Professor ends hunger strike

February 11, 2000

A German university professor is claiming a cautious victory after his hunger-strike forced his university leadership to reconsider axing his interdisciplinary institute for the philosophy of humans and genetics.

Karl-Friedrich Wessel, who will be 65 this year, had vowed to remain 24 hours a day in his office at Humboldt University in Berlin, drinking only mineral water, until the university reconsidered its plan not to replace his professorship on his retirement in June.

And he soon found it pays to hunger for science: after his 12-day fast, fed only by the oxygen of publicity, the university gave in and promised an independent expert commission to evaluate the work of his institute. The results will be published by the end of June and will be the basis of a final decision about its future, said a university spokesman.

The university had previously promised an internal development planning commission would explore the institute's future in discussion with Professor Wessel.

"I am now sceptically optimistic," said Professor Wessel. "I do not know who will sit on the commission and how the university will decide afterwards. But I feel it has been worth it."

Professor Wessel said his hunger-strike had been a "last resort", because for eight years he had not even been able to win a proper hearing for his case from the university.

The institute, with two academic staff and one secretary, investigates the development of humans from their creation to death. It encompasses biology, psychology, medicine and philosophy. It publishes research, an academic journal and has built a web of international academic contacts. It has already undergone external quality assessment processes.

But he said all this work would be lost if the university pressed ahead with its plan not to replace his professorship when he reaches compulsory retirement age this summer.

The university says it can fill only 10 per cent of the professorships falling vacant this year. It wants to give priority to posts that will contribute the most to teaching and examining students.

Professor Wessel, who weighed only 68 kilos at the start of his hunger-strike, lost 7.5 kilos in the 12 days. But he feels his high-profile protest was worth it. "I feel I have made a lot of new friends - and a few new enemies."

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