Damaging review of education minister’s PhD leaked

The PhD of Annette Schavan, Germany’s education and research minister, has been reviewed following allegations of plagiarism that she has strenuously denied. Leaked results from the review have met with mixed response and the University of Düsseldorf has been slated for procedural errors.

Should the allegations ultimately prove justified, the minister would probably have no other option but to resign.

Parts of an expert review of Schavan’s doctoral thesis, suggesting that she might have lifted material for the PhD, were leaked in mid-October – just five days ahead of a meeting of the PhD committee of the University of Düsseldorf.

Rector Hans Michael Piper announced after the 18 October committee meeting that external experts might now be consulted. But moves by the university to reassess Schavan’s thesis could well backfire, by calling into question any possible decisions the PhD committee might take on the affair.

Piper also apologised on behalf of the university for the leak, which he referred to as a “criminal act”. He promised that both legal steps and an internal inquiry had been initiated to address the issue.

Schavan did her doctorate at the University of Düsseldorf 32 years ago, having studied catholic theology, philosophy and education science in Bonn and Düsseldorf. She wrote her thesis, “Person und Gewissen – Studien zu Voraussetzungen, Notwendigkeit und Erfordernissen”, on individuals and their conscience.

She joined the Christian Democratic Party and served as Baden-Württemberg’s minister of cultural affairs from 1995-2005, and subsequently joined Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new Christian Democrat, Christian Social and Free Democrat coalition cabinet. She is Merkel’s closest ally in the government.

Allegations of Schavan being involved in plagiarism were first made in May, and are the latest in a string of controversies concerning Christian Democrat, Christian Social and Free Democrat politicians.

Her thesis has been reviewed by Jewish studies scholar Stephan Rohrbacher, who spent nearly five months examining its 351 pages and found 60 objectionable passages.

German media reported that the leaked review was damaging. Rohrbacher stressed that towards the end of the PhD thesis, where Schavan professed to present her own conclusions, she had in fact taken passages from an author she referred to as a source earlier on in the thesis. At one point in the text, she gave the gist of another author’s statement without any reference to who that author was.

However, Rohrbacher noted that in almost all objectionable cases, Schavan did not simply copy other texts but paraphrased passages, albeit while giving the sources elsewhere.

So even if wilful intent to deceive was in play, this would not put Schavan in the same league as former defence minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, with whom the series of plagiarism affairs started in 2011. Lifting was detected in almost 96% of Zu Guttenberg’s thesis, and he was stripped of his doctoral title and resigned from office.

Schavan stated at the time that she was “not only secretly ashamed” of his conduct.

Results of Rohrbacher’s report were leaked on 13 October. That Rohrbacher is also chair of the PhD committee is a further contentious issue.

Schavan, while on an official visit to Israel, denied any intention of deceit and announced that she would put up a fight. “I owe this to myself and to science,” she said.

She also brought in lawyers to prevent any further information being made public pending a decision by the University of Düsseldorf’s philosophical faculty committee.

Ultimately, the PhD committee must pass on a recommendation to the philosophical faculty committee. Further proceedings are expected to be rather lengthy, also considering that Schavan herself is yet to be heard by the university.

Wolfgang Löwer, an academic law expert at the University of Bonn and ombudsman for the German Research Foundation (DFG), the chief research funding body, maintained that examiners may have made more generous assessments in the past. But he stressed that the large amount of objectionable passages could not be regarded merely as careless mistakes.

The organisation’s former president, Wolfgang Frühwald, spoke of “procedural errors” that were not so severe as to constitute plagiarism.

According to Helmuth Schwarz, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, an organisation that sponsors academic exchange, it was the university that committed severe procedural mistakes. He demanded that a second person be consulted to thoroughly assess the matter.

Current DFG President Matthias Kleiner stated that he found it “irritating that in a strictly confidential, person-related procedure, a report should be made public in advance of its having been assessed by the responsible committee”.

If Schavan is stripped of her doctoral degree, it will mean that she no longer has any academic degree because the programme she opted for when studying led her straight to a doctoral course. She would also lose her honorary professorship at Free University Berlin. And Merkel would lose her closest ally.

Gloating over a what could be an imminent further blow to the coalition government in the run-up to next year’s election, the opposition Social Democrat parliamentary chief whip conceded that Schavan had a right to a “fair procedure”, but maintained that “irreparable damage” had already been done and the minister’s visit to Israel was her “farewell trip”.