Professor Hans W. Decker Founding President of the Friends of Heidelberg University

21 07 2008
Putting the University of Heidelberg on an even firmer footing in the USA — One of the aims of the newly established non-profit society “Friends of the University of Heidelberg”
Putting the University of Heidelberg on an even firmer footing in the United States is one of the central aims of the newly established non-profit society “Friends of the University of Heidelberg”. It is represented by Prof. Dr. Hans W. Decker, president and member of what is at the moment a three-man board of managing directors. On the occasion of his recent visit to the alma mater, Oliver Fink spoke to him for the “Heidelberg International Alumni Revue” about fond memories, upcoming tasks and important ventures.

Relations between the University of Heidelberg and the USA can look back on a long and rich tradition. For example, in 1930 the New University building would not have been possible without American donations. When you were a student here, what did America mean to you and your fellow students?

Decker: The Second World War was still uppermost in our minds. For us, the Americans were an occupying power with a strong presence in Heidelberg. But the good thing about it was that they had helped to oust the Nazis and that gave Germany the opportunity to start from scratch again politically. That way we regained access to the western world.

You did your doctorate at the University in 1958 and then worked for Siemens, ultimately as the head of Siemens USA from 1971 to 1990. When did you start developing something like alumni awareness?

Decker: After moving to the USA in 1971, where I have lived ever since, my first visit to Heidelberg was in the late 1970s. I came back to see the city where I had studied, a city that was full of fond memories for me. The first thing I did was to look in at an office in the Old University and inquire whether there was anything akin to an alumni system. They didn’t know what I was talking about. When the University finally started its international alumni efforts in 1986, on the occasion of its 600th anniversary, I immediately joined and attended the anniversary celebrations with my wife.

Do you come back regularly to Heidelberg?

Decker: I’m afraid not. Only occasionally. But maybe that will change with my new office …

… as president of the newly established society “Friends of Heidelberg University”. Tell us something about your aims.

Decker: The society has three main objectives. First we want to be something like a liaison agency for the over 5,000 alumni in the USA, a large number even by American standards. We want the alumni to say: “Aha, there isn’t only the wonderful old university in Heidelberg where we spent our student days and that we always love to come back to, there’s also an office in New York representing the University – wonderful!” Then we intend to support existing and potential relations between individual academics and institutions of the University of Heidelberg and their American counterparts by providing assistance, coordination services and just by creating and promoting contacts. Thirdly, we are setting out to find sponsors, something quite normal in the American higher education system. I invite all the American alumni to join the “Friends”. Self-organisation is vital and we hope it will develop a dynamic of its own.

What image do the Americans have of Heidelberg and its university?

Decker: Heidelberg and its university are firmly established in their minds. As you know, there is a tradition of elitism and hierarchical thinking in America. In the academic world the first thing that counts is rankings: Who’s the best? And when people hear Heidelberg, they tend to think it’s the very best in Germany. I don’t try to dissuade them, but I do point out that the German higher education system functions rather differently from the American one.

In Germany elitist thinking does appear to be making headway. The Initiative for Excellence competition, in which the University of Heidelberg made a fine showing, is probably the high-point in this development so far. Did this competition impinge on American awareness?

Decker: Yes and no. The public at large took little note of it, but in the academic sphere things were different. There people certainly registered the fact that things are changing in the German higher education system.

Let’s come back to Heidelberg for a moment. What is your image of the city?

Decker: The first thing, of course, is the visual aspect. When I first came to Heidelberg there was still the old railway station, a relic of the industrialisation period. It certainly didn’t fit in with romantic Heidelberg. That is probably the most significant change in the face of the city since the 1950s. Trams still trundled through the Hauptstrasse, things were idyllic and small-scale. There’s been a lot of change since then. But the Neckar still flows in its old river-bed, the Schnitzelbank is still there, I’ve been to see the Schuman building and the lecture hall where Gadamer held his lectures. I immediately recognised some of the bookshops. And the Backmulde, where I’m staying, already existed when I was here. So despite all the changes, the beautiful overall picture is still much the same. My basic aim is to see and represent Heidelberg and its university not as a Student Prince fairy-tale affair but, for all its romanticism, as an institution that has its place in the world of today. Deepening relations between the University of Heidelberg and the USA is one of my prime objectives as president of the Friends of Heidelberg University. That’s what I hope to achieve.

(Editors can obtain a photo of Prof. Decker from presse@rektorat,

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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