7 February 2007
Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff and vice-Rector Prof. Dr. Jochen Tröger on the implementation of strategic projects and the latest developments in the Initiative for Excellence contest
The Strategy Paper of the University of Heidelberg can be regarded as the "road map" for the second half of Professor Hommelhoff's term in office as Rector. In its latest and forthcoming issues, the University of Heidelberg newspaper Der Unispiegel is publishing background interviews on the implementation of the Strategy Paper with the members of the Rectorate most closely involved. The first of these interviews, with Rector Professor Peter Hommelhoff and vice-Rector for research and medicine, Professor Jochen Tröger, focuses largely on the University's good showing in the preliminary stages of the second round of the Initiative for Excellence contest.
The New Year has ushered in the final stages of the implementation of the Strategy Paper. What is your interim assessment of this wide-ranging and ambitious overhaul programme? What has changed at the University of Heidelberg since this process was initiated?
Hommelhoff: We have described the University of Heidelberg as a traditional, research-oriented full-scale university with strong cooperative links both within the University and with local non-university research institutions. This is our trade mark and the Strategy Paper puts it into practice. It is also the Heidelberg trade mark in the Initiative for Excellence competition. Alongside the realisation of a number of individual projects it is the spirit of the University that has changed more than anything else, the willingness to face up to international competition to an even higher degree than before. Part of this change of spirit is the readiness to square up to the problems involved in such a restructuring process and to play an active role in solving them. My belief is that this is the first time that the University has really come to terms with the bottom-up principle involved in that process. Our success in implementing these strategic objectives is borne out by our showing on the external plane. In the latest academic rankings the University of Heidelberg is right up amongst the front runners, on both the national and the international scale.
Tröger: Another thing is that the links between University departments in the Old Town and on the campus over the river have become much more tangible. We now have some very gratifying instances of collaboration between the humanities and cultural studies on the one hand and the natural sciences and life sciences on the other. We have also stepped up our extramural cooperation, for example or collaboration with partners from industry. A notable example of this is the CaRLa catalysis laboratory, a joint project run by the University and the BASF company. We have also committed ourselves to improving the conditions for research work at the University, including the provision of childcare services and the FRONTIER project supporting unconventional approaches pushing back the frontiers of mainstream research.
Professor Hommelhoff, one of the central issues you have committed yourself to is support for young researchers. What progress has been made in this respect?
Hommelhoff: Essential in this connection are the Senate recommendations for the advancement of young researchers. We have devised guidelines closely geared to the overall strategy elaborated by the Federal government and the government of the state of Baden-Württemberg. This strategy includes such requirements as earlier appointment to professorial posts and autonomy for qualified junior researchers. This means that there are now three career pathways that young academics can choose to embark on, the traditional Habilitation, a junior professorship and leadership of a young research group, the latter course being specific to universities structured like Heidelberg. In our guidelines these three pathways can be freely selected by the Faculties and the upcoming researchers.
Have you been successful in putting this into practice?
Hommelhoff: The problem we have at the moment is convincing the Faculties to avail themselves of the junior professorship route. This is still rather a laborious process. The opportunities inherent in the junior professorship alternative need to be much more clearly perceived. It surprises me somewhat that professorial colleagues otherwise notable for their susceptibility to the stimulus of the new and the unknown in their own fields are so reluctant to say: "Why don't we give it a try!" Then we have to take the utmost care to ensure that the quality improvements we have planned for the Habilitation option are actually implemented. In the meantime, the Habilitation regulations at the University have been adapted to meet with the Senate's recommendations. But the essential thing now is to breathe life into these new regulations, which are probably unique in Germany.
Strategic objective No. 1 is a successful showing in the Initiative for Excellence. The preliminary stage of the second round looked very promising for Heidelberg. How do you assess this outcome?
Hommelhoff: In the first and second funding lines we have consolidated the position of sectors that had already done well by submitting proposals for further Graduate Schools and Clusters of Excellence in the life sciences and the natural sciences. But alongside that — and I find this particularly encouraging — we were also able to enter the lists with a Cluster from the humanities. As for the third line of funding — the Institutional Strategy — we see the invitation to re-submit our proposal as a highly gratifying response to our attempt not only get the entire University actively involved but also to draw upon the consultancy potential available outside the University.
In the first round this Institutional Strategy met with a muted response. What criticisms were levelled at it?
Tröger: One central criticism had to do with medicine. In the first round, the Science Council was not convinced by our strategy for amalgamating medicine in Mannheim and medicine in Heidelberg. But the problem in this connection is that some of the key figures involved — notably at the political level — are very difficult, if not impossible, for us to influence. This is what makes a merger between the two Faculties such a difficult proposition. And it's going to stay that way. Another criticism was that in the humanities and in cultural studies our status is too uneven. Here reference was made specifically to economics and the social sciences. This is a view that we simply cannot share. Political science is quite outstanding in Heidelberg. The verdict of the Science Council on this point quite rightly aroused a storm of protest. The economics departments, on the other hand, are undergoing a complete overhaul. It appears that we have not been successful in elucidating our new concept of "political economics" that is both highly up-to-date and unique in Germany. As it has only just been implemented, it may still be restricted in its appreciable effects. But we are firmly convinced that this is the right course to take, given the fact that we are only about 12 miles away from the University of Mannheim with its high-profile economics departments. So here we need to make our intentions even clearer.
Hommelhoff: One other thing perhaps. Heidelberg was criticised for not being clear enough about the sectors for which the resources from the Initiative are to be used. This was an illusion to the internal competition that we are propagating. This competition is a natural outgrowth from the principle of autonomy, including financial autonomy. For the universities we take our bearings from, i.e. the universities in the United States, this philosophy is the only one conceivable. Effectively, the University of Heidelberg has demonstrated that it has the instruments required to distribute resources in a way that both guarantees autonomy and ensures success. But this forthright approach did not find favour. Accordingly, in our new proposal we have added a concrete description of a number of sectors where we intend to invest such resources.
Tröger: Largely speaking, we want the dimensions and structures of research in the humanities to be given greater consideration in the distribution of resources. In plain terms, that means individual research or research in small groups. We are out to achieve a better balance and give better backing to the humanities and cultural studies, which received less support in the first and second lines of funding, not least on formal grounds. One motivation in this is to strengthen our profile as a traditional full-scale university.
Looking at the results of the preliminary stage of the second round and comparing them with those achieved by other universities and with the outcome of the first round, the likelihood of a successful showing appears to be very good, does it not?
Hommelhoff: Of course, it is marvellous to have seven projects still in the running. But we must always bear one thing in mind. This demands a colossal effort from the University. At the moment we are concentrating on the third line of funding, but at the same time we have to keep the other projects on the road. My impression is that we have an "all systems go" situation. Hardly any area of the University has opted out. So I believe I am right in hoping that on 13 April we shall be entering the fray with seven proposals that all have a very good chance of succeeding. But we certainly cannot sit back complacently. In the second round the competition is particularly fierce.
The final results of the Initiative for Excellence competition will be announced on 19 October 2007. Does that make it the most important date for the University of Heidelberg this year, or possibly even in the last few years?
Tröger: Of course it's an important date. And I am firmly convinced that we will be successful. But as we have said from the outset we want Heidelberg to preserve its status as a full-scale university. And we have not always been sure whether this might not in the last analysis be a knockout criterion. Both in the first round and before, we were constantly faced with the call for greater specialisation, for a clearer focus. "Why don't you concentrate on the life sciences, with a few other little bits and pieces thrown in for good measure?" we were asked. "Then you'd be bound to come out on top." This was a situation that called for a determined response and that is precisely what it got. There is no one at the University — at least no one expressing their opinions in public and participating in committee work — who is not committed to this ideal.
If things go the way we hope they'll go, then of course 19 October is a decisive juncture. In terms of prestige alone, a successful outcome will greatly enhance our standing in the international stakes. Then we will need to live up to this new standing with corresponding individual activities. But if we do not succeed, then we will need to work out an entirely new strategy for this University.
Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317