Professors’ protest forces out new university head

Göttingen loses president-elect and chair of search committee after legal challenge 

September 10, 2019
Source: Getty

One of Germany’s most historically significant universities has been engulfed in crisis after its president-elect stood aside, amid accusations by professors that he lacked a good enough research record and that his selection process had been “clandestine”.

The University of Göttingen, which has educated figures including statesman Otto von Bismarck and the sociologist Max Weber, has faced criticism from politicians, a legal challenge, and now has to rerun the search for a president.

The case highlights the continuing importance of academic involvement in the appointment of university leaders in Germany, in contrast to the role of governing bodies and headhunters in many anglophone systems.

In June this year, Göttingen announced that Sascha Spoun, an economist and president of the University of Lüneburg, would take over as president in 2020.

But internally Professor Spoun’s appointment caused consternation among some academics. According to Dorothea Bahns, a mathematics professor and one of the academics who led criticism of the decision, “the process was absolutely clandestine”.

Deans and a “rather arbitrary selection of colleagues” met Professor Spoun shortly before the senate voted, she said, but were forbidden to make public who the presidential candidate was. When it leaked out, a group of close to 100 academics unsuccessfully demanded the postponement of the election, she said.

“This is completely contrary to German tradition, where a university-wide hearing of the candidate/s, with ample time until the election to debate and consider the choice(s), is still considered part of the academic tradition,” she said.

There were also doubts as to whether Professor Spoun could claim to be an “internationally recognised scholar with profound teaching experience” as demanded by the job description, she said.

After the appointment in June, about 50 academics including Professor Bahns went public with their concerns, and rival presidential candidates launched a court case challenging the process.

Last month, the university announced that Professor Spoun had decided not to take up the post, and said it would take steps towards making a “legally secure appointment decision”.

Professor Spoun said at the time that the university had told him there were doubts as to whether the appointment was legal, meaning he could not take up the position.

The following day, Wilhelm Krull, the chair of Göttingen’s foundation council – who had headed the search committee that recommended Professor Spoun – said he would resign with immediate effect over the bungled appointment.

Professor Spoun told Times Higher Education that he had been elected by a “very broad majority” in the academic senate, and what he described as a “small” group of professors “took offence at the course of the procedure”.

“This group has expressed its conviction that a proven university manager is not the best choice for the presidency,” he said. He will remain as president of Lüneburg.

The crisis has played out in the German press, and prompted Björn Thümler, the science minister of Lower Saxony – where Göttingen is based – to warn that it had “not exactly helped” the university’s reputation.

The university’s senate will now meet later this month to discuss how to appoint a new president, a spokeswoman for Göttingen said. No one was available from the university to discuss the appointment process, she said.

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