1. February 2022 | Magazine:

Embarking on a new beginning and shaping the future together Our President’s spotlights

The news that Professor Christian Thomsen was not re-elected as president of TU Berlin last Wednesday (19.01.22), appeared like a “thunderbolt” (Tagesspiegel, 22.01.22) reverberating through the cold, wet January night. It even caused the windows here at TU Braunschweig to tremble. The decisive nature of the election results at a university recently recognised for its excellence, a successful member of the TU9 Alliance, and an institution that is well known both on the national and international higher education stage, was a surprise or even a shock to many internally and externally at TU Berlin. 31 of the 61 voters from the expanded Academic Senate apparently wanted a change – more so than many had anticipated. However, what does the surprising election of the newly-elected president Professor Geraldine Rauch (the “thunderbolt”) and the demonstrated desire for change have to do with TU Braunschweig? I see this unexpected result as an opportunity to outline my thoughts on this very subject, to embark on new beginnings and on shaping the future together. Our capital city sometimes seems far away, but the themes that are currently influencing and reshaping the academic system and university landscape there are the same as here and at all other universities. We should not pass up the chance to engage in this discussion, nor shy away from the consequences that it will imply and instead shape the future together. It represents a great opportunity for us and is – as I see it – our only option.

A case of “new normal” and not “back to normal”

Portrait-Aufnahme der Präsidentin Prof. Angela Ittel.

Professor Angela Ittel. Picture Credits: Kristina Rottig/TU Braunschweig

Why is there such a strong desire for a fresh start these days? Don’t we all just want to go back to the lives we led before the spring of 2020? The seemingly everlasting nature of the pandemic now compels or causes us to question all aspects of our lives, including our habits and our values in both private and professional life. Even if, on the one hand, we warn that an overabundance of digital teaching and learning formats will not result in us becoming a distance university in the “new normal”, it is, on the other hand, very clear that we have learned to appreciate digital formats of teaching and (international) communication in our daily professional life. Time efficacy, and newly-found levels of efficiency, playing our part in climate protection through CO2 savings, mobile working methods and the possibility of more effectively interweaving our private and professional lives are aspects that we do not want to relinquish. We perhaps have not accepted the possibilities of digital interaction as the “new order” of communication and interaction. But it seems clear that “getting back to normal” will also not be a possibility. And, it is essential that we now have to seriously consider how we want to shape university life in the future. We must redefine what “normal” is, what “normal” university life looks like for us at TU Braunschweig in the future. We need to take an active part in shaping out future, it is time for us to seize it with our own hands and work together to provide our university with a sustainable platform for the years to come.

It is surely no coincidence that at the same time a discussion about employment restrictions and regulations in academia has been launched in the press and throughout social media. Young researchers clearly demand more job security and predictability and are struggling for recognition in the form of permanent employment. This issue we must also put on our agenda to explore the possibilities and weigh up the many consequences it has for the current system and our university. These demands will not simply disappear. They will become more prominent instead in the media and in debates on university policy and will permanently change our academic system and the means and principles with which we support our young academics. We must deal with these questions and take an active role in planning for the future at TU Braunschweig.

Sooner rather than later, demands for new modes of governance in university life will prompt us to rethink the familiar and commonly practised decision-making and coordination processes, and to evaluate and test new means of participation. In order to compensate for possible gaps left by state funding, we will have to look for alternative funding opportunities, explore new models and partnerships, something that is barely familiar, let alone practised, in the German university system. We need an open and constructive dialogue on how future skills will change the content of our teaching, how the content of our research, the education and structure of academic management and the forms of academic communication will change as a result of social demands. All of these issues and more we need to intensively discuss now and over the next few years.

Orienting ourselves using the Model of Holistic Excellence

So far, one of the important tasks we have identified is how to be successful in the next round of the German Universities Excellence Initiative. How can we pursue these ambitions and at the same time work in an integrated manner internally? To guide us, I have set up the Model of Holistic Excellence. It clearly shows how members of all the university’s status groups can and must take responsibility for aligning our day-to-day activities with the standards of holistic excellence. The model defines very clearly what it means for all our members to work together to constantly improve our university – in addition to the excellent research that must be further developed at an internationally comparable level. Anyone can contribute to this. It is a common goal that motivates and creates our identity. We will achieve a great deal if – in the spirit of the Model of Holistic Excellence – we live out the consistent integration of the intersecting topics of internationality, diversity & equality, digitalisation and extended forms of knowledge transfer in our daily lives.

But it also means that we face societal changes and altered demands on our governance structures, our research and knowledge transfer activities, our studying and teaching methods, as well as the academic administration that supports these. We must constantly reflect on the extent to which we as an organisation, as an inclusive educational institution and as an employer, are guided by the highest standards and our vision of holistic excellence. It is an orientation that is necessary, irrespective of any formal competitions, for us to develop ourselves as TU Braunschweig in a contemporary manner and to embark on a new beginning and shape the future together. We will not get to where we wish to be with only a small selected group of high profile researchers and colleagues, but by working together and having a meaningful dialogue. To do this, it is important to bring everyone along on this journey towards necessary change.

We have already set important processes in motion to travel this path together, most prominently with introducing the University Development Initiative 2030. I invite you to participate, as much as your time and commitments allow. I always look forward to hearing your suggestions, comments and opinions on the process and the results, as well as the discussions and dialogue that they provoke. Let us embark on a new beginning and shape the future together.