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4 December 2001

Prominence for Universally Acclaimed Beacons of Excellence

Rector Peter Hommelhoff's interview with the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung newspaper — Comparisons with US invidious / Interviewer: Heribert Vogt

In the following interview given to the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung newspaper (RNZ), Rector Peter Hommelhoff outlines his views on the development of the University of Heidelberg in the coming years. The future face of the University takes on well-defined contours in the remarks made by the Rector. They enlarge on the standing of the University at a national and international level, the relative status of the sciences and the humanities, Heidelberg's specific profile, the international complexion of the University, the economic dimension in higher education and internal organisation structures. Other subjects addressed are professors' salaries, junior professors, study fees, new Faculty structures and the University Council. The interview closes with remarks on the comparison with American universities and the 625th anniversary of the University in 2011.

RNZ: Professor Hommelhoff, how do you assess the role of the University of Heidelberg in the present higher-education landscape in Germany, both in comparison with other universities and with non-university research institutions?

Hommelhoff: Within Germany there is a tendency to focus not so much on the relative merits of whole universities but rather on individual Faculties and research centres. Our figurehead Faculties — physics, biology, medicine — are definitely up among the leaders and the Faculty of Law is another front-runner. But we also have many small departments in the Faculty of Philosophy with an outstanding reputation, as is borne out by the Leibniz Prize laureates working there. The international perspective is more of an all-round one, and here we are again held in high regard, alongside universities like Munich, Bonn or Freiburg. Competition with the Max Planck Institutes is keen. Certainly, it is good for the University for there to be free movement between the institutions and we frequently welcome younger scientists from the MPI into the University fold. But sometimes it is a little chastening to see how uninhibitedly research institutions like the MPI exploit their competitive advantages because we can never emulate the working conditions that prevail there. In the face of this unequal situation, all I can say is that for me the attraction of the University is the opportunity of encountering young people at the beginning of their academic careers and the challenge of arousing and sustaining their enthusiasm for the subject they are studying.

RNZ: What would you say is the relative standing of the sciences and the humanities at Heidelberg University at the moment?

Hommelhoff: In the sciences our reputation is indisputable and the range of excellence is broad indeed. But the achievements in some of the small humanities departments, either individually or jointly, are frequently just as outstanding, as is borne out by the spectacular successes on the award front. So I feel I can justly say that the relative standing between arts and sciences is balanced. But of course it is to the latter that the vast majority of external funding and prize monies gravitate, as is demonstrated by the recent Wolfgang Paul awards for two scientists coming to Heidelberg soon.

RNZ: On the question of the profile of the University, what course do you intend to steeer between the traditional universalist image on the one hand and a new emphasis on areas of special excellence?

Hommelhoff: We intend to maintain or achieve high standards right across the board, from archaeology to zoology. But within that context we are also determined to give due prominence to those areas in which we really excel, achievements that shine out like beacons and are acknowledged for their outstanding quality the world over. This is what I mean by "Heidelberg bench marks".

RNZ: So you uphold the ideal of universality for the University?

Hommelhoff: Yes, stalwartly. It is the University's true profile. We shall defend the "small" departments and subjects tooth and nail. That, in fact, is one of the things we have learned from the events of September 11. Even in highly specialised subjects in the life sciences, medicine or biology, a true understanding of our own and other civilisations, religions and political cultures is absolutely indispensable. Suddenly, the view we take of subjects frequently maligned in the past as "exotic" has become an entirely different one.

RNZ: Will the repercussions of September 11 have an effect on the international complexion of the University?

Hommelhoff: So far we have not registered any repercussions of that nature because students had already enrolled by that date. The Rectorate has pointed out in no uncertain terms that the terrorist atrocities will not cause us to deviate one iota from the University's commitment to the international principle.

RNZ: There is a growing tendency to compare universities with business enterprises. How important is the economic dimension in your view?

Hommelhoff: It is bound to be important because of the necessity of deploying limited resources to the best possible effect. To that end we need decision-making structures and parameters similar to those already well established in the business world. We are all accountable for the use we make of the taxpayers' money. On the other hand there must be due appreciation of the fact that entrepreneurial structures cannot be adopted everywhere at the drop of a hat. What point is there in mapping out a promising new course if the present financial constraints under which the state government is operating means that there is simply not sufficient money to provide the buildings needed to accommodate it? In a business enterprise such decisions would be taken in a truly corporate manner. Universities just do not work that way.

RNZ: There has been a move over the past few years to make the University more competitive by rationalising its internal structures. How do you intend to proceed in this respect?

Hommelhoff: First of all, the University is determined to reorganise itself along the lines of a state enterprise, albeit without changing its legal form. That enables us to adopt decision-making structures commensurate with the flexibility vouchsafed by the new University Law. Further, we intend to establish an academic controlling system. But we can only emulate controlling methods of the kind that are normal in business enterprises to the extent that the research institutions themselves are run along entrepreneurial lines. By pursuing such a course the University of Heidelberg could carve out a genuinely innovative position for itself. Finally, the new budgeting model is already in place. It identifies input and output at department level and distributes resources accordingly.

RNZ: Would performance-related salaries for professors, beginning with junior professorships, be a way of enhancing achievement potential at the University.

Hommelhoff: I have no doubt that it would. The performance-related bonuses for professors written into the new University Law are certainly a motivating factor in this connection. But the so-called "break-even" principle planned by the Federal government would mean that outstanding achievements by individual professors would be financed at the expense of all their other professorial colleagues. And as competition with other universities means that we intend to encourage as much top-quality achievement as possible, what this would boil down to would be taking money away from other professors. This, however, would be invidious as, with very few exceptions, the quality of the work done by professors is outstandingly high. This is why the break-even principle is highly illogical and discouraging. Naturally, the junior professor is an interesting new figure in the game. But we cannot simply import the idea from America as it stands because the career principle which says that if you're good you get on does not hold here. It is quite possible for someone to produce outstanding work for five or six years but still have to look for another job because there is simply no vacancy available. Also, the junior professor idea is being used by the Federal government as a bulwark against the Habilitation principle and that is just as illogical. In some areas, notably the sciences, we are already short-cutting the Habilitation but in other areas it is indispensable. In the form of a major publication the Habilitation dissertation has done much to advance science and scholarship.

RNZ: What are your views on study fees and student selection by the University?

Hommelhoff: Student selection is definitely on its way, probably in two stages. First of all, in the context of the new B.A./M.A. courses we see the Master's degree course as a qualification only available to those who are really excellent. Entry tests will also have to be introduced because to be good a university must have the right to choose the best candidates. But in some subjects entry tests are not feasible. Law students, for example, cannot be expected to have any legal knowledge if they come straight from school. Here selection would have to take place after, say, the first year. Aside from that, the only other factor operative in the selection process would be genuine hardship criteria — single mothers, say, or people with physical handicaps. By contrast, the "living at home" principle would be a highly detrimental criterion for an institution like the University of Heidelberg. We want students who are prepared to travel, to spend time abroad.
Student fees could be envisaged initially for the second stage, the M.A. courses for graduates. Exacting fees before that stage is something that requires further deliberation and would need to be coupled with an extensive student-grant system. But let's face it. Country-wide, study fees are very definitely "in the air".

RNZ: What progress has been made in restructuring the Faculties?

Hommelhoff: We have made a new large Philosophical Faculty with 45 professors from three existing Faculties. Then there is a Faculty made up of the economists, the sociologists and the political scientists. Two other new Faculties combine the biologists with the pharmacists and the chemists with the geographers. So the original 15 Faculties have now been whittled down to 12. And when the two medical Faculties in Heidelberg and Mannheim coalesce in 2002 we will be down to 11.

RNZ: What hopes do you associate with the new University Council that has been in office for a year now and has not met with universal acclaim within the University?

Hommelhoff: The University Law forced us to do away with the Administrative Council, which was an excellent body. With its expertise the Administrative Council did an immense amount to enhance the quality of Rectorate decision-making. I still consider its abolition as a loss. But the University Council gives us something different — external expertise, which is of immense value above all for our strategic aims. And that is an immense gain, particularly for Heidelberg. The two bodies are not comparable. We have forfeited an apple and gained a tasty pear in its stead. In my view, cooperation with the University Council is very good, not least because its members are all so outstanding in their particular fields.

RNZ: Nobel Prize laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has just been replaced by the biologist Regine Kahmann.

Hommelhoff: The University Council is made up of people with a huge fund of relevant experience. Regine Kahmann has long been associated with the University through her activities at the Molecular Biology Centre and is certainly a major gain for us.

RNZ: What do you think the University might look like in 20 years' time? Would, say, Harvard University be a model to emulate?

Hommelhoff: Harvard cannot be a model for us because we do not have their kind of wealth. Harvard has assets amounting to billions of dollars and can live and plan comfortably off the interest. Heidelberg University is run by scientists and scholars at all levels. Most American universities are run by managers recruited from outside. I do not believe that the University of Heidelberg could be run by external managers. It can only be run properly by a Rectorate that has grown out of the University itself over a long period of years and manages its concerns on a collegiate basis — but with entrepreneurial verve. This is a different kind of management assignment from what you get at Bosch or Siemens.

RNZ: Heidelberg University is 615 years old. Have you spent any thought on the 625th anniversary coming up in 10 years' time?

Hommelhoff: By that time I will have reached emeritus status but I can certainly imagine that Heidelberg, which, though it is Germany's oldest university has always kept abreast of the very latest developments, will seize the opportunity of celebrating its 625th anniversary in style. But by then there'll be another man sitting in this chair. Or perhaps a woman. For it's high time we had a lady at the helm.

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

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Updated: 19.12.2001


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