Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Causa Schavan: The Final Report

The final report by the dean of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Düsseldorf, Bruno Bleckmann, to the university's Academic Senate about the rescinding of the doctorate of Annette Schavan, the former German Minister of Education, has been leaked. The blog Causa Schavan has been publishing summaries of parts of this confidential document for the past ten days and has now put the entire final report online. It includes copies of letters and emails from leaders of top German academic associations, research organizations, and other bodies unknown outside of Germany but quite important for research financing that were addressed to the dean or the vice-dean.

Schavan submitted her thesis in 1980. In 2012 an anonymous blog, schavanplag, published an online documentation of substantial plagiarism in her thesis. In the aftermath of the doctorate of German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg being rescinded by the University of Bayreuth in 2011 and him stepping down as minister, Ms. Schavan had remarked that she was mortified by his plagiarism and was making no secret of her opinions. Another public plagiarism discussion erupted.

When the Faculty of Letters decided that there was sufficient suspicion to warrant opening an investigation, they found themselves the target of immense pressure, both public and (as can be seen in the final report) private from the many supporters of Ms. Schavan. Many misused their high offices to air their private opinions on the case that many found to be politically motivated.

The Faculty of Letters focused solely on the academic questions at hand and ignored the verbal abuse from the "titans of science" that only increased when the plagiarism documentation prepared by the vice-dean was leaked to the national press. The final report included the letter the vice-dean wrote detailing the precautions that he took so that the report would not be leaked.

The Faculty Board voted to rescind the doctorate. Ms. Schavan then stepped down as Minister of Education in order to take the university to court in the hopes of forcing them to revoke the rescinding of her doctorate on procedural grounds. The court, however, upheld the stance of the university. Ms. Schavan, now without a university degree, has since been sent as the German ambassador to the Holy See. 

If you read German, Dean Bleckmann's final report is a finely crafted and well-documented summary of the entire investigation and the wave of vituperation hurled at the dean and vice dean of the faculty in particular and the university in general. Bleckmann remarks ironically on p. 16 why he (a historian) has collected these documents:
Die zahlreichen verbalen Entgleisungen sind vielleicht dereinst für die historische Invektivenforschung von Interesse. (The extensive verbal harassment is perhaps of interest someday for historical research on invective.)
One reads of high-ranking German education luminaries and honorable retired professors offering up personal opinion and verbal abuse without bothering in the least to even study the materials available. In addition to the schavanplag blog and a legal expertise on the procedures to be followed that are publicly available, it turned out that (perhaps surprising for some) actual books and brochures were to be found detailing good academic practice at the time Ms. Schavan wrote her dissertation. The concept of delineating the beginning and end of the thoughts and/or words of others and giving a reference to the place the material to be found is shockingly not at all a recent convention. It also has nothing to do with available technology or the Internet or any other tangential topics, but is the means by which academics work: giving credit to the work of others, embedded within reasoning and findings of their own.

Bleckmann closes with an interesting observation (p. 22f):
Ich kann hinzufügen, dass auch an unserer Fakultät weitere Plagiatsverfahren anhängig sind, die entgegen der Ankündigung von Herrn Marquardt selbstverständlich auf der Grundlage der gleichen, durch das Gericht bestätigten Prinzipien durchgeführt werden. Die um die Wahrung aller wissenschaftlichen Regeln, Prinzipien und Leitsätze so ängstlich besorgten Wissenschaftsorganisationen haben an unseren weiteren derzeit anhängigen Prüfverfahren allerdings bis jetzt nicht das geringste Interesse gezeigt, so dass dieses wertvolle Korrektiv in Zukunft wohl leider entfallen wird. 
In short, as a translation of these two exquisite sentences into English would be quite difficult: There are other accusations of plagiarism currently being investigated at the Faculty of Letters in Düsseldorf, and they are being treated in exactly the same manner. However, to date none of the academic organizations that were so concerned with academic principles have shown any interest whatsoever in any of these cases.

The University of Düsseldorf stood up for academic freedom, a valuable and rare commodity in these times. 

2 comments:

  1. Leider ist es nicht die Universität, sondern nur einige mutige Personen und der Rektor ist vermutlich wegen der Causa Schavan geschasst worden.
    http://www.wz-newsline.de/polopoly_fs/1.1613485.1397658383!/menu/standard/file/rektorrede.pdf


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  2. I have it on good authority that the vice-dean has severed all ties with the German Research Foundation (DFG) to protest the public defamation of the Dusseldorf investigation.This is a remarkable step to take, as the DFG is the main source of research funding in Germany.

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