Merkel Education Minister Steps Down to Fight Plagiarism Charges

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s education and research minister stepped down from the Cabinet to fight allegations that she plagiarized her doctoral thesis.

Annette Schavan, 57, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, was stripped of her doctorate by the University of Dusseldorf on Feb. 5. She denies that she copied her 1980 PhD and said she will challenge the charge.

Schavan “offered her resignation to me last night” and “I very reluctantly accepted it,” Merkel said at a joint press conference with her minister in Berlin today. She is “one of the most recognized and distinguished education politicians in the country,” who “lives education, research and science policy,” Merkel said. “I thank her from the bottom of my heart for everything she has done in her professional life for our country.”

Merkel nominated Johanna Wanka, the outgoing minister for science and culture in Lower Saxony state to replace Schavan. She will be appointed to the Cabinet on Feb. 14.

Schavan, a Merkel confidante and the only member of Cabinet to have held the same post since the chancellor came to power in 2005, is the second German minister to be the subject of plagiarism allegations in two years. Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg stepped down in March 2011, two weeks after he was stripped of his doctorate.

Internet Allegations

Anonymous allegations surrounding Schavan’s dissertation surfaced on the Internet in May 2012 and the minister asked her former university to investigate. Schavan was in South Africa on an official trip when the Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf announced the results. It concluded she had “systematically” copied parts of her 1980 doctoral thesis on philosophy.

“I won’t accept this decision and will sue against it,” Schavan said today. “I neither copied nor cheated,” she said. “The allegations insult me deeply.” She plans to retain her seat in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.

While the affair is a distraction for Merkel eight months before federal elections, it is unlikely to disrupt her bid for a third term. Guttenberg’s loss didn’t cause any lasting damage to Merkel’s approval ratings even though he was the most popular German politician at the time.

“Schavan stepping down does not have a lot of consequences for Merkel,” Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at the Forsa polling institute in Berlin, said in a phone interview. “We saw it with Guttenberg; once he resigned, the story was over.”

Public opinion is “relatively divided” on whether Schavan should go, lessening the political impact still further, Matuschek said. In a Feb. 8 Forsa poll for broadcaster RTL, 49 percent of respondents said that Schavan should step down, and 43 percent said she should stay.

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