Education minister stripped of doctoral title

The University of Düsseldorf has withdrawn the doctoral title of Annette Schavan, Germany’s education and research minister, claiming that she lifted material for her thesis. While Schavan is seeking to contest the university’s verdict, the opposition in parliament has called for her resignation.

The University of Düsseldorf stripped Schavan of her PhD on 5 February. The council of the university’s faculty of philosophy had found that “a considerable amount of texts written by other authors had been adopted word-for-word but had not been correspondingly referred to as citations,” the faculty dean, Bruno Bleckmann, explained.

The accumulation and structure of the text passages adopted and the omission of source titles in the footnotes and further reading list had convinced the faculty council that Schavan had “systematically and wilfully presented academic performance that she herself had, in reality, not delivered”.

Bleckmann said that “Schavan’s response could not weaken this impression, which is why, based on the facts before it, the faculty council has found that the issue concerned represents wilful deceit through plagiarism.”

The decision to withdraw the minister’s title was approved by 12 of the council’s 15 members.

Schavan, on a five-day tour of South Africa bringing her together with representatives of science, research, politics and business, commented on the new developments the following day. “I will not accept the University of Düsseldorf’s decision, and intend to lodge a complaint,” she said.

The minister now has four weeks to appeal to the administrative court.

Schavan recently stated that she could not rule out having made careless mistakes, but denied plagiarism.

Her lawyers announced that they would be taking legal action because the faculty of philosophy’s decision was based on a “faulty procedure” and was “disproportionate”. Violations of citation rules were “insignificant” and could not justify the withdrawal of a doctoral title.

The university’s move leaves Schavan without any professional title. The minister, who studied catholic theology, philosophy and education science at Bonn and Düsseldorf, did her doctorate 32 years ago. During her studies, she bypassed the usual ‘magister’ first degree in arts subjects and headed straight for her doctoral exams.


Politicians in the ruling Christian Democrat-Free Democrat coalition government have praised Schavan’s achievements as an education and research minister. Further developments are to be discussed on her return from South Africa.

There have been unanimous calls from the opposition for the minister to resign. Schavan now lacks credibility as a higher education minister, said the Social Democrats’ General Secretary Andrea Nahles, while Petra Sitte, spokesperson for Die Linke – the Left Party – stressed that whoever is responsible for education and research had to set an example to others.

Bernhard Kempen, president of the Hochschulverband – German Association of University Professors and Lecturers – maintained that “it could take months if not years for a court ruling to be reached. In these circumstances, Annette Schavan can no longer act as education minister.”

Kempen, a qualified jurist, also refuted criticism regarding how the decision to withdraw Schavan’s title came to be. “The University of Düsseldorf’s verdict is not manifestly unlawful,” he says. “It is not discernible why the withdrawal of the title should be based on a faulty procedure.”

Referring to last year's leaking of information indicating the possibility of plagiarism in Schavan’s thesis, Kempen commented that while indiscretion is unacceptable, it does not make the procedure, as such, defective.

However, he conceded that any withdrawal of an academic title also represented a setback for universities. “It is now up to institutions to take a closer look and exercise more control,” he said. “Higher education has to develop uniform regulations on academic conduct.”

Having issued a statement in support of Schavan just days ahead of Düsseldorf University's launching of formal proceedings, the Allianz der Wissenschaftsorganisationen, comprising Germany’s chief higher education and research bodies, has kept quiet about the institution’s verdict.

Membership of the alliance includes funding bodies such as the German Research Foundation and research heavyweights like the Fraunhofer Society, the Helmholtz Association and the Max Planck Society. As Bonn academic and law expert Wolfgang Löwer stressed, these organisations depend crucially on ministry funding.

The Schavan case may have damaged higher education as a whole in Germany, Löwer said.