German education minister resigns amidst plagiarism scandal

Germany’s education minister has been forced to resign amidst a plagiarism scandal involving her doctorate.

Heinrich Heine University revoked Annette Schavan’s title after a 12-2 vote last week, citing systemic and intentional plagiarism in her 350-page dissertation on how the conscience is formed.

“The office cannot be damaged,” a visibly upset Schavan said at a news conference Saturday, adding she intends to maintain her position in parliament and will take the matter to court.

“I will not accept the decision of the university. I have neither written nor deceived. The allegations hit me deeply.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she accepted Schavan’s resignation “with a heavy heart” but didn’t comment on the plagiarism charge itself.

Schavan found out about the university’s decision while traveling in South Africa last week.

At first, Merkel expressed confidence in her friend and fellow Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party member, but members of the opposition called for her resignation.

Critics said she couldn’t remain education minister with this stain on her academic record.

Schavan will be replaced by Lower Saxony’s Minister for Science, Johanna Wanka.

Germans are very conscientious about their academic degrees and it is common to refer to those with PhD’s by the title Doctor.

Losing a degree is a big blow to a person’s integrity and reputation.

The investigation began last year after a website called “Schavanplag” went online to cite irregularities.

There are several research groups in the country that dig through the thesis papers of politicians running for office, looking for unattributed quotations that can be found in other works.

Prof. Dr. Ursula Gresser is a member of one called, which is made up of academics and professionals working in areas such as economics, medicine and law.

She won’t say how many cases of plagiarism her group has uncovered, but confirms it was part of the Schavan investigation.

“We have the reputation to be stringent and reliable. In most cases, the universities follow our advice and start an own inquiry,” she wrote in an email response to questions by CBC News.

“It is important because the results of a thesis are becoming part of scientific knowledge. And if a thesis is dirty, it harms everyone, who will be affected of the matter. Repetition of content harms, because it intensifies the plagiated content without having scientific basis.”

Gresser says her group targets all politicians equally and is not partisan.

“We are endeavored strongly to be neutral. We are not working anonymously – this is the most important differences to other plagiat hunting groups.”

But she also admits, the head of the group, Martin Heidingsfelder, was a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) before joining the Pirate Party in 2012. He is running in the September elections.

Gresser herself was a member of Merkel's coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), for 15 years and has been an active member of the Christian Social Union – the CDU's more conservative sister party in Bavaria – since 1992. She is not a candidate for the Bundestag in the fall.

This is the second resignation over plagiarism in Merkel’s cabinet, and causes her some embarrassment heading into election season.

In 2011, then-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg stepped down after losing his doctorate from the University of Bayreuth for similar reasons.

At the time, Schavan was one of the first to condemn him for plagiarizing, saying it was “shameful.”