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1 March 2005

The University of Heidelberg's Presentation to the Diplomatic Corps

At the State of Baden-Württemberg's Berlin offices—120 ambassadors and attachés accepted the invitation—Rector Prof. Hommelhoff: "A unique opportunity to meet so many opinion leaders"

Globalisation has left its stamp on the universities as much as anywhere else and international contacts are becoming more and more crucial. But how can a university present itself as effectively as possible to a broad international audience? The state of Baden-Württemberg hit on the idea of inviting the Diplomatic Corps to its Berlin offices for a presentation by the University of Heidelberg. The invitation was extended to all ambassadors and attachés, as well as to ministerial officials and the staff of research institutions. For Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff, the Rector of the University of Heidelberg, it was "an invaluable and unique opportunity to meet so many opinion leaders."

The multi-media presentation by the Rector, the vice-Rectors and three scholars and scientists took the form of brief talks on a variety of subjects ranging from the present situation, the University's international links and opportunities for study to a brief outline of selected research projects. Rector Professor Hommelhoff started the ball rolling. After a brief outline of the history of Germany's oldest university he drew his audience's attention to more recent developments.

"The present image of the University is especially notable for the range of subjects in offer, from ancient history to zoology," the Rector emphasised. The ambassadors were told that a number of those subjects, like Assyriology or East Asian art history, have contributed significantly to the University's worldwide reputation. Another factor that has done much to cement that reputation is the close cooperation with major research institutions situated in Heidelberg, like the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

Then the Rector took a look ahead. As of 2007, together with the German Cancer Research Centre and in conjunction with the Siemens company, the University Hospital and the University will be operating a heavy-ion facility for the treatment of hitherto incurable cancer disorders. The facility will play its part in ensuring that the University not only maintains its outstanding position in Germany but will also be set fair to draw level with the eight leading universities in Europe.

As vice-Rector for international relations, Professor Angelos Chaniotis dwelt on the international links between Heidelberg and other universities all over the world. In this he referred not only to the large number of international undergraduates and doctoral students at the University but also to the many visiting scholars and scientists working here on grants from organisations like the Humboldt Foundation or the German Academic Exchange Service. With so many international guests to cater for, it has become almost self-evident for many subjects to introduce courses conducted in English.

International activities are by no means limited to Heidelberg itself. In comparison with other German universities, Heidelberg has broken new ground by establishing academic institutions abroad. The South Asia Institute now has four offices on the Indian subcontinent that were able to provide on-the-spot aid during the recent tsunami catastrophe. In addition, the Heidelberg Latin America Center has now been established, not least due to the commitment of Professor Mario Fernández, the present Chilean ambassador to Germany. Professor Fernández, who did his doctorate in Heidelberg, sat in the front row during the presentation to the Diplomatic Corps, an expression of his deep and cordial connections with the University.

A university is of course largely defined by the young people studying there. As Silke Leopold, vice-Rector with special responsibility for student matters and teaching pointed out, the 27,000 of them pursuing some 100 courses of study make Heidelberg into a mass university, at least on paper. The conversion of courses to comply with the international BA and MA standards represents a major challenge, she emphasised, particularly if the Humboldtian ideals of higher education are to be upheld. She went on to prophesy that the new degrees will change the face of the University more radically than any other reform up to the present.

The University of Heidelberg is also strongly committed to concern for continuing education after graduation. One token of this concern is the large number of postgraduate research projects that help to ensure that Heidelberg remains up among the leaders in connection with the number of successful doctorates completed each year. Another expression of the University's engagement in this respect is the support it provides for the transition from University to the world of work, for instance by organising "encounter fairs" where companies as can present themselves as potential employers and establish contact with students.

Finally, three scholars and scientists from the University gave an outline of the work they are engaged in at present. Professor Axel Michaels was on the spot to represent the long-term collaborative research project on "Ritual Dynamics" funded by the German Research Foundation to the tune of some 1 million euros annually. He described the issues addressed by the world's largest research team on the subject of rituals, including the question of how rituals originate and the ultimate purpose they serve.

An entirely different research project was outlined by Dr. Katja Mombaur of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing: the computer-assisted analysis and simulation of "open-loop" robot locomotion, i.e., without feedback from sensors. The astonishing result is that robots unable to maintain a stable standing position when static are entirely able to walk and hop. The findings from this project provide far-reaching insights into biological locomotion processes and in future can be drawn upon for improvement of therapeutic care for paraplegics.

Medical scientist Professor Andreas Kulozik outlined the potentialities provided by the link-up between top-quality research at university and non-university institutions such as the German Cancer Research Centre and EMBL. In the last few years this approach has led to a scientific breakthrough in the understanding of blood diseases in children. In addition, he reported on successes in the institution of forward-looking structures centring around the establishment of an international team of scientists and students.

The presentation was followed by an exhaustive discussion. At the subsequent buffet there was ample time to deepen contacts with the guests, during which a number of countries expressed the desire for cooperation with the University. The facsimiles and originals from the archives of the University Library presented by Dr. Armin Schlechter also aroused keen interest. In the six centuries of its existence, the University of Heidelberg has amassed a number of uniquely precious holdings. After all these very encouraging impressions, Professor Peter Hommelhoff was heard to express the conviction that "the University should present itself more often in such a setting".
Stefan Zeeh

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

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