The Bernhard Case

On February 23, 2013 by admin


Max Weber

[There are many institutions of higher education—universities and research centres, where we have periodically seen academic administrators being appointed/elevated in significant positions for reasons of ideology or expediency.  Each such decision hits at the very foundation of the world of ideas. In multiple ways. In this context, HUG remembers Max Weber’s classic pronouncement on The Bernhard Case]


We have received the following from academic circles:

The investigations in the press into the much discussed “Bernhard Case” have by no means put an end to the interest the case has aroused. It is, of course, scandalous that the government (or, to be precise, the minister, acting entirely on his own personal initiative, although directly influenced by the government) has imposed a professor on the largest university in Germany, and that the academic staff involved, who are among the most distinguished scholars in Germany, only learned of this fact through the press or when their new colleague paid them a visit. Such scandals are typical. Some other circumstances, however, are perhaps even more typical. Firstly, the behavior of the man who was so suddenly promoted. In the days when the writer of these lines was as young as Herr Ludwig Bernhard himself is today, it was regarded as a fundamental requirement of academic decorum for someone who had been offered a chair by the ministry to satisfy himself, before doing anything else, and before deciding whether or not to accept the offer, that he enjoyed the scientific confidence of the faculty, or at least of the most prominent of the colleagues with whom he would be working in his field; and this applied irrespective of whether or not he feared that it might create difficulties, even if these were only of a moral nature, for his appointment.

Anyone who, merely because he was “in favor,” chose to disregard these generally accepted rules, in order to “get on” in the academic world, was subject to exactly the same judgment and exactly the same treatment at the hands of his colleagues as that which is meted out to people who speculate on furthering their career by taking “inferior” professorships [Strafprofessuren] for denominational or political reasons.

Since it is clear that Herr Bernhard did not find it necessary to observe these rules, he has shown that he is not personally worthy of further consideration. Of more general importance, however, is the fact that this kind of attitude is evidently on the increase among a section of the new academic recruits and that moreover the Prussian Government is deliberately cultivating these types of “operators” [Geschäftsleute], as they say in academic circles. Indeed, there are professorial chairs that are regularly used as “way stations” for the sustenance of such elements.

As far as the University of Berlin itself is concerned, it is, of course, true that appointment to a professorship there is generally regarded as good business in financial terms even today. But the time has passed when it was thought of as a high scholarly honor. True, even now we are happy to recognize that there are many scientists in Berlin who are genuine leaders in their various fields and are absolutely independent personalities. And yet the number of “complacent” mediocrities there, who are sought after for their very mediocrity, seems to be growing, if anything, faster than elsewhere. And then there are the people like Herr Bernhard, people for whom, from the point of view of the government, membership of the university is essentially a reward in the pecuniary sense or in the sense of social prestige.

No doubt it is to some extent a welcome bonus to provincial universities that this practice enables them to retain a far greater number of outstanding scholars than would be the case if professors in Berlin were selected on solely scholarly criteria. Naturally, from the point of view of the University of Berlin, these matters are probably seen in a different light. There is a curious irony here. In a number of Berlin faculties, despite increasing numbers of students, there have been attempts, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to limit the number of professorships. Indeed, one faculty created a special statute restricting the securing of a Habilitation for academic teachers from other higher education institutions, and then promptly made use of this obstacle, which the faculty had itself created, to exclude an outstanding academic teacher from appointment as an adjunct lecturer [Privatdozent], who was acknowledged as such, against the votes of the faculty [Fachmänner].

The irony is that this same university must now accept that its university chairs are used as rewards when some ministry happens to feel the need to have politically desirable research carried out by an able young man. The price to be paid for any concessions by the faculties to inappropriate proposals, and in particular for any deviation from the principle of gaining as many highly qualified academic staff as humanly possible, will ultimately be the weakening of the moral authority of the faculties themselves. And of course the consequences of this will not be limited to cases like the present one. After all, Herr Bernhard has written a book that, allowing for a certain scholarly immaturity, I, for one, find very impressive; it is important in its field and shows a distinctiveness of method. But everyone knows that in the field of economics, for example, at least two other people are waiting outside the door of the faculty who are “deserving” in different ways, in the case of one of them for services rendered back in the “Stumm era.” Sooner or later, their time will undoubtedly come.

It seems quite unlikely that the eventual successors of men such as Adolf Wagner and Gustav [von] Schmoller will be important and scientifically unique personalities. The situation is similar at the other Prussian universities. None of them today are dealing with Herr [Friedrich T.] Althoff,  who despite the questionable nature of his “system” nevertheless had a certain impressiveness. Instead, for the foreseeable future their fate is likely to be in the hands of “operators,”246 who may be friendly enough on a personal level, but are frighteningly ingratiating and petty. These are people through whose influence a “climate” is constantly created for the rise of academic “operators” that meet their requirements, in accordance with the law that one mediocrity in a faculty never fails to attract others. For the Berlin academic staff in particular, in “cases” such as this the only choice they have will be the form in which they make the best of a bad situation. As a result of the weakening of their moral authority, for which they have only themselves to blame, they cannot offer any real resistance that would carry weight either with the public or the government. Another relevant factor is that more and more members of the universities are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

We must, of course, recognize that at the University of Berlin, as at all universities, there are even today quite a few personalities with the strength of mind to continue the proud tradition of academic solidarity and independence vis-à-vis the higher authorities. We all know, however, that, for reasons not unconnected with the proximity of Berlin-based professors to the Ministry of Education, the numbers of such people are not increasing. Increasingly, “provincial” professors in Prussia are engaging in the dubious practice of approaching influential Berlin colleagues (or those reputed to be influential) with their concerns and complaints and asking them to put in a good word for them “in higher places.”

These appointments to positions of power and influence obtained through personal connections with the ministry, which have developed to a greater or lesser extent in all kinds of academic fields, have often served a useful purpose in the hands of important and reputable Berlin scholars. However, even where there is an honest striving for objectivity, the risk of subjective feelings playing a part is ever present where powerful patronage is concentrated in the hands of one individual.

Today, however, the situation is beginning to undergo a fundamental change. As the “Bernhard Case” glaringly shows, at a time when “business” factors are increasingly calling the tune, influence based on such personal connections, even when exercised by important scholars, represents no more than a precarious illusion of power. Not only do the various personal influences frustrate each other’s purposes— it seems that in the present case the behaviour of a certain well-known theologian was not without involvement in the peculiar treatment of the actual experts— but where less weighty personalities are concerned the government gains a highly effective means of exploiting their vanity for its own purposes.

And the more the University of Berlin is staffed by “operators,” the more we shall find that, for example, the government is quite happy to provide those professors with whom, in its own interest, it maintains constant “personal contact,” with all kinds of low level favors, such as lending a listening ear to their requests on behalf of their protégés. We shall find, then, that the patronage of Berlin professors on behalf of those from the “provinces” will become institutionalized in an unofficial but factually recognized manner, but that for this very reason in those important matters where the voice of the expert as such should count for something  and the authority of the faculty as such should carry weight, neither of these things will happen. Anyone who is in the habit of using his personal connections for the purpose of patronage for personal protégés is thereby forfeiting the moral weight that is his due as an expert and a holder of official powers.

The development of the professorial body in Berlin in the direction indicated seems practically unstoppable. It is, of course, gravely prejudicial to academic solidarity. The high-handed way in which certain circles in Berlin took it upon themselves to lecture those higher education teachers who attempted to arrange discussions on matters affecting all higher education institutions, is no doubt still fresh in the minds of all of us. Even without the benefit of this lecturing, no one could doubt that the sphere of influence of a nationwide higher education organization, on whatever basis it might be created, is bound, in the nature of things, to have its limitations. But there can be no doubt that, quite apart from the important questions concerning the teaching at institutions of higher education, an organization of higher education teachers, under wise leadership, could be able to reawaken the professional pride of the new recruits in the face of the business248 approach, and at the same time help gradually to restore the diminishing moral authority of the higher education institutions. The “Bernhard Case,” and others like it, should have shown that both are urgent tasks for Prussia. For the moment, we will leave aside the manner in which, under the influence of certain groups in Berlin, the ripples from the Prussian system have even begun to spread beyond Prussia itself, a development which can only exacerbate matters.

Finally, it is the more general considerations for the future that make the advance of the business approach and the infiltration of the professorial “fraternity” by the “hierarchy” of patronage worrying. Everyday political maneuvering is now having a far-reaching effect on the way our universities are treated. Events such as this “case” and the situation of which it is symptomatic cannot fail to damage the reputation of the university teachers in the eyes of the student body. Governments will have to make up their minds whether or not this is in their own long-term interests. Let us at least hope that events at Austrian universities  may serve as a warning to their German sister institutions not to allow what moral credit they still enjoy with public opinion and among their students to be destroyed without offering some resistance— and not be guilty of simply throwing it away.-


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