Merkel Backs Education Minister Buffeted by Plagiarism Charge

German Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan
A file photo showing German Federal Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan speaking at the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue Innovation Conference in Berlin during May 2007. Photographer: Adam Berry/Bloomberg

German Chancellor Angela Merkel rallied to the side of her education and research minister after she was stripped of her doctorate amid allegations of plagiarism.

Annette Schavan said that she was challenging the decision by the Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf after it concluded yesterday that she had “systematically” copied parts of her 1980 doctoral thesis on philosophy. Schavan, 57, who is on an official trip to South Africa, said she didn’t plan to resign, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported.

The chancellor “values her work as a minister and has full confidence in her,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, said at a regular government press conference in Berlin today. Once Schavan returns to Germany, “it will be possible to talk calmly, and the minister will explain her position in more detail,” he said.

The opposition called on Schavan to quit, seeking to put Merkel under pressure eight months before federal elections. Schavan, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is a confidante of the Chancellor and the only Cabinet minister to have served in the same post since Merkel was elected in 2005.

The allegations “are baseless,” Schavan said today on her Twitter Inc. account. “Having received the decision, I will file a challenge against it.”

She is the second German Cabinet minister in two years accused of plagiarizing a PhD thesis. Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg stepped down in March 2011, two weeks after he was stripped of his doctorate.

‘Cheating Is Cheating’

The three opposition parties in parliament said Schavan, who is also science minister, could no longer serve as a role model for young academics and had to go. She “didn’t bluff as boldly as Guttenberg,” Thomas Oppermann, the chief whip for the main opposition Social Democratic Party, said in an e-mailed statement. “But cheating is cheating.”

While the affair is a distraction for Merkel as she bids for a third term in September’s vote, it is unlikely to hurt her approval ratings in the long run. Guttenberg had a higher profile than Schavan as the most popular politician in Germany at the time, yet his decision to quit failed to taint Merkel even after she publicly backed him. Support for her party rose in an opinion poll published today.

The allegations surrounding Schavan’s dissertation surfaced on the Internet in May 2012 and the minister herself asked her former university to investigate.

‘Not Her Own’

After a meeting lasting more than five hours yesterday, the university concluded Schavan’s thesis contained “significant amounts of non-identified passages taken word for word from other texts,” Professor Bruno Bleckmann, dean of the philosophy department, said in an e-mailed statement. The faculty council found that Schavan had “systematically and knowingly” advanced “intellectual thoughts that in reality were not her own.”

The decision “was based on a flawed procedure” and was illegal, Schavan’s law firm, Redeker Sellner Dahs, said in a statement posted on her website. “There was no deception” on Schavan’s part, according to the statement.

The plagiarism scandal comes as Merkel’s Social Democratic challenger Peer Steinbrueck attempts to put her on the backfoot over banks, her policy on the debt crisis and what he says is a growing gap between rich and poor in Germany. The Cabinet today set the election date for Sept. 22.

Support for Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc rose one percentage point to 41 percent while Steinbrueck’s SPD held at 25 percent in a weekly Forsa poll for Stern magazine released today. Backing for the SPD’s Green Party allies was also unchanged at 15 percent, while Merkel’s Free Democratic Party coalition partner held at 4 percent, below the 5 percent threshold to win parliament seats. Forsa polled 2,500 voters on Jan. 28-Feb. 1. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.

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