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German education chief sacked over Gaza protest response

June 17, 2024

The top civil servant in Germany's education ministry has been fired after floating a possible funding cut for academics who spoke in favor of pro-Palestinian students.

Sabine Döring at a federal press conference
Döring is the second-highest-ranking official in the ministry and has responsibility for universitiesImage: Frederic Kern/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

A top education ministry official has been fired after over a botched response to a dispute about academic freedom and the right to protest.

Sabine Döring was found to have explored a scheme to sanction, with financial cuts, university lecturers who spoke against the removal of a pro-Palestinian protest camp at a Berlin university.

What we know so far

German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger sent a request to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to dismiss Döring, it was revealed on Sunday evening.  

The request followed a report by German broadcaster ARD reporting emails that showed a legal review had been requested inside the ministry into whether the academics' funding could be cut.  

The review was initiated by Döring, who is responsible for universities. Döring is the second-highest-ranking official in the ministry and, unlike Stark-Watzinger, is not an elected figure.

"I have arranged for the facts of the case to be investigated thoroughly and transparently," said Stark-Watzinger. She confirmed that "an examination of potential consequences according to funding law was indeed requested from the relevant departments."

Police intervene to evict pro-Palestine activists after the activists attempted to sep up a protest
Pro-Palestinian activists had been protesting across the city for several weeks when police moved inImage: Axel Schmidt/Getty Images

Döring admitted that she "had apparently expressed herself in a misleading manner when commissioning the legal review," Stark-Watzinger said.

"Nonetheless, the impression was created that the Education Ministry was considering examining the consequences under funding law on the basis of an open letter covered by freedom of expression," the minister added.

Why were the academics targeted?

Some 150 pro-Palestinian activist students, protesting Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip, occupied a courtyard at Berlin's Free University in early May. The university quickly called in the police, who cleared the area.

In response, some 100 academics from universities in Berlin wrote an open letter affirming the students' right to protest.

"Regardless of whether we agree with the specific demands of the protest camp, we stand with our students and defend their right to peaceful protest," they wrote.

Police said 79 people were temporarily detained following the protest in May, with 80 criminal investigations and 79 misdemeanor proceedings initiated.

In their statement, the lecturers urged "university management to refrain from police operations against their own students as well as from further criminal prosecution."

At the time, Stark-Watzinger criticized the academics' letter for not mentioning the October 7 attacks by Palestinian extremist group Hamas and other militants in southern Israel. She repeated that criticism on Sunday. Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and others.

rc/ab (dpa, AFP)