Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) sharply criticized the cancellation of a lecture by a controversial biology doctoral student at Humboldt University. The minister will now take part in the catch-up event next Thursday – and there she will debate the topic “Opinion, freedom, science – how to deal with social controversies at universities”.
The ministry informed the Tagesspiegel on request. Since Stark-Watzinger is actually on vacation, she will be connected digitally via video. At least six other discussants will appear with her on site, including the provisional HU President Peter Frensch.
Last Saturday, the HU withdrew a lecture on the topic of dual gender by its doctoral student Marie-Luise Vollbrecht from the program of the Long Night of Sciences due to safety concerns. “It must not be in the hands of activists which positions may be heard and which not,” Stark-Watzinger told the “Bild” newspaper at the time.
This was also understood as clear criticism of the HU and partisanship with Vollbrecht. The ministry is now attempting to put this impression into perspective. Stark-Watzinger was by no means concerned with taking a position for or against Vollbrecht and her theses. According to the BMBF, the minister is only concerned with supporting science and its freedom.
At the university and in Berlin science, the minister’s intervention had nevertheless caused astonishment. The fact that she expressed herself in the “Bild” of all places, without going into the complexity of the topic and without even listening to the arguments of the decision-makers at the HU, is frustrating, can be heard at the HU.
It is clear that the HU will continue to debate the case, for which it has come under extreme public pressure. The cancellation of the lecture – the title was “Gender is not (gender) gender, sex, gender and why there are two sexes in biology” – was triggered by the announcement of several protests.
First, these student representatives had announced. The main stumbling block for her was an anti-trans article in “Welt”, which Vollbrecht co-authored. When supporters of Vollbrecht also wanted to start a counter-demo to the student protests, the HU feared that the Long Night would not be held in the main building, which experience has shown to be attended by a large number of people.
It is quite possible that the HU wanted to prevent a police operation in any case. A police evacuation of a building occupied by students several years ago is still a problem for the university to this day.
At the HU, people are also asking whether the doctoral student might have used the open registration system for the Long Night to smuggle a lecture into the program that corresponds primarily to her political agenda but has nothing to do with her science (Vollbrecht researches brain cells electric fish).
In fact, at the HU – as at other universities in Berlin – researchers and departments register themselves for the program of the Long Night of Sciences, without a selection process at a central point. Those responsible could hardly recognize the potential explosiveness of Vollbrecht’s performance, especially since the program was set long before the controversial “Welt” article appeared, which charged the lecture politically and through which the student representatives really became aware of Vollbrecht.
Unlike the students, the said “world” article was reportedly not noticed by the management level of the HU and also by the biologist’s closer academic environment, which is why those responsible for the Long Night were really surprised by the protests – even if the university has meanwhile has distanced himself from the theses of the article. In it, the authors had called for public service broadcasters to “reject an ideological approach – especially with regard to the trend topic ‘trans'”.
Likewise, Vollbrecht’s activities on Twitter seem to have been unknown to large parts of the university and also to her doctoral supervisor until the scandal. Vollbrecht is anonymous on Twitter under the name @FrolleinVogelV and has repeatedly expressed contempt for trans people there.
Now the HU is also debating this. “If you read Ms. Vollbrecht’s tweets about trans identities, you can understand that the people affected feel at least uncomfortable. Tweets are vulgar, condescending, defamatory. Is that the real “Humboldt scandal”?” wrote the HU influential history professor Gabriele Metzler on Twitter on Thursday evening.
That should reflect the mood of many at the HU – with Metzler explaining when asked that Vollbrecht’s tweets were covered by freedom of expression: “I definitely don’t want to give the impression that the university should intervene.”
The biologist has since deleted many tweets. “I wrote a lot about my dating life out of anonymity and made a lot of level penis jokes. I was incredibly embarrassed that my doctoral supervisor could read it,” she explained on “T-online”. She denied having a political agenda there and reported being followed on Twitter herself.
It is unclear whether Vollbrecht will take part in the HU on Thursday. She was invited, but has not yet responded, said a HU spokesman. The “working group of critical lawyers”, the student group that first called for the protests, has also been invited but has not yet accepted.
In addition to Stark-Watzinger and HU President Frensch, other participants on the podium will be: HU lawyer Martin Heger, Vollbrechts doctoral supervisor Rüdiger Krahe, Kerstin Palm from the Institute for Historical Studies, which researches gender and science, Heiner Schulze from the Schwules Museum and Jenny Wilken from the German Society for Trans-Identity and Intersexuality. It will be moderated by the journalist Jan-Martin Wiarda, who is also a Tagesspiegel columnist. The event starts at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the Grimm-Zentrum, admission is free, registration (here) in advance is required.