October 30th, 2006

Sorin Antohi and the Tragedy of the Post-Communist Intellectual


Sometime in the next few days or weeks, a lowly staffer or student on work-study at Central European University will likely perform a small and simple bit of administrative housekeeping that may have more meaning than some of the densest lines written by the George Soros-funded institution’s most celebrated social scientists. They will erase or modify the page on the university’s website currently found at www.ceu.hu/hist/antohi_cv.htm, which lists the CV of one Sorin Antohi, who until October 20th was, among other things, the head of CEU’s department of history.

While a familiar public figure in his native Romania, the 49-year-old Antohi was not well known to most of the members of CEU’s student body, most of whom only spend a year at the institution, and have little time or inclination to keep track of those outside their immediate area of study. But given the circumstances of Antohi’s departure, his name may end up being etched in the minds of many students who never took a class with him or even passed him in the hallway.

The immediate cause of Antohi’s exit was a line on that CV which claimed he received a Ph.D. in History from the University of Iaşi in Romania in 1995. He didn’t. Instead, according to reports in the Romanian press, in 2000, roughly two years after being tapped to head CEU’s history department, Antohi’s status as a doctoral student at Iaşi was terminated. But the story of Antohi’s fall involves far more than a simple case of bogus credentials or scholarship. (The CV also lists several publications whose authenticity can reportedly not be verified.) But what led to the discovery of this fraud was another seemingly unconnected revelation: For several years, Antohi had served as an informer for Romania’s communist-era Departamentul Securităţii Statului, better known as the Securitate.

Personally tragic situation: Central European University rector Yehuda Elkana (bottom), who has come under fire for his decision not to aggressively distance himself from the credential-faking former professor and Securitate agent Sorin Antohi (top)

Codename “Valentin”
That a 19-year-old in the darkest hours of the Ceauşescu dictatorship would have chosen to become a snitch for the police – under the codename “Valentin” – is not particularly shocking. What is shocking is that this particular snitch went on to become a leading authority on the issue of how Romania and countries like it deal with their troubled histories. In this sense, Antohi’s case is reminiscent of the recent scandal involving the German novelist Günter Grass, who spent decades campaigning against what he saw as Germany’s inability to come to terms with its Nazi past before this year admitting that as a youth he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. Yet it is worse, because Antohi was also a participant in the official process by which the Romanian government declassified Securitate files and passed judgment on those who secretly served the security services. As part of a campaign called “Clean Voices” – aimed initially at identifying former Securitate agents among the country’s leading journalists – Antohi’s files came under scrutiny, and he was forced to confess his secret past, and forced to step down from the commission set up by President Traian Băsescu to study the country’s communist past.

More shocking still are charges that Antohi actively sought to make sure his own past would never become public knowledge. According to reports in the Romanian media, the government of Adrian Năstase – who, before serving as prime minister in 2000-2004 was a communist apparatchik, and once published an article entitled “Human Rights: A Retrograde Concept” – intervened to re-classify or destroy the Securitate files of numerous leading public figures, including Antohi. But even if these charges are not proven true, the body then in charge of vetting Securitate files – the CNSAS (Consiliul Naţional pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securităţii, or National Council for Studying the Securitate’s Archives) – apparently broke the law by not disclosing Antohi’s collaboration. (Legislation passed the year before Năstase’s election mandated disclosure for executives and founders of public institutions, such as the Group for Social Dialogue, which counts Antohi among its founder members.) “The CNSAS itself has been in violation of Law 187/1999 due to the non-disclosure of Antohi’s previous collaboration with the Securitate,” said Dan Visoiu, a Romanian-American lawyer who helped found the Romania Think Tank, a leading research and advocacy group based in Bucharest.

Politics as Usual?
Given the prominent role that Soros, CEU’s founder and benefactor, played in supporting the dissident movements in the former Soviet bloc in the 1980s, it would seem logical that Antohi’s collaborationism would be the source of alarm or revulsion at CEU. Instead, many members of the community rallied to his defense.

According to some students and faculty members, there is a belief among many at CEU that Antohi’s “political” problem is a function of Romanian politics, which, like Hungary’s, are sharply partisan and laden with intrigue. Throughout his career, Antohi has been a thorn in the side of Romania’s nationalists, in large part because of his willingness to challenge widely-held theories in that country about the nature and importance of its ancient past. Despite CEU’s own origins, and the continuing work of other Soros-funded bodies to memorialize the ugly history of the region’s Communist dictatorships, the university’s defining political ethic is what might be called liberal internationalism, or “anti-nationalism.” And in contemporary Central Europe, such liberal internationalists have often found themselves allied with former communists against culturally conservative (and often xenophobic) nationalists. Because of this, many within the CEU community apparently believed that Antohi was simply a victim of Romania’s ongoing kulturkampf – a bruised warrior who deserved the support of his fellow partisans, rather than scorn for his real or alleged shortcomings.

But not all feel the same way.

“I’m outraged,” said one member of the CEU community who contacted this publication last week. (All of the members of the CEU faculty and student body quoted in this article have requested anonymity.) “His files disappeared for years. We are talking about someone who participated in a high-level cover-up.”

Meanwhile, a professor who has worked with Antohi said that several members of the faculty who had lived as dissidents before the political changes had been angered by Antohi’s admission, which came in the form of an open letter published in a Romanian journal a month before his resignation from CEU. Others found it unseemly that the university’s leadership – especially rector Yehuda Elkana – failed to even address the issue raised by Antohi’s confession.

Paper trail: A screen shot of the line in Sorin Antohi’s online CV that led to his ouster (top); workers handle former Securitate files in Bucharest (bottom)

A Lie Too Far
While Antohi would likely have been able to continue his academic work largely unhindered by the revelation of his Securitate past, journalists working the story in Romania happened on another lie that would prove more devastating to his career. On the same day that the Ziarul de Iaşi revealed details of Antohi’s fictitious Ph.D. he stepped down from all of his academic posts. (In addition to his chairmanship of CEU’s history department, Antohi also headed the university’s awkwardly-titled “School of History and Interdisciplinary Historical Studies,” as well as a separate inter-disciplinary research institute called Pasts, Inc.) Reporters have also cast doubt on several publications on Antohi’s CV.

“Yes, I resigned from CEU, from all my positions,” Antohi told the Romanian daily Cotidianul after stepping down, according to the Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár)-based Hungarian-language newspaper A Hét. “I performed a ‘self-cleansing,’ even though nobody asked me to. What is more, valuable people never questioned the trust they had placed in me. But I want to pay, multiple times, for all my mistakes. One day I will return to public life and academic life, first with a few Romanian and English-language books, some of which I have completed. I will deal with ‘formal rehabilitation’ only after that.”

Unlike the revelation about his past as an informer, the disclosure of Antohi’s academic fraud forced a response from the administration, due to its implications for his past and present students, as well as the reputation of the university. Last Wednesday, Hungarian daily Népszabadság published a story saying that graduates who had studied under Antohi “cannot be sure that their degrees are valid.” The same day, CEU issued a press release – though to how many or which publications is unclear – confirming that the university had “regretfully accepted” Anthohi’s resignation, and downplaying the threat posed by his lack of proper credentials. “It is important to clarify that CEU academic departments have an elaborate evaluation system, and academic records do NOT depend on a single professor or instructor,” the statement said.

The following day, a second communiqué was circulated to members of the CEU community on the matter directly from Elkana:

In my previous communiqué, I confirmed that Sorin Antohi had resigned from CEU and that we had accepted his resignation. To my surprise, it seems that this statement was not understood by all as indicating unambiguously the fact that the university had appointed Sorin Antohi in good faith, trusting the file that he possessed a doctorate. Since CEU itself was misled and Sorin Antohi had admitted this, we had accepted his resignation. I found it only fair to emphasize that since his appointment at the university his record of publications, teaching and administrative involvement were of high quality, and indeed, in this personally tragic situation, many colleagues and students expressed their support for him. Let me emphasize once again that the admission of doctoral students, the accompaniment of doctoral studies, the evaluation and the formal examination of doctoral theses at CEU are never in the hands of a single professor. Accordingly, none of those students who were supervised by Sorin Antohi need to worry about any negative consequences regarding the validity of their diplomas.

Predictably, the messy circumstances of Antohi’s departure have left some members of the CEU faculty and student body both confused and angered.

“On the one hand, they talk about open society and democracy, but the way they have handled this is just outrageous,” said one source at the university, enraged both by the lack of communication from the administration, and the forgiving language used by Elkana towards Antohi.

The source also claims that the affair could conceivably lead to CEU losing its accreditation in Hungary (it is also accredited by the State of New York), as Antohi’s Ph.D. was one of a minimum of seven submitted for the two doctoral program “pillars” required by the Hungarian authorities. “I’ve talked to accreditation experts,” this person said. “And they say that one pillar is gone. [If the university were to lose its local accreditation] it would be due to negligence.”

Meanwhile, Elkana’s claim that the university believed Antohi possessed a doctorate runs counter to the admission by one faculty member that the Romanian’s lack of a Ph.D. was something of an open secret. “I’ve known for five years,” this person said.

While saying that they were at first “scandalized” by this knowledge, this person went on to explain that they did not know Antohi had actively misrepresented his credentials, for example by listing the fictitious University of Iaşi doctorate on his CV. More importantly, this person said it was not unknown for some accomplished academics in the region to lack doctorates, as the custom of requiring Ph.D.’s is something of a recent phenomenon – and that many scholars had been prevented from receiving advanced degrees because of their status as dissidents during the communist era.

But as a long-time informer of the Securitate Antohi can hardly claim to have been a dissident, and Ceauşescu had been dead for more than a decade when Antohi’s doctoral candidacy was terminated. Instead, it is likely that Antohi failed to complete his doctorate for the simple reason that he didn’t feel he needed it. “He thought he could get away with it,” said the Romanian’s former CEU colleague.

As for why Antohi thought he could get away with it, one answer would be Antohi’s reputation as a master networker and self-promoter, and his closeness to Elkana. (It should be pointed out, however, that he arrived at CEU before Elkana.) Another is his popularity with students and other faculty members, and the widespread acclaim for his work. In other words, Antohi was a good professor, except for that one audacious, tragic lie.

Or, according to some, even including that lie. For as shocking as it may seem in an academic world where credentials are paramount, some of Antohi’s students and peers are relatively unfazed that he would have lied for a decade about his basic academic qualification.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” said one current doctoral candidate in the history program. While expressing dismay that Antohi would have lied about his credentials, this student suggested an acceptable solution would be for Antohi to be quickly given an honorary doctorate from another institution, and, after a decent interval, to return to teaching in the department, if not to its chair.

Understandably, the reaction of some faculty members who didn’t try to “get away” with not getting their doctorates has been less forgiving. Still, Antohi’s former colleague quoted above said that the response of many had been that old central European standby: black humor. “People joked about it, saying ‘If you are going to lie about having a Ph.D., why say it’s from the University of Iaşi’?”

Lesson Time
Despite what can only be described as an appalling lapse on the part of CEU’s administration – both by allowing “Dr.” Antohi to get away with his audacious fraud for so long, and in seeking to downplay the profundity of his deception – it would be wrong to single out the university as an exemplar of educational corruption.

As with so many kinds of corruption, the institutions in which it is discovered are often the ones in which it is relatively rare. Compared to Hungary’s public universities, where grade-selling and other forms of brazen corruption and dysfunction are rife, CEU is probably a model of integrity. Likewise, the moral and administrative rot in Hungary’s academic institutions is nothing compared to that found in Romania’s, where unaccountable professors openly trade cash for credits and degrees, resulting in diplomas that in the west are generally seen as worthless. According to Visoiu, “If [Antohi] was in the same situation in Romania, no one would have done anything about it.”

Meanwhile, Antohi’s fraud cannot help but reflect on the numerous other institutions and academics he has worked with over the years, from the Universities of Michigan and Bielefeld to the Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier III in France, as well as the discipline of academic history itself. Around the world, the study of history has in recent decades been infected with more than its fair share of theoretical faddism, and other things that have little to do with expanding human knowledge about the past. Exactly where Antohi’s work falls on this continuum is hard to say. But the page on the Past, Inc. website explaining the center’s “rationale” downplays traditional, empirical scholarship in favor of a “considerably larger intellectual, scholarly, and civic agenda, for which conventional boundaries of all sorts are irrelevant.”

In the end, it is this ambitious formula – the belief that “conventional boundaries of all sorts are irrelevant” – that best explains Antohi’s fall, and the seeming indifference with which many of those around him have viewed it. What drove him to live a life of monstrous lies – first betraying his friends as the informant “Valentin,” and then his students and colleagues as the fraudulent “Dr.” Antohi – was nothing more or less than simple ambition; the willingness to disregard inconvenient boundaries to his own advancement. (This is assuming he didn’t volunteer for Securitate snitch duty out of a sense of duty to a regime he supported.) What makes him more noteworthy than the average liar and betrayer is that he did this while allegedly dedicating his life to the search for truth.

Unfortunately, the seeming lack of outrage at – or even in interest in – Antohi’s case leads one to suspect that the sacrificing of truth at the alter of ambition is the convention rather than the exception in the worlds in which his ambitions found their reward. This includes not only academia, but the life of a “public intellectual,” the curious blend of politician and priest that post-Christian Europe continues to grant such outsized prominence and influence.

Institutions of higher learning – and the public intellectuals who use them as perches – do not have the power to make the word a pristine garden of knowledge and honesty. But if they are determined to advance a “larger intellectual, scholarly, and civic agendas” they must try to be places that are at least as honest and devoted to the impartial accumulation of knowledge as those institutions they hope to influence. As it stands now, even relatively functional regional universities like CEU seem to be failing this test. While in the process of defending the university, one graduate student last week conceded that at least a quarter of the social science work conducted at CEU is “pure charlatanism, meaning the people doing it know it is useless,” while another 25% is merely useless. Meanwhile, it is astonishing that a university intimately identified with the importance of open societies does not have a student newspaper capable of acting on an “open” secret like Antohi’s lack of a doctorate, or that concerned members of the community would decide to speak to the press only on the condition that they remain anonymous. One can only wonder what kind of larger intellectual, scholarly and civic dividends an institution governed by such rules of cynical careerism can pay to society.

Despite all this, it is possible to be optimistic, and even to believe that the ugly story of Sorin Antohi will end happily for all involved. For one thing, it would seem logical that CEU and the other institutions stung by Antohi’s deception will in the future apply more rather than less rigor to vetting the credentials of potential faculty, and perhaps to the quality of their (and their students’) scholarship. Likewise, students – and, in a small part, the public – may be encouraged to look past the curtain of adulation and influence that serves to cloak so much muddy thinking, poor writing, naked partisanship and personal dishonesty on the part of “public intellectuals” in countries like Hungary and Romania. If so, critical, independent thinking will be the victor. Even Antohi may benefit, as he has been finally freed from the lies that must have been a terrible burden for a man so publicly dedicated to the search for truth, no matter how ugly. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

As for concrete steps that can be taken to help make this happy ending happen, one might be to stop that lowly support staffer or student before they erase Antohi’s bogus CV from cyberspace, and making it the first item on every incoming student’s reading list.

[Editors Note: The above article, which was reported and written by Pestiside.hu editor and publisher Erik D’Amato, should not be taken as a definitive account of the Sorin Antohi affair. In particular, it should be noted that neither Antohi nor the administration of CEU were able to be reached for comment. Meanwhile, some of the source material used comes from Romanian-language publications whose ultimate veracity cannot be verified, and which was “double translated” from Romanian into Hungarian, and then into English. It should also be noted that the author’s spouse is currently employed by an organization affiliated with Central European University. However, all of the above is as accurate a rendering of this story as is possible given the time and resource constraints of this publication. Those wishing to read or post comments on this article of the Antohi affair should go to this thread in the forum section of Caboodle.hu. (Registration required.) Finally, this piece may be corrected or added to if new information comes to light. If so, any changes will be indicated in an addendum following this note.]

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