What's Up, Doc? German Law Bars American Ph.D.'s From Calling Themselves 'Doctor'

March 12, 2008

The letter that Ian T. Baldwin, director of a prestigious research institute in Jena, Germany, received on January 9 from the Thuringian state police informed him that he was being charged with a crime. The letter was straightforward enough, but the crime was bafflingly obscure.

“It said I was being charged with Missbrauchs von Titeln, or misuse of title, and that I had to appear at the police station,” Mr. Baldwin said today by telephone. “I looked up on the Web what Missbrauchs von Titeln meant. It’s used for people who impersonate police officers.” If convicted, Mr. Baldwin, who directs the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, could face a hefty fine and as much as a year in jail.

Mr. Baldwin’s crime, under a Nazi-era law governing the use of academic titles, was to assume that his doctorate from Cornell University entitled him to call himself “Doctor” in Germany. The honorific, apparently, is reserved for recipients of doctoral degrees from German universities.

Mr. Baldwin’s legally correct designation, as a subsequent letter from the Thuringian Culture Ministry spelled out, is “Professor Ian T. Baldwin, Ph.D., Cornell University (Ithaca, New York).” A professorship at Jena’s Friedrich Schiller University entitles him to call himself a professor.

“The parenthetical reference to the university is to really emphasize that my degree is a doctor of philosophy and comes from this little university in an inconsequential country,” Mr. Baldwin explained.

In fact, Mr. Baldwin has rarely used the doctor designation since he began working in Germany, in 1996. A letter welcoming him to the Max Planck Institute and addressing him as “Professor Doctor” was, in retrospect, among the first occasions on which he committed Missbrauchs von Titeln.

“I don’t use these titles in my personal life,” he said. “Most of the times that I’m referred to as ‘Professor Doctor,’ it’s by the university or the Max Planck Institute, so there’s this issue of whether I’m liable for what other people call me.”

The directors of two other Max Planck Institutes in Jena — one with a Ph.D. from Stanford and the other with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas — have also been charged, Mr. Baldwin said.

But all is not lost. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, state education ministers met last week and decided to allow holders of degrees from designated American universities to call themselves “Doctor.”

However, Mr. Baldwin, who has already altered his business cards and “vetted all the possible times I was breaking the law,” isn’t resting easy until he hears definitively that all of the charges against him have been dropped. —Aisha Labi