Feb 092013

In case you hadn’t noticed, we are truly living in a world of 24/7 news, although days are a bit shorter over here in Germany, and we tend to shut the country down for the weekend (the unions, you know). Nonetheless, the Chancellor (just returned from Brussels) and the minister (just returned from South Africa) appeared in front of the press on this very Saturday afternoon to announce that the minister is resigning over allegations of plagiarism in her PhD thesis. The chancellor even presented a successor, Johanna Wanka (anglophones, no snickering please), who will take over next week.

Schavan is already the second minister that Merkel lost over scientific conduct, the first being former Defence Minister zu Guttenberg. But the differences with the zu Guttenberg case are instructive. Zu Guttenberg had risen to prominence within a very short time. He was ambitious, allegedly charismatic and very good at promoting himself.

More to the point, he needed a special permit to be accepted as a PhD student because of his low GPA, and his “thesis” was nothing but a collage of material that was in parts presumably taken straight off the internet. Unquoted sources included newspaper articles and legal opinions compiled by the Bundestag’s scientific services at zu Guttenberg’s request. GuttenbergPlag, a collaborative website dedicated to the former minister’s thesis, documented instances of plagiarism on more than 90% of its pages. He was even prosecuted (though not formally charged and sentenced, because he agreed to pay a hefty fine) for copyright infringement. Did I mention that zu Guttenberg’s family donated large sums of money to his alma mater?

Schavan’s thesis, on the other hand, seems to lack synthesis and originality, but from what you can see on schavanplag, her offences are clearly less outrageous than zu Guttenberg’s. Combine that with the fact that she did her political job quietly and mostly competently for many years, and with the fact that she wrote this thesis back in the 1970s, and you see why even many in the opposition feel sorry for her.

And yet there was no doubt that she had to go for reasons of representation and (lack of) trust: You don’t necessarily need a scientist as minister for science and education, but you cannot have person in that job who has been stripped of her academic merits by the system, even if that ruling might be out of proportion and could still be overturned by a court. Her intention to sue Düsseldorf U left German academia divided against itself during this week.  Schavan  said something to that effect  in her brief resignation statement, and I must applaud her for that.

More specifically,  it would have been more than awkward had the minister been forced to explain to university grandees that she had to withdraw  federal funds from this or that institution because it does not meet the highest scientific standards. Stepping down at the earliest occasion is a rare display of political judgement.

Much has been written about the political fallout for Merkel, who faces a difficult General Election (are there any others?) in seven months time, but I don’t think this whole affair will have much of an impact. Schavan may be a close friend and personal ally of the Chancellor, but the matter was quickly resolved. More depressingly, science and education are niche interests in Germany, and Schavan’s name recognition outside academia was low before the affair broke. Much the same will be true for her successor (again, please don’t snicker).


Feb 062013

After many months of public and internal debates and allegations of plagiarism, the council of the Faculty of Philosophy (here’s a nice name!) at the University of Düsseldorf has voted to strip Federal Education Minister Annette Schavan of her doctorate, a mere three decades after it had been awarded in the first place. Obviously, they acted under enormous political pressure from many sides, and I’m very happy to sit on a different faculty board at a different university.

The proceedings were particularly difficult because a lengthy internal memo by the chair of the PhD board that condemned the thesis had been leaked to the press. Moreover, the faculty was criticised for relying too much on the opinion of said chair, who – unlike Schavan – is not an educationist, and for not bringing in external experts. Today, a prominent member of Schavan’s party deemed the university’s ruling “preliminary” (because Schavan can and will take the university to court) and “inappropriate” (because scientists are apparently not competent to make judgements on plagiarism). Such statements show how much respect politicians hold for science <irony off>.

The university, on the other hand, kept its cool and put a legal opinion  (in German) on its website, which states that they have done more or less the right thing.  It’s a long read, but very instructive for academics who might find themselves in a similar pickle as those poor souls at Düsseldorf.

While the memo itself is not (officially) public, the website which brought the matter to the attention of the public is still online. From what I have seen, I get the impression that the author did indeed intend to plagiarise in more than a few instances. Schavan’s lawyers will challenge this opinion, but it will be more than a few months before a court rules on the matter, so the more immediate question is: Can she cling on to her job?

While the chancellor “trusts” Schavan, and while she still has the support of many in her party, the FDP has started making funny noises, and the opposition is calling on Schavan to step down. The minister will soon return from a trip to South Africa and is booked for a chat with Merkel on Friday. The smart money is on a resignation on Monday: It’s difficult to conceive of a federal  Education minister whose Alma Mater deems her a fraud. Given the ever more prominent role in the funding of universities that the federation has played in recent years, this will not work.

The wider question is of course why so many German politicians pursue doctorates, sometimes with dubious means. If/when she resigns, Shavan will be the second cabinet minister Merkel loses over a plagiarised PhD (the first being former defence minister zu Guttenberg). Other casualties include Silvana Koch-Mehrin and Jorgo Chatzimarkakis (both FDP and members of the EP), and various politicians working at the Länder-level.

The simple answer to that question is that a PhD – any PhD –  furthers their career. In some branches of the public administration (as well as in some research-driven companies), a doctorate  is a pre-requisite for managerial positions –  sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not. More generally,  Germans see academic titles as a (poor) substitute for the aristocratic titles that we abolished in 1919. Many believe (erroneously) that the doctorate becomes part of a person’s name. Heck, they probably think it becomes hereditary. And so we are stuck with a considerable number of mediocre students who have neither talent nor temperament for serious research but long for academic ennoblement. We should therefore be much more selective in admitting PhD students.