Are There Any Crises at German Universities?

Given my interest in public opinion and constitutional law, I've been following the so-called University of Virginia rape story with considerable interest. Briefly put, here's what happened:

  • On November 19, the US pop-culture magazine Rolling Stone publishes an explosive story about an alleged gang-rape at the University of Virginia, a prestigious state university. The lodestar of the story is an account by a 20-year-old student named Jackie, according to which she was viciously gang-raped by a bunch of fraternity members.
  • The story gains massive publicity in the U.S. According to some activists, there is an 'epidemic' of sexual assault on campus at American universities. One study concluded that 1 of every 5 female American university students will be 'sexually assaulted' before she graduates, although that statistic is based on an Internet survey conducted on just two campuses and which used an extremely loose definition of 'sexual assault'.
  • While skeptics question that statistic, which would mean that rape is more common on US university campuses than in war-torn central Africa, the President of the US, sensing a low-risk, high-reward political issue, decries the epidemic of campus rape on American universities.
  • Five days after the Rolling Stone story is published, Richard Bradley, an American editor, publishes a blog entry basically saying it's over-the-top, thinly sourced, and generally incredible:

One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases. And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naivete of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence—indeed, the existence—of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.

And, of course, this is a very charged time when it comes to the issue of sexual assault on campuses. Emotion has outswept reason. Jackie, for example, alleges that one out of three women who go to UVA has been raped. This is silly.

  • For this, Bradley is pilloried by feminists. Until, that is, further reporting, especially by the Washington Post, shows that Jackie's story is almost certainly a fabrication, and that the original reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never spoke to several witnesses who would have cast doubts on Jackie's story. In particular, she didn't even speak to the men Jackie accused of the rape.

The story has also gotten plenty of play in Germany, as you might expect. The story and its implosion raises plenty of fascinating legal questions, but I will spare you a discussion of those.

What strikes me is this: I work at a German university every day. I am surrounded by young undergraduate students, male and female. Many of them live close together, and they most certainly have parties, get drunk, and have sex. I mean, how could they not? Yet there seems to be no hysteria about a supposed epidemic of sexual assault or rape at German universities. No 'slut walks', no pressure to reform 'campus guidelines' to punish students accused of rape, no sit-ins, no dramatic stories of sexual assault. It's possible I've missed an op-ed or demonstration here or there, but I think I'm on 100% solid ground in saying there's nowhere near the level of hysteria in Germany as there is in the USA on this issue.

Why is this? Is it because German university students are more mature and law-abiding? Is the 'campus rape' bubble a typically American 'moral panic'? Is it because many German universities don't have traditional campuses which many students live on or near? Is it because German universities aren't expected to deal with crimes between students?

Or is it because the problem exists, but German universities are covering it up? What say you, readers?

A Free University Education for Americans

Since the price of a university education in the U.S. has been climbing for decades just as quality crumbles, some Americans are looking with interest at German universities. Rebecca Schuman at Slate makes some cogent points:

Last week, Lower Saxony made itself the final state in Germany to do away with any public university tuition whatsoever. You read that right. As of now, all state-run universities in the Federal Republic—legendary institutions that put the Bildung in Bildungsroman, like the Universität Heidelberg, the Universität München, or the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin—cost exactly nichts. (By the way, they weren’t exactly breaking the bank before, with semester fees of about EUR 500, or $630, which is often less than an American studentspends on books—but even that amount was considered “unjust” by Hamburg senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt.)

...Germany didn’t just abolish tuition for Germans. The tuition ban goes for international students, too. You heard me right, parents of Amerika: You want a real higher-education bargain? Get your kids to learn German and then pack them off to the Vaterland.

Of course, while it is both uplifting and jealousy-provoking to see our Teutonic friends put so much public investment into higher education—while we do just the opposite—there are important reasons that German universities have been either inexpensive or free for their entire existence. The German university experience isn’t worse than the American one, but there are vital cultural and infrastructural differences between our systems that bargain-hungry students (and their parents) might want to consider before bidding Auf Wiedersehen to Big State U.

First of all, the concept of “campus life” differs widely between our two countries. German universities consist almost entirely of classroom buildings and libraries—no palatial gyms with rock walls and water parks; no team sports facilities (unless you count the fencing fraternities I will never understand); no billion-dollar student unions with flat-screen TVs and first-run movie theaters. And forget the resort-style dormitories. What few dorms exist are minimalistic, to put it kindly—but that’s largely irrelevant anyway, as many German students still live at home with their parents, or in independent apartment shares, none of which foster the kind of insular, summer-camp-esque experience Americans associate closely with college life (and its hefty price tag). It’s quite common for German students simply to commute in for class, then leave.
I'd make a few other points:
1. You don't have to have great US grades to get admitted to a German university. Trust me, Germany routinely admits thousands of foreign students from developing countries whose education systems are barely functional. I'm sure someone who has a good high-school diploma will be able to find a place at some German unis, although entrance standards will vary and you'll have to fit your US credentials somehow into the utterly different German schema.

2. Germans often like to argue that their Abitur is the equivalent of a U.S. bachelors' degree but, of course, it's not. German 18-year-olds who get an Abitur are no better or worse educated than American 18-year-olds who have completed the most-talented track in a good American high school.

3. Something like 40-45% of Germans start university, but half drop out. Measuring education levels cross-culturally is tricky but about 27% of Americans graduated with a B.A. and about 23% of Germans have gotten the rough equivalent of one.

4. German universities are no-frills, sink-or-swim places. You can get an excellent education there, but you will have to show more initiative and drive and go out of your way to claim your professors' time. This helps to explain the high dropout rate.

The Miseducation of Annette Schavan

Yet another plagiarism scandal is rocking -- well, not really rocking, more like poking -- Germany. This time, with exquisite irony, the victim is the Education Minister of the entire country, Dr. Annette Schavan. She got her doctorate in education in 1980 from the University of Düsseldorf. Someone got a copy of her dissertation, which dealt with the development of a personal conscience, and began looking for unacknowledged quotations and uncited paraphrase of others' ideas. The results can be found on the blog Schavanplag (g), which contains a detailed listing of all the problematic pages.

The Faculty Council of the liberal arts college of the University of Düsseldorf, after lengthy review, voted 12 to 3 to withdraw her doctoral dissertation on grounds of evidence of sustained, intentional plagiarism. They held (g) that Schavan's dissertation contained (my translation): 'more than isolated instances of word-for-word copies of other texts without acknowledgement' and found that '[t]he frequency and the construction of these word-for-word copies, along with the failure to cite relevant literature in footnotes or in the bibliography have convinced the Faculty Council, after reviewing the entire work, that the doctoral candidate systematically and intentionally, throughout the entire dissertation, presented ideas as her own that were, in fact, not.'

Not precisely the sort of thing you want to read about your country's own education minister. But the withdrawing of her Ph.D. is just the beginning: the program she completed in 1980 led directly to a Ph.D without any intervening steps, so once the university withdraws it, she will have no official, earned academic title at all past high school. The final nail in the coffin is her remarks about Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the last conservative politician to have lost his job last year over plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. Back then, she announced (g) that as someone who had a Ph.D herself and met with many doctoral candidates, she was 'ashamed, and not just privately' about Guttenberg's conduct. Schavan has pledged to challenge the Faculty Council's decision in court, and to stay in office. But Angela Merkel has professed her 'full confidence' in Schavan, which means she's probably doomed.* One German newspaper calculated (g) that any politician who earns Merkel's 'full confidence' has, on average, 18.75 days left in office.

Whenever people ask me to compare Germans and Americans, I first order them to fill me with booze. Once that's done, then I pontificate as follows: 'The average middle-class American is driven about 90% by a desire for more money, and most of these people will come right out and tell you that. A similarly-situated German will be motivated 40% by money, 20% by job security, and 40% by the desire for officially-bestowed, external signs of high social status -- especially involving education or heredity. However, they will only admit the desire for job security, and will half-heartedly deny or rationalize the other motivations'. Perhaps the ultimate status symbol is the doctoral title which, under German law, can be made an official part of your name. The sacred two letters accompany you through life, surrounding you with a diffuse aura of scholarly dignity and good breeding.

Which is often spurious, of course. The social cachet of a doctoral title (which may also entitle you to higher salaries than your co-workers) drives thousands of ambitious young Germans to seek a title. A minority of these students are genuinely intellectually talented and interested in the advancement of human knowledge for its own sake. A majority, in my experience, just wants to find some way, any way, to bolt those two little letters to the front of their name for status/signalling reasons. They may well turn to dubious 'consulting agencies' which work with shady professors (g). One step above this are people who actually write a doctoral dissertation, but do so 'outside' the university system. In the German system only one professor supervises the actual dissertation-writing process, so if you find one who's relatively lax, you don't have to work up much of a sweat to get the title.

From my inbox:

I couldn’t help reading the story on Schavan today and just thinking “reap what you sow, Germany Bildungssystem”. Years of benign neglect to plagiarism, the discouraging of originality, the lack of substantive peer rigor at the higher academic levels and deference to professors who frequently supervise topics they can’t even evaluate the originality of have just resulted in what for Germans must seem like the End of All that is Good and True. Guttenberg was a case of a ‘friendly’ degree offered to someone obviously on his way to a higher political future than the academy, and I think there is a lot of tolerance for that here (and Schadenfreude when it blows up), but Schavan just struck a crippling blow to the whole concept of there being academic merit in this whole absurd title-chasing complex. If the Ministrix of Education loses her degree, that’s as bad as the Surgeon General being found to have obtained his medical degree at the Sweetrose Nursing Academy or the Minister of Consumer Affairs having marketed Vorwerk vacuum cleaners to math club students.

That about sums it up. Schavan is clearly doomed, and her case throws light on a very weak system. The problem is that all the superficial, crappy doctoral dissertations debase the currency. I haven't thought this through, but I envision something like a 2-tier process: you can either work with one professor to write a short, workmanlike survey of a particular area in 18 months-2 years (which doesn't need to be published), or you can opt for a 'real' doctoral dissertation, which must be more substantial, and which will take 3-4 years, and be supervised by a commission of three professors. In fact, this latter option could then replace the 'Habilitation', another German academic institution which may well have outlived its usefulness. I suppose this reform would end up with the German system looking much more like the American system. But comparing the number of plagiarism and/or fake-doctor scandals each system generates, switching to something more like the US system might be just what the doctor ordered (sorry about that!).

Continue reading "The Miseducation of Annette Schavan" »

The Legal Flea Circus

FleaCircus-Prof-W-Heckler-4I'm reading Thomas Fischer's entertaining essay Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft (g) (h/t Markus) and came across this gem:

The most malicious parable concerning the education of lawyers is found in a short sketch by Klaus Eschen: Legal education resembles the training of fleas -- you lock them in a box and put a glass plate on top of it. When the fleas try to jump, they hit the glass plate. As time goes by, they learn to jump less high even when the plate is removed. The process is repeated, putting the glass plate ever lower, until the fleas can do no more than creep  around: "When they've learned to move around only by creeping, they have completed their training for the flea circus. In legal terms, this is about the time of the bar exam."

Thomas Fischer, 'Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft', in Festschrift Für Ruth Rissing-Van Saan Zum 65. Geburtstag Am 25. Januar 2011, p. 163.

Fischer, a criminal-law judge on Germany's highest criminal court, is here reviewing another book, 'German-Language Criminal Law in Self-Portrait', a collection of autobiographical essays by leading German criminal-law professors. Fischer's essay could have been yet another German exercise in Selbtsbeweihräucherung*, but Fischer decides to probe beneath the surface. What do these essays reveal about the character and personality of German criminal-law professors, and of the state of the profession?

His conclusions are not particularly flattering. He finds the professors, in their own portraits, curiously passionless and conformist. Their life stories highlight conventional bourgeois virtues and portray a relatively quick and painless integration into the realities of university life: the long years spent sucking up to various authority figures, tedious disputes about arcane dogmatic positions, the gradual accumulation of a thick carapace of self-importance and professional vanity.

The primary maxim of most of these professors' lives, Fischer argues, is 'don't rock the boat'. This helps explain why they did startlingly little to analyze the role of German criminal law in National Socialist times. Although the professors writing their own biographies were born too late for the war, their mentors certainly weren't and many of them were active Nazis, sometimes fanatical ones. There are many descriptions of the brilliance and harmless eccentricities of the previous generation of scholars, but their involvement with Nazism is downplayed or ignored altogether. In German professorial circles, it seems, controversies about theoretical constructs which are of no interest to anyone outside a tiny circle are welcome, but discussions about the fundamental questions of personal responsibility, individual and social morality, and other such suspiciously interesting topics must be avoided at all costs.

Altogether a fascinating, if disturbing read. Nor did it go unnoticed: saying non-complimentary and occasionally controversial things about prominent professors has also gotten Fischer into a bit of trouble (g). Is Fischer on target, or is he too cynical? Just click on this link and judge for yourself. Oh wait, there is no link. As with so much of German academic writing, the essay appears nowhere online. It exists only on dead trees, packed into a 900-page book, gathering dust at your local law library. Sad, really -- this is a lively and insightful piece which deserves a broader audience...

Continue reading "The Legal Flea Circus" »

The Conservative Plagiarism Pandemic

I note with grim satisfaction that yet another conservative politician is facing allegations of having plagiarized in his doctoral disseration. This time it's Bernd Althusmann (g), member of the Christian Democratic Union center-right party. Ironically, he is also current chairman of the conference of education ministers, an influential working group of state education ministers that is responsible for maintaining standards of quality in the educational system.

I use the word satisfaction advisedly -- not because I feel Schadenfreude about this particular guy coming into the crosshairs, but because it's a good thing for Germany to be having this dissertation crisis. There are four kinds of university systems in the world, according to my experience:

First, those which aren't well-organized enough to confer doctoral titles.

Second, those who do confer doctoral titles, but in which much of the work is derivative, the process is often rigged or plagued with cheating, and nobody cares.

Third those who do confer doctoral titles, but in which much of the work is derivative, the process is often rigged or plagued with cheating, people do care and there are consequences.

Fourth and finally, those systems in which cheating or favoritism is rare, and thus virtually all doctoral titles really mean something.

For quite a while, Germany's system was, sad to say, in the second group of countries. Mechanisms for genuine accountability were pretty much nonexistent, and it was well-known that certain professors and universities would grant doctoral titles without too much fuss and bother about standards. Given Germany's obsession with titles, it was inevitable that hundreds of people would slap together piss-poor dissertations just to get the precious two letters, which are considered so important in Germany that they officially become part of your legal name (g).

Of course, the widespread toleration of third-rate career-enhancement dissertations debased the currency of the German doctoral title, punishing the majority of scholars who followed the rules and produced interesting -- or at least their own -- work. Yet the problem, as it is so often in Germany, was accountability. In order to clean out the Augean stables of crap dissertations, you might actually have to enforce rules and punish wrongdoers, which is hard to do in a culture, like Germany's, that enforces rigid insider/outsider distinctions and lets insiders get away with an awful lot of laziness and underhanded dealing.

This latest crop of revelations seems to be changing that. Universities are finally, belatedly beginning to put in force checks and sanctions for doctoral plagiarism, although it remains to be seen exactly how stringently they'll be enforced. Germany is slowly moving into the third category, and when that happens, it may be only a matter of time before it reaches stage four. The boil must be lanced! Reaching stage four also involves, not incidentally, reducing the number of dissertations handed out by weeding out the pure careerists. I see this as a very good thing.

I have one other comment. So far, all the doctor-cheaters have been members of center-right parties. Is this just a coincidence, or does it have something to do with the mindset of the kind of people who would join these parties? Could it be that German conservative politicians are unusually subject to a combination of yearning for social distinction commingled with a superficial careerist mentality?

The Bread-Fed Scholar and the Philosophical Mind

At a party this weekend, this passage from Schiller came up during conversation:

The course of studies which the scholar who feeds on bread alone sets himself, is very different from that of the philosophical mind. The former, who, for all his diligence, is interested merely in fulfilling the conditions under which he can perform a vocation and enjoy its advantages, who activates the powers of his mind only thereby to improve his material conditions and to satisfy a narrow-minded thirst for fame, such a person has no concern upon entering his academic career, more important than distinguishing most carefully those sciences which he calls ’studies for bread,’ from all the rest, which delight the mind for their own sake. Such a scholar believes, that all the time he devoted to these latter, he would have to divert from his future vocation, and this thievery he could never forgive himself. He will direct all of his diligence to the demands made upon him by the future master of his fate, and he will believe he has achieved everything once he has made himself capable of not fearing this authority. Once he has run his course and attained the goal of his desires, he dismisses the sciences which guided him, for why should he bother with them any longer? His greatest concern now is to display these accumulated treasures of his memory, and to take care, that their value not depreciate. Every extension of his bread-science upsets him, because it portends only more work, or it makes the past useless; every important innovation frightens him, because it shatters the old school form which he so laboriously adopted, it places him in danger of losing the entire effort of his preceding life.

Who rants more against reformers than the gaggle of bread-fed scholars? Who more holds up the progress of useful revolutions in the kingdom of knowledge than these very men? Every light radiated by a happy genius, in whichever science it be, makes their poverty apparent; their foils are bitterness, insidiousness, and desperation, for, in the school system they defend, they do battle at the same time for their entire existence. On that score, there is no more irreconcilable enemy, no more jealous official, no one more eager to denounce heresy than the bread-fed scholar. The less his knowledge rewards him on its own account, the more he devours acclaim thrown at him from the outside; he has but one standard for the work of the craftsman, as well as for the work of the mind—effort. Thus, one hears no one complain more about ingratitude than the bread-fed scholar; he seeks his rewards not in the treasures of his mind—his recompense he expects from the recognition of others, from positions of honor, from personal security. If he miscarries in this, who is more unhappy than the bread-fed scholar? He has lived, worried, and worked in vain; he has sought in vain for truth, if for him this truth not transfer itself into gold, published praise, and princely favor.

'Buy Yourself a Professor'

That's the title of a recent article (g) in Unispiegel, a section of the Spiegel website) dedicated to higher education news. It details a secret contract signed by the Humboldt University and the Technical University and Deutsche Bank. The Deutsche Bank funds two professorships and an institute (the "Quantitative Products Laboratory"), and in return gets certain privileges (my translation):

A steering committee directs the research initiative, deciding among other things about the practical implementation, the research strategy to be employed, [and] personnel resources... The committee is composed of two representatives of the Deutsche Bank and two university professors. The deciding factor is the voting procedure in a tie: "If the voting results in a tie, the Managing Director will have the final say," it provides in paragraph 3 of the contract. And the Managing Director comes from Deutsche Bank.

The bank also decides which research results will be made public. Papers "will be made available to the Deutsche Bank at least 60 days before they are presented to third parties, for instance for purposes of a first publication, so that a decision can be made whether to permit their publication." The Deutsch Bank generously concedes that it will be "generous" in its decisions about publication, however only to the extent that "the interests of Deutsche Bank are not affected." Only after two years are scholars free to publish their research any way they please.

Deutsche Bank also secured influence over teaching, by specifying that "their employees will, according to valid regulations, be hired as adjunct professors and to grade student work." In Paragraph 7 the Bank specifies, under the heading "Personnel Marketing", that it will be assisted by the university in hiring new employees.

The secret contract was revealed by a professor emeritus of political science, Peter Grottian. According to the Spiegel article, the "scientific community" has reacted with "outrage". The head of the German University Association said, for instance, "One can hardly avoid the impression that this contract involves the purchase of academic work (Wissenschaft)." Yet he must know that this story is just the tip of the iceberg.

I'm of two minds about this sort of thing. People who study more practical sorts of majors such as finance or biology (and, to an extent, law) are likely to seek jobs in the private sector after they graduate, and programs that let them gain real-world experience are a fine idea. (Ideally, there should also be similarly well-funded programs for people who don't intend to go work for private industry, but I'm not holding my breath for that.) I also don't have a huge problem with naming rights. As tacky as the results might be sometimes, it's hardly a threat to academic freedom, as long as the donors don't get any influence over who will be hired for a sponsored professorship or what will be taught in the building named after them.

But this deal is bad for two reasons: first, because it remained secret. This is not unusual in Germany, in which a combination of strict privacy laws, no whistleblowing culture, and a clubby insider mentality impair transparency and accountability everywhere you turn. The Humboldt University and the Technical University are both financed by German taxpayers' money, and any important contract the University enters into should be open for public inspection. The rule should be firmly established from the very beginning, so that Deutsche Bank, or a pharmaceutical company, or an insurance company, know that any provision they negotiate with a university will be public, for all to see.

Second, this contract shows how private industry dominates in negotiations with universities. On one side of this deal you have rich, cunning, hard-charging businesspeople working for billion-euro globe-spanning corporation. On the other, you have professors and bureaucrats who may well have never spent an hour working in the private sector under normal conditions (i.e., not as interns or consultants). German universities rarely have dedicated administrators responsible for negotiating third-party contracts, and even if they do, these people are probably tenured bureaucrats who will never as hard-charging and aggressive as private-sector operators. Further, the professors are often under pressure to obtain outside funding, and the private-sector people know this. Given these incentives, it's no wonder that private firms often steamroll universities in negotiating these sorts of contracts. The universities underestimate their bargaining power.

This problem of private-sector actors seeking inappropriate concessions is definitely not limited to Berlin, it happens all over the place, including the university I work at. The key thing is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: some cooperation between the private sector and universities is desirable, it just needs to happen in ways that preserve academic freedom. Here's my preferred solution: First, pass a law simply making it illegal for a university that receives any public money to bargain away any of its academic freedom in contracting with the private sector. Any contract provision that purported to give a private company any say over publications, etc. would be unenforceable. That would set up appropriate ground rules before the negotiations even began. Second, all contracts entered into with third-party funders must be made public, preferably by being scanned in on the Internet and posted to a website. Once again, you could make this a private-law enforcability rule: any contract or provision that was not made public cannot be enforced in a court of law.

The solutions should be applicable nationwide, to prevent a "race to the bottom". These rules might deter some cooperation between higher education and the private sector, but I would hope that it would be precisely the most problematic sorts of "cooperation" that would fade away, while the healthier kind went on unimpeded.


Spiegel Online interviews (g) the operator of a satirical German website called ('buy-a-title'). Apparently they get plenty of requests from irony-impaired German's who don't realize the site is a joke:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The most famous doctor in Germany, who obtained his title through years of hard work, and plagiarism, was the jurist and former minister Guttenberg. How is it with his colleagues? Do you get many requests from lawyers?

Bücherl: The number is shockingly high. Many are qualified lawyers who now want to add a 'Dr.' to their names. Especially with lawyers, you have to assume they know what they're doing.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you actually try to find out how much money your airy-fairy applicants would be willing to pay for a title?

Bücherl: There's a box where they can enter the price they're willing to pay. It ranges from a couple Euro for a journeyman's certificate to six-figure sums for a title of nobility. We once got an inquiry from a real title-dealer. He wanted to know whether we had access to an actual member of the nobility who would be willing t to adopt someone -- for a six-figure sum.

Ahh, the blessings of winning the metempsychosis lottery! The extra syllables in your name means that people will pay hundreds of thousands of euros to be adopted by you -- an insufferably smug unemployed tenured student of 'German literature' who calls himself a 'man of letters' and lives off rents from inherited real estate! Soon you'll have your very own von Manson family.

But really, you don't have to get adopted by some lazy toff to reap the unearned respect of your social inferiors: you can just adopt a title of nobility as a your artist's name (g) for a small fee, and it's off to the races -- literally.