Another German high-official was recently in the middle of a discussion about a supposedly problematic Ph.D. thesis. After the popular politician and defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the Education minister, Annette Schavan was accused of using other people’s works for her doctorate completed in 1980. Ironically enough, Schavan, a close collaborator of German chancellor Angela Merkel, had among other responsibilities, the duty to oversee the activity of universities, including those in relation to the awarding of doctoral degrees.
The question about the originality of Schavan’s thesis was opened by a blogger, but the ex-minister denied the accusations and threatened legal action. Heinrich Heine University of Dusseldorf, which awarded her the title in 1980, decided to revoke her doctorate, but Schavan did not agree with the decision announcing the possibility to request justice in the reestablishment of her academic rights. Thus, the decision to quit was rather aimed at avoiding the unpleasant situation of having a Minister of Education fighting against an institution in her direct responsibility.
As in the case of zu Guttenberg, there were speculations about political games involved in the revelation of the plagiarism, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. The process, if started, may last for a couple of months, if not years, and in terms of image prejudice, the damage is harder to correct than to prevent. Shortly after the decision of the University of Dusseldorf, Schavan’s honorary doctorate awarded by the University of Cairo in 2009 was retired as well. Most probably others will follow the example.
When an academic becomes a politician, the world may appear differently. First of all, he or she may not have too much time to update the bibliography, read and go to conferences. I often wonder if a Minister of Education with a strong academic background can be a better manager. Of course, it is important to have in this position a minister familiar with the educational system, and with university studies, but the qualities of a manager are acquired through a different type of training. Also, it is rather more important that the minister has around him or her good counsels with direct involvement in the academy who can provide the proper insights about the problems faced by the system.
As in other similar cases of doctoral plagiarism among German politicians, this latest case offers another perspective on the local academic life. In the whole German-speaking realm, the academic titles opened the door to high social prestige and appreciation. In a way, it is the normal reward after years of hard study and personal constraints. On the other hand, the titles – one or two or even more Ph.D.s and other honorary titles – are not a guarantee for moral accountability. There should be, and there are, high societal expectations for the holders of those titles. But I am not quite sure to what extent ethics are part of the compulsory curricula for Ph.D. candidates. Maybe the rush and pressure to become a doctor – for family, social, and even for financial reasons – leads one to ignore the human element of the title. Maybe it is lacking humility that the title is not the end of the journey, but the beginning of a new stage, when the new academic contributes with humility to the changing of his small academic domain.