Last night, news broke that German Secretary of Research & Education, Annette Schavan, is about to have her Ph.D. title revoked on accounts of plagiarism. The accusations first started 9 months ago, still in the maelstrom of government colleague zu Guttenberg (Secretary of Defense) having to step down from his post due to a completely plagiarized Ph.D.
Now Guttenberg was a smarmy, aristocratic, leader karma media darling of the most dreadfully unappealing kind, whose Colgate smile was online outshone by his sheer impertinence and his staggering inability to take responsibility for his outrageous cheating. To this day, he has neither admitted to nor apologized for what was probably (that would be my guess) a ghostwritten copy-paste dissertation. Well, good riddance.
Schavan, back then already Secretary of Research and Education, went on record saying that she was appalled by his plagiarism. Following Guttenberg, several more politicians lost their Ph.D. degrees because public plagiarism check projects could prove that their dissertations held large parts of undeclared copied material.
It has become a bit of a sport to point at politicians and doubt their doctoral degrees, if they have one. It’s too bad that in many cases, the plagiarism accusations turn out to be true. And now even the Secretary of Research and Defense, who – sweet irony – did her Ph.D. on the genesis of human conscience?
Still, I do believe that there is a big difference, even though Schavan probably wouldn’t like my reasoning. Yes, her Ph.D. (undeclared copied material on display here) has technical flaws and there are undeclared quotes in it. It’s nowhere near the amount of cheating done by Guttenberg or others, though. Frankly, taking into considerations the conditions under which the work was written, I don’t think it’s enough to revoke her title (at least not with such absolute vigor and schadenfreude), although it’s always been enough to show that Schavan isn’t exactly the stellar academic she likes to think she is (she does have an honorary professorship for theology, for instance).
Schavan wrote her Ph.D. in Education Sciences, some 30 years ago. Yes, her declaring citations wasn’t up to par even back then, and she shouldn’t have gotten her degree in the first place, but the point is: I don’t think she consciously went out to cheat (which is the core accusation now). I think she’s simply not that bright.
To understand the context, I find it important to know that Schavan wrote her dissertation in her mid-twenties, without ever having written a bigger work before – she did not obtain a BA or MA first (back then, degrees went straight to MA). Instead of a MA, she was offered to go directly for the Ph.D. This not only means that without her Ph.D., she doesn’t have any university degree now (a thing the media delights in at the moment), but it also means that she never wrote a BA thesis or a MA thesis prior to her Ph.D. She was young, in a hurry (she had to quickly come up with the dissertation to be able to take on a prestigious job with a Catholic scholarship program) and without experience.
So, yes, there are errors, and there are undeclared citations, and she shouldn’t have gotten her degree for it, not by standards both past and present, but personally, I do believe that she didn’t go out of her way to cheat. She simply didn’t take the rules that closely into consideration in her hurry, possibly not even knowing what she did wrong along the way.
The issue at hand is, to me, not as much bad citation behavior that may border on cheating, but a missing reality check regarding Schavan’s academic honors.
Even though Schavan takes great pride in her academic achievements, her Ph.D. isn’t stellar work. I don’t think it would have qualified her to remain in academia, and I don’t think she would have ended up with a regular professorship based on it (unless it would have been with the usual party book nepotism instead of qualifications – very common both those and these days).
In my opinion, it’s good for a Secretary of Research and Education to have worked in academia up to a certain degree, and to hold a Ph.D., but it’s not necessary. I prefer a good politician without the title to a bad politician with a bad title.
Which brings me to the actual sad point of Schavan’s impressive career: while she’s not a brilliant academic, she isn’t, in my opinion, a great Secretary of Research and Education, either. From handling student protests to inventing the poorly received Deutschlandstipendium, her track record is lackluster and downright unmemorable. The university system is a mess, more out of federal reach than ever, underfunded and overcrowded, with disastrous conditions for Ph.D. students and post docs.
For a National Secretary of Education and Research, even the dismissal or missing knowledge of basic quoting rules should be enough to step down, especially when the title has been used so much as an entitlement along the way. But I don’t care as much about her title – willful cheaters with worse attitudes have managed to kept theirs, which isn’t an excuse, but the queue of others who should lose their titles first is rather long – as I care about her (in my opinion) insufficient work as Secretary of Education and Research.
Schavan has already announced that she will file a lawsuit against her title being revoked, which, as things associated to someone responsible on a Federal Level for Education and Research go, is an embarrassing scenario to witness, even if she wins her claim and may keep her title in the end. Meanwhile, for months on end, the country would have a Secretary of Education and Research who is having credibility issues regarding her own title, and even if Schavan were to prove her innocence (and, thus, herself a ditz – “Yes, you may keep your Ph.D. gained with a mediocre work that has severe citation issues”?!), she would have to step down.
On a side note, I believe the university had to revoke the title to not gain the image of going easy on possible cheaters – in a different political climate with less light being shed on politicians’ Ph.D.s, Schavan would probably have kept her title with ease. But would she have made a better Secretary of Eucation and Research?