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22 October 2006

Rector Hommelhoff: "This Setback Is an Opportunity"

The University of Heidelberg's showing in the first round of the Initiative for Excellence — Extracts from a speech delivered by Rector Prof. Dr. Dres. H.c. Peter Hommelhoff at the annual anniversary celebrations commemorating the establishment of the University 621 years ago


The outcome of the first stage of the Initiative for Excellence has aroused mixed feelings at the University of Heidelberg. Out on the Neuenheimer Feld campus there was fully justified elation on the part of the physicists about the go-ahead for their Graduate School on Experimental Physics, while the life scientists were just as jubilant about their success with the Cluster of Excellence "Cellular Networks". In the heart of the city, by contrast, disappointment was keen. The representatives of the humanities, cultural studies and the social sciences joined the Rectorate and the leading bodies of the University in deploring the fact that the Institutional Strategy proposed by the University of Heidelberg was unsuccessful in the first round of the contest.

What are the main features of the strategy proposal that has so far failed to convince the members of the international selection committee? Heidelberg proposed four different kinds of instrument for the future advancement of the University, none of which have been implemented so far, for financial or other reasons. The first was the establishment of new staff categories ranging from research professorships, teaching professorships (to facilitate concentration on research) and a tenure track for young scientists/scholars to senior professorships for emeriti. The second was the establishment of innovation funds ranging from "academic pin-money" to financial resources supporting the transfer of knowledge from research to practice and the establishment of integrated interdisciplinary research combines. And finally we proposed instruments for the advancement and support of women and families, as well as for administrative assistance for researchers.

These proposals were designed to further accentuate the profile of the University, while preserving it as a classical full-scale university with strengths not only in the natural and life sciences, but equally in the humanities, in cultural studies and in the social sciences. These new support funds were to be distributed within the University on a competitive basis geared to criteria encompassing both academic excellence and innovative imagination. The smaller departments, most of them situated in the city centre, were to be given a fair chance to obtain support of this kind to prevent the University from gradually and imperceptibly mutating into a science stronghold. Intentionally, no mention was made of any specific projects.

What was the "mission statement" behind this proposal? First it was designed to uphold the idea of the full-scale university, to fortify and modernise it. The other central pillar was financial autonomy allied to structured organisation. We asked the politicians to entrust an annual 13.5 million euros to the University of Heidelberg, while permitting it to decide on the deployment of these resources in line with its own academic and quality standards, rather than leaving this job to commissions of experts from outside the University. We felt that we were entitled to make this request because of the research excellence repeatedly displayed by the University both in the past and in the present. But in the eyes of the selection committees adjudicating Heidelberg's institutional strategy this was obviously asking for too much freedom. We have to draw our horns in.

So where do we go from here? In the Senate we have already agreed that we intend to stick to the basic idea of the full-scale university. But on this point we will need to engage in a more profound debate across the whole length and breadth of the University. How do we envisage a modern full-scale university coming to terms with the powerhouse represented by its science departments? What should the University of Heidelberg look like in five to ten years' time if it is to be both internationally respected and fully competitive? Luckily we have until next April to submit the proposal for the second round of the contest. By that time we need to have engaged in structurally organised discussion with strategic bodies throughout the University, with a view to arriving at clear-cut and trenchant declarations of intent.

In this process we shall also be on the lookout for one or two major academic projects embodying the fundamental idea of a modern and internationally competitive full-scale university and explicitly including the humanities, cultural studies and the social sciences. Researchers at the University of Heidelberg have a long and excellent record of experience with interdisciplinary integration. The next step will perhaps be to elucidate methods of interdisciplinary cooperation in a readily understandable way with reference to one or two major projects. This and much more will be the subject of debate in the coming months in the run-up stage to the second round of the contest.


Another component of Heidelberg's proposed institutional strategy was the establishment of extensive and integrated associative research collaboration with all scientific institutions in the Heidelberg-Mannheim-Karlsruhe triangle, including the University of Karlsruhe and the Research Centre in that same city. We intend to extend the outstanding joint ventures in the Heidelberg Area to include engineering and information science so that this area can compete successfully with other scientific regions in the world. We have already covered some initial ground in this respect with the University of Karlsruhe, which I would like to congratulate at this point on its success in the first round of the Initiative for Excellence. I hope that we will continue to make consistent progress in this direction.

As you can see, the disappointment at the outcome of the first round of the Initiative has not made us downcast. On the contrary, it has strengthened our resolve to submit an even better proposal in the second round. The University of Heidelberg sees this setback as an opportunity. […] If we are to master the tasks and challenges awaiting the University of Heidelberg in the near future, then we cannot afford to hang our heads in despondency. […] With its new Interdisciplinary Centre for Social Investment and Innovation — CSI for short — the University of Heidelberg has achieved access to the so-called Third Sector, a sphere ranging from non-profit organisations to charitable institutions like hospitals and old people's homes. The increasing significance of this sector in practice will be underscored on the research side in interdisciplinary ventures involving sociology, theology, economics and legal studies. The CSI has set up its first research agenda and is already receiving sturdy support for its implementation, notably from major German foundations. For the University of Heidelberg, the CSI has also meant the most expensive recall ever of a scholar from the United States. In this we have been successful and now we expect great things.

But these challenges are dwarfed by the tasks in store for the University of Heidelberg in the medical sector. At present, the two Medical Faculties are split up into four separate units at two different locations, Heidelberg and Mannheim. In the next 5 ½ years at the most, they are to be amalgamated into one single unit. In an organised and meaningful concentration of all the forces involved, the University of Heidelberg intends to achieve two objectives. In the context of international competition it intends to enhance its basic-research standing so decisively that in the medium term it can draw level with Oxford and Cambridge. In connection with patient care at the two medical locations Heidelberg and Mannheim, it intends at the same time to consolidate and improve its leading position in Germany alongside the area around Munich.

The effort required by such an undertaking is not hard to imagine. And this brings us to a gigantic problem. Even a relatively wealthy state like Baden-Württemberg is unable to provide quickly enough the financial resources required to assure the competitiveness of the medical institutions. This means that a major infusion of private capital will be indispensable in the very near future. Only in this way can the scientific mission of the University of Heidelberg and its medical Faculties be placed on a sufficiently sound footing in terms of research, teaching and the advancement of junior scientists. The protective mechanisms required to safeguard the scientific side of things in connection with full or partial privatisation of university hospitals are not yet in place. The University of Heidelberg must and will play an immediate and fully committed part in the development of such mechanisms.


Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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