Interview with Frauke Melchior, the new Rector of Heidelberg University„Heidelberg University – the place to be“
With the start of the winter semester, molecular biologist Prof. Dr Frauke Melchior has taken up office as the new Rector of Heidelberg University. In so doing, she follows geographer Prof. Dr Bernhard Eitel, who served as Rector of Ruperto Carola for 16 years. In the interview she talks about challenges in the Excellence Strategy competition, the three new priority areas, i.e. digitalisation, sustainability and diversity, and the possibly most urgent challenge of her upcoming term in office – improving the building infrastructure.
Before the election for the rectorship took place in March, you gave a campaign speech with the motto “Heidelberg University – the place to be”. What exactly do you mean by that?
Melchior: Regardless of whether you are a student, researcher or an employee in support units like the administration – my wish is that you will all feel: Heidelberg University is the right place for me. Ideally, we speak of a common spirit, shared by all members of Ruperto Carola. Where that is not yet so well developed, we will have to do more.
The special challenges, as your predecessor reminded you after the election, include “developing the future priorities in the Excellence Strategy and establishing them widely in the university”. How will you proceed with that?
Melchior: With the inception of the Excellence Initiative, Heidelberg University set out on a long strategic path. I have been personally involved since the second excellence competition, supporting the strategy and helping to shape it in various functions – as deputy spokesperson of the CellNetworks Cluster of Excellence, as a member of the HBIGS Graduate School, or as one of the speakers presenting the institutional strategy. So, you can’t expect any dramatic shifts or changes from me in this regard. With respect to the current Excellence Strategy competition – before I transferred to Forschungszentrum Jülich I was following at least the initial search for new topics to propose for Clusters of Excellence. The twelve drafts are now available and I can say that they are a very good selection. It will be my task to accompany the draft proposals through the successive reviews up to the stage of possible full-scale proposals. The second fundamental challenge is the Excellence Strategy evaluation. There we still have a lot of programmatic work to do, in cooperation with the Commission for Research and Strategy, the Senate, the Fields of Focus and the Faculties.
With the inception of the Excellence Initiative, Heidelberg University set out on a long strategic path.
That sounds like continuity…
Melchior: Yes, but of course there are also a few strategic focal themes that I would like to highlight more strongly. That is reflected in the profile of the vice-rectorates and the choice of persons. For example, we have broadened the Vice-Rectorate for Research by the topic of digitalisation. That is an area we have to expand very distinctly. In research terms, that affects, for example, research data management, software engineering or also things like quantum computing or neuromorphic computing. Digitalisation also plays an important role in teaching and in administrative processes that need to be simplified. There are still many areas to work on. The opportunities and challenges of Artificial Intelligence also have to be mentioned here. We must face up to them.
What other priorities are on the agenda?
Melchior: A second, major cross-sectoral topic will be the area of sustainability, which we have located in the Vice-Rectorate for Quality Development. We want to concern ourselves with sustainability as extensively as possible – in research and teaching, but also in our own actions as an institution. When the Heidelberg Center for the Environment was founded over ten years ago we were the first university in Baden-Württemberg to bring the environmental sciences together in an interdisciplinary centre. We intend to boost and expand such activities. Finally, we have embedded the topic of diversity in the Vice-Rectorate for International Affairs. I should add, though, that these allocations are more organisational in nature. Digitalisation, sustainability and diversity, the three major priority areas, will be thematically supported and developed by the whole Rectorate.
The Vice-Rectorate for Innovation and Transfer has so far been led by a physicist, and now you have put a historian in charge. Did you take that decision deliberately?
Melchior: This is still a very young Rectorate area, in which an enormous lot has happened in the last few years, for example, with the establishment of hei_INNOVATION, the university’s transfer agency. After this field was seen through the eyes of a natural scientist in past years, it was in fact a special concern of mine to change the perspective to that of a humanities scholar. This is because the concept of transfer is very broad. It doesn’t just mean technology transfer, but also transferring knowledge into society, as seen, for example, in policy advice. In the field of science communication, I want expand on all the good things that exist already and make them more visible.
Digitalisation, sustainability and diversity, the three major priority areas, will be thematically supported and developed by the whole Rectorate.
What will happen to the link-up of life sciences in the form of the Health + Life Science Alliance Heidelberg Mannheim?
Melchior: Die Alliance is a really wonderful, logical continuation of a goal that people have worked towards for over 15 years. The attractiveness of the life sciences at the Heidelberg and Mannheim locations is marked by the close cooperation between the university – with the two Medical Faculties Heidelberg and Mannheim, the Faculty of Biosciences and, most recently, that of Engineering Sciences – with its non-university partners, such as the German Cancer Research Center, the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research or the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. In addition, there are the two University Hospitals, the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, and numerous companies in the health economy. Joining forces like this and greater inter-connectedness is good for research, but also for healthcare and transfer into the health economy. For that reason, I will do everything to successfully continue this process.
The continuing construction process at the university – between a renovation logjam, the strong rise in energy prices and political demands for climate neutrality – could well be one of the most complicated challenges in the next few years. How are you going to tackle this topic?
Melchior: That is certainly one of the most urgent jobs. The pent-up demand for renovation is immense, which naturally applies to all universities across Germany and also to non-university institutions. My first step will be to get to know all the stakeholders and get together with the other Baden-Württemberg universities. We are not strong enough to manage that on our own. Nor can we rely on renovation alone. We also need the odd new building, not least because you can’t always upgrade existing ones. Consequently, I think that we would be well advised to construct substitute buildings. Regarding the renovation issue, I have seen that with my own eyes at the ZMBH. There, as you know, a burst water pipe flooded the whole building with huge consequences for renovation. Such disaster can also happen in other buildings, and we should keep that in mind.
At the start of this interview, you referred to the employees in the support units such as the administration or the workshops. How do you see this group?
Melchior: We have to work harder to make Heidelberg University an especially attractive employer for non-academic staff as well. And we must communicate that even more clearly. That calls for employer branding, and also specific programmes such as continuing education. After all, the present shortage of trained staff and skilled workers also affects us, and is creating problems. A good spirit becomes known and helps when it comes to recruiting committed, motivated staff. That is why it is so important to me that my motto “Heidelberg University – the place to be” covers really all members of the university. And, if you like, the future members as well.
Frauke Melchior studied chemistry at the University of Marburg and the University of Bristol (UK) and in 1990 earned her doctorate in Marburg with a biochemical thesis topic. As a postdoctoral researcher in the field of molecular cell biology, she first worked at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen and, from 1992, at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla (USA). There she studied protein sorting in human cells and discovered what is called the SUMO protein – denoting a mechanism of post-translational protein modification that became a focus of her scientific work. She started the first research group of her own in 1998, at another Max Planck institute, the MPI of Biochemistry in Martinsried, near Munich. Six years later, she accepted a professorship for biochemistry in the field of human medicine at the University of Göttingen. In 2008, Frauke Melchior was appointed to the Faculty of Biosciences at Heidelberg University, to pursue research as Professor for Molecular Biology at the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH). In April 2021, she joined the Board of Directors of Forschungszentrum Jülich, a research centre of the Helmholtz Association. After being elected the new Rector, she has returned to Heidelberg University as of the present winter semester.
The new Rectorate
The office of Vice-Rector for Research and Digitalisation is now held by chemist Prof. Dr Andreas Dreuw. Prof. Dr Silke Hertel, whose field is education studies, is Vice-Rector for Student Affairs and Teaching. Vice-Rector for Innovation and Transfer is historian Prof. Dr Katja Patzel-Mattern. Biologist Prof. Dr Karin Schumacher is responsible in the Rectorate for Quality Development and Sustainability; the Vice-Rectorate for International Affairs and Diversity goes to legal scholar Prof. Dr Marc-Philippe Weller; these two already belonged to the rectorate of Prof. Dr Bernhard Eitel. Furthermore, Dr Holger Schroeter, Kanzler of the university, is also a full-time member of the Rectorate.