It was shortly after 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday evening when Bruno Bleckmann, a professor of ancient history at the University of Düsseldorf, stepped in front of the waiting journalists. He quickly strode up to the microphone to deliver his statement. A faculty board, Bleckmann said, had arrived at the decision to declare German Education Minister Annette Schavan's Ph.D. thesis "invalid and to revoke her doctor title."
Based on an internal university analysis of Schavan's doctoral thesis, which she submitted in 1980, and on her own statement regarding her work, the committee voted 12 to 2 to invalidate her academic title, Bleckmann said. There was one abstention. "As a doctoral candidate, she systematically and deliberately presented intellectual efforts throughout her entire dissertation that were not her own," Bleckmann said. Large sections of the work, he continued, had been taken from elsewhere without adequate attribution. As such, she was guilty of "intentional deception through plagiarism."
The announcement is the worst possible outcome for Schavan. The very suspicion that she had plagiarized parts of her dissertation had "hit her hard," as she said last year. Allegations that parts of her dissertation were not consistent with academic standards were first raised last spring and were hardened in October when a blogger released detailed findings of citation shortcomings he had found in the education minister's dissertation. She has consistently denied the charges, admitting merely to "oversights." Immediately after Bleckmann finished delivering his statement, Schavan's lawyer released a statement indicating that the minister planned to file a legal challenge to the revocation of her dissertation at a Düsseldorf court. "There was no cheating involved," the statement read.
But a significant majority of the university committee disagree. Bleckmann said that the board did not believe it was necessary to commission an external evaluation of Schavan's dissertation, as the minister and her supporters had repeatedly demanded.
Bleckmann also rejected Schavan's argument that conventions regarding citations were different at the time when she wrote her dissertation. He said that the board's decision was not a "projection of today's standards back in time." He pointed out that even at the time there were "accepted guidelines" that explained how to correctly cite passages taken from secondary sources. One version of those guidelines had even been published by her Ph.D. advisor, it was recently revealed.
Bleckmann noted that the board, in deciding how to penalize the errors committed by Schavan, considered the fact that, were the doctor title revoked, the minister would be left without a degree. But, he added, "the degree and the extent of the sections determined to have been plagiarized" in addition to the "public interest in the protection and fidelity" of the process of earning academic degrees were also significant criteria.
Schavan's lawyers argue that the entire process was "error ridden" and "materially illegal." They claim that the extent of the erroneously cited passages does not justify the revocation of the minister's doctor title.
Schavan is now faced with the prospect of losing her position on Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet. It wouldn't be the first time that a German cabinet minister was forced to resign after losing a doctor title. Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg stepped down in the spring of 2011 after it was determined that he had plagiarized large sections of his Ph.D. thesis. Already, demands have been made for Schavan to resign from her party by the Greens, the Left Party and the Pirate Party.
Schavan herself learned of the university's decision thousands of kilometers away in Pretoria. Political talks in South Africa had long been planned and she elected to make the trip despite the impending decision from University of Düsseldorf. The statement from her lawyers had clearly been prepared before she left. The message is clear: Schavan intends to continue fighting to hold on to her degree.
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