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An Education Researcher on the Reform Process at East German Universities (1999)

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Meanwhile, at the level of higher education, it was characteristic that the time frame for social changes and the time frame for university reform were quickly decoupled. Universities maintained the illusory belief that a fresh start was possible for longer than GDR society in general. For the GDR, July 2 (Monetary Union) and October 3, 1990 (Accession) symbolized the relinquishing of sovereignty. For the universities, the equivalent to this – external intervention – the revocation of autonomy – came with the decision to close Leipzig University as of January 2, 1991, and to dismiss the dean of Berlin’s Humboldt University in November 1991.

Independent of the respective dimension of the conflict and the inclination to protest at each university, political authorities in Berlin and Saxony mostly saw the processes of internal renewal as insufficient. They sought, however, to go above and beyond this in legitimizing their subsequent interventions:

“The extraordinarily critical assessment of the university situation by broad segments of the East German public was incomparably more significant for the coming decisions. This view was motivated, especially, by the not unjustified impression that there were influential forces at the universities that wanted to take advantage of this as a bulwark to oppose the democratic renewal in the eastern part of Germany.” (H.J. Meyer 1997, p. 512)

This is what Hans Joachim Meyer, former GDR minister of education, and later Saxon minister of education and research, said in retrospect. Views of this sort led to external interventions, whereby administrators attempted to get matters under control. “Instead of being liberated from political co-option by the GDR regime,” wrote sociologist Hansgünter Meyer, “the East German university system was eclipsed after the fact ….” (1993, p. 73). “It was abandoned as an academic system and perceived as the bastion of an academic elite that was to be abolished.”

But even this did not lead to a radical change in thinking, as can be seen in the assessments of foreign observers such as Dieter Simon, who said that the transfer of problems facing West German universities to the East “was compounded by East-specific deficits resulting from totalitarianism that expressed themselves in higher education primarily as authoritarian sentiments, an eagerness to be spoon-fed and a constant mindfulness of state orders, a lack of understanding of democratic procedures and a lack of respect for parliamentary institutions, a repugnance for self-fulfillment hedonism, and an irrational respect for the ‘masses.’”

Government intervention in the restructuring of institutions of higher education was consistent from state to state when it came to the instruments it employed. Aside from closures, these included: new laws and regulations as well as authoritarian ad-hoc instructions; personnel review commissions in addition to existing internal university review commissions; labor law, including regulations included in the Unification Treaty that annulled portions of federal legislation on dismissal protection; and finally, university financing and related decisions about university structure.

This sort of reorganization of East German institutions of higher education was characterized by ambivalent compromises that tried to reconcile incompatible aims. This applied to the definition of the aims, the structures and instruments, and the execution of the process. It could be seen first and foremost at the core of university reorganization: that is, in personnel reorganization, which encompassed both new personnel structures and personnel review.

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