teodorović averaged 1.4 media appearances per month, which was a solid frequency given the lack of access to the mainstream media for commentators critical of the regime. He kept a somewhat lower public profile in 2017, but then in 2018 his public presence, increasing it further in 2019.
Alongside Teodorović, Karapandža, who discovered the plagiarism, acted as an active plagiarism inquiry ‘watcher’ throughout the whole process. With limited access to the mainstream media, he turned to social media channels – mainly Twitter – to maintain interest in UB’s handling of the Mali case.
During the first year, Karapandža posted around 120 tweets about the Mali case (one tweet every three days), but he posted less frequently in the subsequent three years. In 2017, when his tweeting about the inquiry was at a minimum, he posted 30 tweets in total (one mention/reminder every 12 days). From 2018 on, Karapandža’s Twitter activity in relation to the Mali case spiked, culminating in 2019 with an average of 0.77 tweets per day (Fig. 3).
Over time, an increasing number of Serbian scholars, both within the country and abroad, joined the protest over the ‘doctorate affair’ (Danas, 2017, 2018). Alongside public commentary, they contributed to other protest activities such as petitions and legal analyses of the handling of the Mali case.
The third review
FON’s formation of another review commission coincided with the appointment of a new UB Rector, Professor Ivanka Popović (formerly UB Vice-Rector), who, upon her appointment in May 2018, pledged that, with the recently adopted Code for Professional Ethics in place, the Mali case would be resolved soon (N1, 2018). However, FON only began working on the matter in early 2019, following several unsuccessful attempts to recruit external members. Simultaneously, the academic watchdog community continued its activities and public critique of UB’s handling of the case. Through columns and TV appearances in independent media and on social media, an increasing number of scholars criticized the length of the inquiry, sharing their concern that the case was deliberately being delayed because of Mali’s political standing.
The third FON commission published its report in March 2019, producing, again, a positive evaluation of Mali’s thesis. The commission suggested that the plagiarism software flagged 16% of the thesis as overlapping with material from other sources and that ‘only 7% appeared plagiarized,’ adding that ‘there is no strict rule to determine the amount of plagiarized material that is needed to invalidate a thesis’ (Milivojević, 2019). The commission ignored the rest of the unreferenced material highlighted in Karapandža’s original revelations, claiming that some of those sections represented ‘common knowledge’ (Milivojević, 2019).
Once shared with the public, the report sparked a new wave of criticism. In May 2019 alone, dozens of scholars stepped up their criticism of the reluctance of UB to take the lead and close the case by declaring the thesis plagiarized (Danas, 2019a; N1, 2019a).
The Rector’s ambiguous stance and further delays
UB’s reaction to the third FON report was ambiguous. The Rector initially suggested that the process was ‘still in progress’, confirming that the UB Committee for Professional Ethics would have the final say on accepting or rejecting the report (N1, 2019b). At the same time, the Rector stated that the amount of text replicated from other sources could not be quantitatively prescribed, adding that this was subject to mentors’ discretion. For some critics, this was another attempt to downplay the scope of Mali’s plagiarism and the importance of the previously acknowledged instances of plagiarism. The Rector also pledged to restrict access to the appeal process with regard to the latest FON report to those holding formal positions at UB (Mondo, 2019a). This would exclude a large circle of stakeholders from submitting their reasons as to why the report deserved to be rejected. Yet, within a few days, the UB Senate overruled this proposition, deciding that any UB academic employee could file an appeal.
Ahead of the anticipated decision about the last FON report, UB received four appeals. The most prominent one was signed by a group of around 140 UB professors, which pointed to dozens of further examples of plagiarism, not stated in Karapandža’s original article (Novi Magazin, 2019). Another appeal was submitted by a smaller group of professors from the Faculty of Law, whose analysis of the FON report provided legal arguments as to why the UB Committee for Professional Ethics could have already overridden it rather than send it back multiple times (Danas, 2019b). Providing additional support, smaller groups of students began staging performances, including one outside the Rectorate, during which fake PhD certificates were dished out to passers-by (Table 1).
In mid-July (2019), the Committee for Professional Ethics concluded that the latest FON report could not be accepted as a valid document because it gave an ‘incomplete, unclear, and contradictory opinion’ (Mondo, 2019b). However, instead of making a final decision itself, the Committee decided – by a small majority – to return the report to FON for further revisions. This move was met with fierce opposition. One (deputy) member of the Committee and another member of the UB’s Council of Legal and Economic Sciences resigned, disagreeing with the ‘prolongation of the final decision’ and the ‘never-ending ping-pong game’ (N1, 2019c). The Rector herself, however, stated that it was ‘wise’ to ask FON to ‘more coherently explain why they think Mali’s thesis is valid’ (N1, 2019d).
A radical turn: students’ occupation of the UB Rectorate
Amidst the latest prolongation, the Mali case took a radical turn on 13 September 2019 when a group of about 20 students broke into the UB Rectorate, taking control of the building and starting a strike inside. Under the motto that ‘the University belongs to its students, not to politicians,’ they demanded that the Rector call for Mali’s resignation from his position of Minister of Finance on state television (N1, 2019e). The protesters invited fellow students, professors, and other citizens to join them inside the Rectorate.
Ruling officials, including the Prime Minister and President of Serbia, as well as the pro-regime media, branded the protesters as politically instrumentalized, calling on the UB senior management not to give in to the students’ ‘ultimatum’ (Danas, 2019d; Republika, 2019). The UB Rector’s Collegium condemned the protestors, stressing that UB was not going to ‘allow any disruption of regular work’ (Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2019a).
On the first evening of the blockade, a group of ruling party activists of the Serbian Progressive Party—who initially claimed to be ‘concerned citizens’ (without declaring their party affiliation)—barged into the Rectorate and tried to expel the protesters. The protesters, however, repelled the attack and managed to lock themselves inside the building (N1, 2019e). The Rectorate’s security staff did not act to prevent the intrusion, nor did they intervene over the course of the night when the ‘anti-student-protesters’ remained inside and around the building. The day after, footage emerged in which one of the ‘intruders’ inadvertently revealed that she had been sent by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Ćosić, 2019), thus exposing a violation of the Higher Education Law, the provisions of which forbid party and political activism on university premises. The early days of the strike thus exposed two things: (a) the ruling party was willing to use violence to confront the protesters, and (b) the UB authorities were not capable of safeguarding the Rectorate’s autonomy in physical terms.
When the blockade reached its third day, the Rector, together with several members of the UB senior management team, paid a visit to the protesters, urging them to leave the building. The protesters refused to do so; instead, they demanded that the Rector publicly condemn the previous attacks of the ruling party activists. Shortly afterward, the Rector’s Collegium condemned ‘the physical assaults on the protesters’ (from the first night) (RTS, 2019a), but since it did not explicitly state that the attackers were activists of the ruling party, the protesters disapproved of the statement's wording (N1, 2019f). In the days after, the Rector’s approach and language started to change, indicating that a solution would be reached through dialogue.
Growing media coverage and resolution
With the blockade of the Rectorate continuing, the media coverage started to expand with each new day (Fig. 4). Over the first ten days, the ‘doctorate affair’ drew 121 media reports—far more than when FON released its three plagiarism reviews. Public pressure on the UB leadership was growing.
As the blockade entered its second week, the protesters announced their intent to radicalize the protest if the UB senior management continued to ignore their requests (N1, 2019g). Left with no choice but to demonstrate that the university could solve the crisis, the Rector started negotiations with the protesters (N1, 2019h). Eventually, three weeks into the blockade, the two sides agreed on a solution, and a joint announcement was made outside the Rectorate by one of the protesters, accompanied by the Rector, informing the public that the blockade was ending as UB had guaranteed a swift conclusion to the plagiarism inquiry. Although the Rector herself did not prejudice any outcome, this development was widely interpreted as UB’s determination to retract Mali’s PhD.Footnote 3
The regime’s disapproval and epilogue
Caught off guard by the Rector eventual ’siding’ with the protesters, the regime started attacking her and other members of the UB senior management. In a live broadcast from New York, during his UN visit, President Vučić accused the Rector of ‘politically embracing the opposition’ (Blic, 2019). Ruling MPs and the mainstream media followed up with a barrage of ad hominem attacks, including ones on ethnic grounds.Footnote 4
Nonetheless, UB retracted the thesis, several weeks after the end of the blockade, after following the decision of the UB Committee for Professional Ethics to overturn the last FON report. The Rector publicly announced that the thesis was plagiarized and that it would be cancelled, subject to final approval by the Senate, which took place soon after (RTS, 2019b). Vučić described UB’s decision as political in nature, but also expressed regret that Mali had not taken his earlier advice to withdraw the doctoral dissertation himself in order to foil its possible retraction (Danas, 2019d)—a step which Vučić obviously deemed a better strategy for mitigating reputational damage. Mali refused to resign, remaining Minister of Finance.