Chipping Away at Feudal Vestiges in Academe

This article appears in the January 5, 2001 issue of Science magazine.

Any young German scientist hoping to carve out an academic career faces a daunting barrier: the notorious post-Ph.D. Habilitation requirement. To be eligible for tenure, young scholars are required to work for 6 years or more as a kind of academic apprentice, dependent on a senior professor for support. Now, this centuries-old academic peculiarity may finally be on the way out.

Last week, the DFG, Germany's central research foundation, announced a new program of "junior professorships" that will provide independent support for young researchers. Beginning in the next few months, young scientists will be able to apply for 3-year support for their own research or group projects they head.

At the same time, the German Donor's Association--the country's major private science-funding body-- announced that it is starting a program of "research professorships." These will fund university positions for researchers under age 35, with 150,000 DM (about $72,000) annually for a period of 4 years, for independent studies. Priority will be given to new and interdisciplinary areas of research.

Both these new programs present a direct challenge to the hegemony of senior professors, and they are being viewed as key steps in the eventual elimination of the Habilitation requirement. A blue-ribbon committee of scientists and government officials advocated such a move last spring, arguing that Germany's academic research system should move toward the U.S. model, with "junior professor" slots replacing the Habilitation positions (see Next Wave article and Science mag., 21 April 2000, p. 413).

The Habilitation system is widely seen as a disincentive for young scientists, especially women, to remain in academic research. "There is every reason to get rid of the Habilitation, and to create a new position for young scholars and scientists that gives them more autonomy," says Lorraine Daston, an American historian who directs the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The best young scholars are moving to academic positions abroad, where they do not suffer "the indignity of a system they consider feudal," as Daston puts it.

The German federal government backs the new initiatives. Edelgard Bulmahn, minister for education and research, has put reform of the state-governed higher education system at the top of her agenda. "It is urgently necessary that the laws which regulate the employment of professors, which were passed in the 19th century, be adapted to the new reality," she said in a statement last fall.

But these new initiatives are just the first step, and even they are controversial. A coalition of university professors has opposed doing away with the Habilitation because it could erode the quality of academic training. Others have argued that simply renaming the postdoctoral track from "Habilitation" to "junior professorship" will do little to alter dependency relations within the universities.

Gerhard Sagerer, a computer scientist and dean of the technical faculty of the University of Bielefeld, argues that the system is already changing fast. He says the Habilitation has lost its importance in some fields of science and that there will be fewer fixed professorships in the future. Instead, department heads will have much more freedom to allocate resources.

Marc Schalenberg, a young historian who has just started his Habilitation at Humboldt University in Berlin, hopes to be one of the first to profit from the new initiatives. Instead of "hanging completely in the air after my Habilitation," he says, "I could now try and apply for a junior professorship," which could put him on the road to a permanent academic position more quickly. But this revolution may come too late for those who are already at a relatively advanced stage of their Habilitation: Today, the average German academic is 44 by the time he or she is eligible for a tenured position.

With additional reporting by Janina Wellman.Parnes and Wellman are writers in Berlin.

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