Protest of the Professors

The war of words over efforts to reform Germany's hierarchical university system ratcheted up a notch last week. The latest salvo is a 4-page advertisement in the nation's top newspaper, signed by 3759 professors, that criticizes the research ministry's plans to create "junior professors," phase out the Habilitation requirement--a kind of extended postdoc needed to secure academic tenure--and change some work rules that favor professors.

Under the headline "Protect Universities From the Departure of Their Top Talent," the ad urges the German Parliament to reject the proposed reforms. It says they would degrade the quality of professorships under the guise of promoting more independence for younger researchers. Hartmut Schiedermair, a law professor at the University of Cologne, warns that presenting the reforms as "cost neutral" is misleading and that the more likely result will be pay cuts that will drive many new professors into industry or abroad. Schiedermair is also president of the main organization of German university professors, the Deutscher Hochschulverband (DHV), that placed the ad in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. The signatories represent nearly 12% of the country's 32,000 professors.

The chief target of the DHV's wrath is research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn, who has championed the reform package. A ministry spokesperson calls the campaign "unserious and full of errors." For example, she rejects the DHV's assertion that salaries for new professors would fall drastically under the new system.

Supporters of the reforms include the German conference of university rectors and presidents and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, president of the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) basic-research granting agency. They and others argue that the best way to promote the independence of young scientists is to create "junior professorships"--roughly equivalent to U.S.-style assistant professor slots--and to phase out the post-Ph.D. Habilitation requirement, which puts young researchers under the thumb of senior professors for years.

The lobbying from all sides is converging on Germany's Parliament, which appears likely to make a decision later this year. With one of Germany's leading newspapers describing the fight as "The Bulls Against Bulmahn," the debate promises to be one of the nation's liveliest in years.

Related sites

Deutscher Hochschulverband, with information on the protests (in German)
German conference of university rectors and presidents
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft