The World From Berlin: 'The Chancellor Will Have To Reshuffle Her Cabinet'

On Tuesday, a committee at the University of Düsseldorf announced Education Minister Annette Schavan had plagiarized passages of her doctoral thesis over 30 years ago and that her Ph.d. title was deemed invalid. German commentators say the Merkel confidant has little choice but to resign.

Annette Schavan (left) talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel: "As if the finance minister were caught hiding his money in Switzerland or the transportation minister were driving drunk" Zoom
REUTERS

Annette Schavan (left) talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel: "As if the finance minister were caught hiding his money in Switzerland or the transportation minister were driving drunk"

The announcement that the doctoral title of German Education Minister Annette Shavan would be revoked came as no great surprise to the German public. Schavan, a close confidant of Chancellor Angela Merkel, has long dodged accusations that she plagiarized parts of her doctoral thesis, which she submitted in 1980. Based on an internal analysis of the thesis -- as well as on her own statement regarding her work -- a committee at the University of Düsseldorf voted 12 to 2 to invalidate her academic title.

Bruno Bleckmann, a professor of ancient history at the university, announced the decision at a press conference on Tuesday evening. "As a doctoral candidate, she systematically and deliberately presented intellectual efforts throughout her entire dissertation that were not her own," he said.

It was a matter of hours before the first calls for her resignation were ringing out from opposition political camps, including the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, the Left Party and the Pirates. The unanimous consensus was that the politician, a member of Merkel's cabinet and her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, is no longer acceptable as the figurehead of Germany's academic community. Shavan must "face her consequences," SPD General Secretary Andrea Nahles told the conservative daily Die Welt. A minister of the sciences, "who demonstrates a gross disrespect for scientific rules, is no longer sustainable," said senior Green Party leader Renate Kunäst.

Suspicions about the academic integrity of Shavan's doctoral work were first raised last spring and intensified 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."

Merkel Has 'Full Confidence' in Minister

Schavan appears prepared to put up a strong fight to defend her Ph.D. "I will not accept the decision by the University of Düsseldorf and I will sue," the education minister said on Wednesday in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she is currently traveling for five days. "With regard to the legal dispute, please understand that I will not be providing any additional statements today."

One day earlier, Schavan's lawyer Bleckmann released a statement saying, "There was no cheating involved."

Several members of the CDU and their coalition partner, the FDP, came forward to defend her, with CDU Deputy Floor Leader Michael Kretschmer calling the process a "politically motivated campaign" against the minister.

Through her spokesman, Merkel expressed her "full confidence" in Schavan on Wednesday, saying the two would have the opportunity to "speak in peace with each other" when Schavan returns from South Africa. The chancellor added that she valued Schavan's work as a minister extraordinarily. But many are questioning how long that support will last as the chancellor heads into what could be a tough re-election battle.

The chancellor already lost one minister to a plagiarism scandal: 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.

And statements made by Schavan at the time of the Guttenberg scandal will in no way strengthen her case, as some detractors have already pointed out. "As someone who wrote a doctorate myself 31 years ago and has worked in a professional capacity with many Ph.D. candidates," she said at the time, "I am ashamed, not only privately."

Some are now asking if Schavan is applying double standards between her work and that of Guttenberg. Still, German news agency DPA is reporting sources stating she doesn't plan to resign, although, some members of her party are questioning whether the minister can survive the political pressure in the long term.

The German press report the story widely on Wednesday. Though commentators across the political spectrum express the sentiment that the revocation seems unfair, there is also widespread consensus that, given the ruling, Schavan may have no choice but to step down.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"With Guttenberg and Schavan, the government has a plagiarizer rate of 12.5 percent. That's almost as much as the percentage of flawed pages in Schavan's doctoral thesis. This is harming the conservative coalition government, of all times in an election year, and the civic virtues it holds so high: motivation and abiding by the rules. Plagiarizers disregard both of those."

"The Faculty of Philosophy in Düsseldorf revoked the education minister's doctoral degree with cool severity. The investigating committee could have come to a totally different decision, but in the end the vote was clear: revocation of the Ph.D., and thus the highest academic penalty for Professor Schavan. The decision is legally justifiable, however it wasn't right. First of all, Shavan's case was a toss-up -- that much was made clear by the long deliberation of the university. Secondly, the mistakes were made 30 years in the past. They could have taken all that into account and issued a reprimand -- then let it be."

"The decision against Schavan sets a strict benchmark for the review of dissertations that have long been yellowing in the libraries. One can be anxious to see how many more degrees are yet to fall victim."

The mass-circulation daily Bild writes:

"With the revocation of her Ph.D. title, the life's work of Annette Schavan has been destroyed. As German education minister, she is the leading figure for professors, postgraduates and students. She has been education minister for more than seven years -- education and research are her core values, the basis of her political actions. When now, of all things, it comes to light that the education minister has cheated on her doctoral thesis, it's as if the finance minister were caught hiding his money in Switzerland or the transportation minister were driving drunk."

"Schavan has dedicated her life to politics. She is one of Merkel's closest confidants. Until now, the chancellor has adamantly stuck by her. But this may have crossed a line for her as well. Schavan is clever enough to recognize that and accept the consequence -- resignation. For her, there is no alternative."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The revocation of Schavan's Ph.D. title is legally tricky. Nevertheless, the education minister will not get around facing the consequences. During the debate about Guttenberg, Schavan praised the University of Bayreuth's examination procedure. Schavan's argument was that the sciences must be independent and credible."

"Back in 1980, it was the matter of a small college and a young woman who, because of a good job offer, was in a hurry to finish her doctorate. The questionable passages of her work are not mere slips of the pen, but they are open to interpretation. What is expressed scientifically was clear even in Einstein's time. But Schavan's case is not a prime example of deliberate deception. The passages usually contain the name of the authors who are quoted -- it's just that not all the adopted ideas are properly attributed to them. This can be interpreted as the insertion of unedited notes in an effort to represent the state of research with the highest possible accuracy -- or, of course, as plagiarism. Multiple possibilities of interpretation are a cause for caution before judgment."

"The passages in the thesis are not new. They have existed since 1980, the cited works even longer. Schavan will be handled more severely than tax dodgers who hide their assets deliberately for years. Such sinners enjoy immunity after 13 years. Schavan is denied the same after 33 -- in a case that is morally light years away from tax evasion, and is by nature very open to interpretation. That's not right. Nevertheless, she now has little choice. According to her own standard, she would for the time being have to leave her office."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"It was meant to be an unbiased review with no regard to the person or her position. But it's clear now that the university's decision concerned more than just the academic reputation of Schavan. An education minister convicted of having plagiarized portions of her dissertation can hardly remain in office."

"The scholars in Düsseldorf declined to call in reviewers outside the university. They seemed to be absolutely sure of themselves. Yet their roll as diligent inspectors will become a matter for political discussion in the coming weeks. The fact that Schavan's work has enormous academic shortcomings is indisputable. But whether she should undergo a re-evaluation with massive consequences for her career, 30 years after the fact, is at the very least questionable. If this were a matter of criminal law, the statute of limitations would have long expired."

"Düsseldorf University was not able to take up an objective standpoint because its own reputation was at risk, too. Schavan may lose her degree, but the losses to academia have yet to be calculated."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The university's discretionary powers were limited. They were first and foremost concerned with their own reputation -- and that has without a doubt taken a hit. The university has done little to back up the legitimacy of their decision, but instead has settled for only what was absolutely necessary from an administrative law perspective. They didn't hire an outside review specialist, nor did they listen to the dissertation adviser. It's also incomprehensible why they needed a good 10 months to come to a decision when other universities in similar situations have done so within three months."

"Schavan will take the decision to court. That path is available to her, but it won't protect her from the question of whether she can keep her position in the cabinet. A federal education minister who disregarded the ground rules of academia in her research would stand under constant pressure to justify herself. The question is just how many others will have to have their doctoral degrees revoked when their dissertations are reviewed. Therein lies the unfairness of plagiarism reviews of politicians' theses. Sooner or later the chancellor -- especially in an election year -- will have to rebuild her cabinet."

-- Charly Wilder and Andrew Bowen

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