Germany's opposition wasted no time in blasting German Education Minister Annette Schavan. With accusations that she plagiarized parts of her Ph.D. dissertation 32 years ago having become more concrete over the weekend , Green Party co-leader Claudia Roth suggested that the 57-year-old Schavan, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, might have to resign.
"If the accusations prove accurate, then I have a hard time imagining how the minister in charge of science and research can credibly carry out her duties," Roth said on Monday. Andrea Nahles, general secretary of the center-left Social Democrats, echoed the sentiment.
On Tuesday, however, the scales of justice in the court of public opinion seem to have tipped back in favor of the embattled cabinet minister. Several leading academics in Germany have questioned not only the accusations lodged against Schavan, but also sharply criticized the way they were made public.
Meanwhile, her doctoral advisor has also stepped forward to offer a strong defense. Schavan's dissertation, said Professor Gerhard Wehle, who provided Schavan guidance in the composition of her 351-page study on the development of conscience, was a "formidable accomplishment." Speaking to the daily Rheinische Post, Wehle said her dissertation "absolutely conformed to academic standards."
Allegations that Schavan had plagiarized parts of her dissertation have been around for months. Internet activists, who triggered the resignation of Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in March 2011 after proving that he had copied large sections of his Ph.D. thesis, had found sections of Schavan's work that looked suspicious and had made their concerns public.
On Monday, however, the scandal reached a new dimension when a report on Schavan's dissertation written by a professor commissioned by the University of Düsseldorf, where the minister received her Ph.D., was leaked to SPIEGEL. The report's author, Professor Stefan Rohrbacher, writes: "Not only because of a pattern recurring throughout the work, but also because of specific features found in a significant plurality of sections (in the work), it can be stated that there was a clear intention to deceive." He said that a significant number of passages "show the characteristics of a plagiaristic approach."
Schavan found out about the existence of the report from the media. And that fact has outraged German academia. Helmut Schwarz, president of the renowned Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung that "there have been significant errors made in the proceedings. The university should now ask a second person to objectively examine the (plagiarism) accusations." He added that it was "scandalous" that the public learned about the university report before Schavan herself did.
Matthias Kleiner, head of the German Research Foundation, told the paper he was "quite vexed" that such a confidential report relating to an individual found its way into the public eye. Jürgen Mlynek, head of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers told the Süddeutsche that he was "surprised that Schavan's work was apparently being analyzed only by a single university professor."
Not Severe Enough
A former president of the German Research Foundation, Wolfgang Frühwald, was even more direct. "Neither the accusation of plagiarism nor the accusation of intentional deceit is adequately demonstrated by the report," he told the Süddeutsche. He added that the errors in question seemed more to be the product of negligence and are not severe enough to be called plagiarism.
The Internet activists themselves appear to share the view that the shortcomings of Schavan's thesis are not nearly as serious as those in Guttenberg's Ph.D thesis. Researchers associated with the wiki Vroniplag have been instrumental in uncovering dissertation plagiarism perpetrated by a number of German politicians and luminaries in recent months. In the case of Schavan, however, they were hesitant to make their findings public because many of them didn't believe that her shortcomings constituted plagiarism. One of the activists, however, broke off to start a new website, where he recently published his concerns regarding Schavan's thesis, albeit anonymously.
The report leaked to SPIEGEL was part of the University of Düsseldorf's effort to determine if indeed Schavan plagiarized and if her Ph.D. should be rescinded. That decision, however, won't be made for some time yet. First, the university committee which commissioned the report must evaluate its findings. A separate committee will then invite Schavan to a hearing before deciding on whether to rescind her Ph.D.
Schavan hasn't just received support from academics in recent days. On Monday, Merkel said through a spokesman that she has "complete faith" in her education minister.