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21 October 2006

Bloody but Unbowed: The University of Heidelberg Girds its Loins for the Second Round of the Initiative for Excellence

The failure of the University of Heidelberg in the initial stage of the Initiative for Excellence may have been caused by the absence of specific projects — Rector Peter Hommelhoff adheres to the principle of the full-scale university — Hazards for the humanities

In the first stage of the Initiative for Excellence organised by the federal and state governments, the University of Munich, the Technical University of Munich and the Technical University of Karlsruhe were distinguished as German elite universities. The University of Heidelberg failed to achieve this status, but it was successful with the "Cellular Networks" Cluster and the Graduate School for Fundamental Physics. The following is an interview given by Rector Professor Dr. Peter Hommelhoff to the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung newspaper.

Professor Hommelhoff, given that the University of Heidelberg failed to achieve elite status in the first leg of the Initiative for Excellence, it seems fair to presume that the preparations for the second round next year have already started. How good are Heidelberg's prospects for 2007?

I never made any prophecies about the outcome of the first round and I'm certainly not going to now. But we will do everything in our power to be successful next time round.

In the first round, the University's proposal for the third line of funding was rejected. The "Heidelberg Way", as it was called, set out the institutional strategy for the University as a whole.

The central idea behind the proposal was the attempt to outline various instruments that could be used to enhance the way the University functions. The focus is on three main areas: changes in staff structure, special innovation funds and support for women and families. We were especially proud of the new academic staff structure we had elaborated, with research professors, teaching professors and other teaching staff designed to take pressure off the researchers, starter professorships for young scientists and scholars, and senior professorships for emeriti.

What was the aim of the proposal?

The potential provided by these new instruments was designed to enhance the profile of the University as a whole. Our aim was — and still is — to stimulate and support the University of Heidelberg as a full-scale university, including its famous "smaller departments". This plan was to be implemented by way of a competition across the whole university. At present, we think that the fact that we did not outline any specific projects in this connection may have been seen as a weakness of our proposal. But we won't know that for sure until we receive the written substantiation of the grounds for its rejection.

Will the proposal be modified for the next round?

Yes. But we are not jettisoning the full-scale university idea, merely changing the programme we propose to ensure its survival. The principles we espoused in our proposal were idealistic. Our idea was that the people best qualified to decide on the optimal use of 13.5 million euros annually for a period of five years were the members of the University themselves. But this approach did not find favour. Instead, an external commission will be set up to decide on the deployment of these resources. I still believe that the principle of university autonomy in financial matters is the right one. But if we want to be successful, we can't just dig our heels in. We have to take a different course.

How much money is involved?

All in all, the third line of funding amounts to about 80 million euros. In the first two lines we were successful with the Graduate School, to the tune of about 5 million euros, and with the Cluster of Excellence, which brings Heidelberg just under 40 million euros.

What is the ratio of the resources from the third line of funding to the university budget as a whole?

Not counting medicine, the University receives 160 million euros per year from the state of Baden-Württemberg, which means that the annual resources from the third line of funding — 13.5 million plus additional appropriations — would represent almost 10 percent of the overall annual budget. The problem is that the 160 million euros allow little scope for new ideas and approaches, whereas the additional resources of just under 16 million would provide lots of opportunities for that. The fact that we do not have these resources at our disposal as of now is of course a major setback.

You say that the reasons for the rejection have largely to do with the fact that the Heidelberg proposal was not specific enough?

Our showing confirms that Heidelberg is an excellent university. But it is true that our institutional strategy did not map out any specific projects. So now we are discussing how a modern full-scale university should be defined and what projects such a university can envisage.

In the general discussion on these matters you are frequently referred to as a leading advocate of the full-scale university in Germany. Will you adhere to this principle in the new proposal and continue to endorse projects in the humanities?

Absolutely. For the second round, eleven project outlines have been submitted, from medicine, law and a sizable number of "smaller departments" that have banded together for the purpose. In this way we are reflecting the whole range of the University — with the exception of economics, political science and sociology. After the problems encountered there last year, we are in the process of revising the structures in those areas. We want to compete as an excellent, full-scale university on the international plane and the money for elite universities is designed to strengthen this position. Only recently, a delegation of American university presidents told us once again that Heidelberg's visibility in the international higher-education landscape is intimately bound up with the broad range of its offerings.

Two of the three German universities that have achieved elite status are technical universities. Only the University of Munich is a traditional full-scale university. Does that mean that the prospects for this kind of university are poor?

I hope not. I see this rather as another expression of a general problem. Academic progress is most conspicuous in the natural sciences, the life sciences and engineering. But we must ensure that the humanities are granted equal status with the other disciplines. That is why the result of the first round is not without its hazards. The University of Munich itself was successful with an institutional strategy that focuses initially on the natural sciences and the life sciences. Only in the second round will they be turning their attention to the humanities.

What are the consequences of that?

Of course, the decisions taken in this contest for elite status have to revolve around academic quality, not political considerations. But the danger of academic constriction can only be obviated politically, albeit from an academic vantage. The humanities, cultural studies and the social sciences must on no account be sacrificed to the primacy of the natural sciences, life sciences and engineering. If, in the final analysis, the state and federal governments were to have provided the huge sum of 1.9 billion euros for an outcome like that, then the federal minister of education and the research ministers of the federal states would have made a colossal mistake. That would be a complete misrepresentation of the German university landscape as it is perceived on the international plane.

But does the principle of the full-scale university still have international backing?

The American flagship universities Harvard, Berkeley, Yale and Princeton are all classical full-scale universities. And the same is true of the leading universities in Japan.

But this principle does not appear to enjoy the same endorsement from the international selection committee.

You even find that kind of thinking in our own University. It is tempting for scientists to think that they have so much going for them that every euro spent on the humanities is a bit of a waste. And if the decision-making bodies are largely made up of scientists, then it's not surprising that this kind of bias ensues.

Doesn't a scenario of this kind mean that there needs to be a greater concentration and pooling of research effort within the humanities?

First we have to be clear about one thing. Those areas of the humanities that are not involved in the Initiative for Excellence are not automatically in danger for that reason. When Heidelberg scientists start saying that it would be possible to "trim the edges" off the humanities and cultural studies, this is a problematic attitude. But if we want to put the humanities on a secure footing in the long term, then we do need to engage with the question whether every single subject has to be represented at every single full-scale university. The question that arises for the next ten years is whether the very extensive differentiation in the humanities might not have to be curbed to some degree — without detracting from the idea of a full-scale university.

How many elite universities will there be in the end? We were expecting five out of a total of ten at the end of the first round. Now we only have three. And what is behind this idea of a permanent "premier league" for universities?

The German Research Foundation and the Science Council have been given a clear-cut political assignment — to select the ten best German universities. The fact that only three universities have made the grade so far is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that seven more have to be selected in the second round. There may be differences in quality between the final winners, but at the end there have to be ten of them. These things have gone quite well so far.

Another thing that has provoked serious criticism is the fact that the three elite universities are all from southern Germany. Will that worsen the chances of the other south German universities in the second round?

Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg are now harvesting the fruits of their carefully conceived higher-education policies over the last few decades. This is where they reap their rewards. The federal states in the north and the west have been presented with the payoff for the higher-education course they have been pursuing. In the east of the country it's a different story. Dresden has quite favourable prospects but for the new federal states this contest has just come too early.

Which universities are Heidelberg's main rivals in the second round?

I hope that more south German universities will be successful. Freiburg has always been one of our closest rivals and there are other serious competitors like Bonn, Göttingen, Berlin or Aachen. Frankfurt is another university to be reckoned with. We intend to strengthen our position with the integration of all the research institutions in the Heidelberg-Mannheim-Karlsruhe triangle. That would give us a formidable science region, second in Germany only to the region around Munich.

How is the morale at the University of Heidelberg at the beginning of the second round for elite status?

We intend to carry the confidence and the creative potential from the first round — the awareness of being a research community — into the second leg of the contest. For us this is the biggest profit we have gained so far from the competition for elite status.

Heribert Vogt
Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung

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michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de
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Irene Thewalt
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presse@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de


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