Minister stripped of PhD title acquired through ‘deceit’

Former German minister for family affairs Franziska Giffey has now been formally stripped of her doctoral title, having resigned from office in May. Her thesis was found to contain nearly 70 passages “clearly violating good academic practice”.

Giffey was informed by the president of the Free University of Berlin, Günter Ziegler, that she was now required to hand back her PhD certificate within a month after notification of the withdrawal of her degree, which, the university states, had been acquired through “deceit regarding independent academic achievement”.

The university argues that Giffey had deceived reviewers in the procedure for obtaining the doctoral degree as well as members of the doctoral committee. According to the Free University of Berlin, it had not been possible to judge whether the thesis was the result of Giffey’s independent work because correct references to sources and literature had not been given for a total of 69 passages deemed problematic.

A reprimand Giffey received from the university in 2019 was withdrawn. Giffey states that she accepts the university’s decisions and regrets mistakes she made in writing her thesis. She insists that she wrote the thesis to the best of her belief, and intends to continue her campaign to become governing mayor of Berlin for the Social Democrats.

The reprimand had been issued by a university committee of which Giffey’s thesis adviser Tanja Börzel had been a member. A review which the Free University of Berlin commissioned former Humboldt University of Berlin law scholar Ulrich Battis to perform arrived at the result that a reprimand would only have been appropriate in a minor case of deceit.

Klaus Gärditz, a law scholar at the University of Bonn who reviewed the case for the Christian Democrats in the Berlin City Parliament House of Representatives, argues that Berlin’s higher education law does not provide a legal basis for a reprimand, and that withdrawing the doctoral degree is the only appropriate action to be taken. Gärditz asks why the Free University of Berlin did not launch correct procedures with an unbiased university committee right from the start.

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