The University of Rostock will not be awarding Edward Snowden an honorary doctorate. This case has been dragging through the courts since May 2014, when the University’s Rector rejected a proposal from the Humanities Faculty, giving the grounds that Snowden had no particular scholarly achievement to his credit. The Rector’s decision has now been confirmed by the judge responsible for public administration in the Land – or country – of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Pomerania).
The Faculty – known in German as the Philosophische Fakultät – is a broad one with specialisms across education, culture, history, literature and languages, and is the largest in the university. Usually in German universities, the Faculty’s proposals for honorary degrees are uncontroversial, and are accepted without change. In Snowden’s case, the Rector announced that as there was no evidence of an ‘outstanding’ or ‘special’ contribution to knowledge, he was blocking the proposal.
The Education Ministry of the Land, supporting the Rector, argued that the definition of eligibility for honorary doctorates was laid down in the country’s law. The Faculty stood by its original decision, justifying their stance on the grounds of Snowden’s wider social contribution, and took the Rector to the administrative tribunal. It is now considering whether to appeal the tribunal’s judgement, or to nominate the whistleblower once more, this time on grounds of his contribution to knowledge.
From a British perspective, it is interesting to see how these decisions work out in a different system. The German administrative tribunals have the role of a law court, and are expected to deal with conflicts between citizens and public authorities. As the German public universities are legally part of the civil service, the tribunals can become involved in their governance.
This is unusual, certainly by the standards of most English-speaking countries, but I wonder whether it would have been enough to block some of the bizarre honorary degrees awarded by UK universities, usually with had the enthusiastic support of the Vice Chancellor. It would certainly have been hard to argue that Donald Trump and Jimmy Saville made much of a contribution to knowledge, but British universities honoured them all the same.