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“Top research and teaching in service of the state” – University President Oliver Günther on the University Development Plan 2014–2018

Picture: Karla Fritze

Picture: Karla Fritze

Important groundwork was laid in 2014 for the development of the University of Potsdam: a reorientation of the research profile and the signing of a university contract with the Brandenburg Ministry for Science, Research, and Culture. Now comes the next step: the University’s internal University Development Plan (UDP) 2014–2018. University President Oliver Günther, Ph.D., explains to Portal what distinguishes the plan. Matthias Zimmermann spoke with him.

Professor Günther, why does the University need a new development plan?

Six years after the last UDP, it was time for the University to adopt a new perspective. The institutional, financial, and technical conditions for institutions of higher education have changed significantly, both nationally and internationally. The UDP should serve to get us all to the same level, so that we can talk about how to bring existing conditions together with our goals.

What are its central aims?

The title of the UDP sums it up: “Top research and teaching in service of the state.” First, the state of Brandenburg needs top research, not just for the economy but also as part of our culture. To do this, we have to attract outstanding scholars. And we have to promote application-oriented research just as much as “blue sky research,” which is independent basic research that serves no other purpose than to expand knowledge. The University of Potsdam has long provided research-based, top-class teaching. We want to ensure and further develop this quality so that students receive the best possible education and are equipped for their professional careers. Last but not least, the transfer unit is also actively serving the state. Very successfully, I might add. Cooperation with businesses is going to expand further.

What specific initiatives are there with regard to research?

With the reorientation of our research strategy, we want to stay abreast of the requirements of internationally visible top research, optimize working conditions for our researchers, and attract large collaborative projects to the University. We have set up three funding lines. In the first line, following the motto of ‘Strengthening strengths,’ we created four research priorities that came from the previous profile areas and areas of excellence: earth sciences, functional ecology and evolution research, the cognitive sciences, plant genome research, and systems biology. Second, there are research units situated at the Faculty level; currently these include functional soft matter, complex systems, and policy, administration and management. The third funding line enables flexible start-up financing for innovative projects. We just established two such research initiatives with the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg and the Health Sciences Association in the context of the research cooperation program, “Research Center Sanssouci” (RECS). Along with this cluster support, we also anticipate support for individual scientists. There is always outstanding research going on outside of the associations, and we also want to continue supporting these kinds of individual researchers.

What’s going to be set in motion in terms of studies and teaching?

The higher education landscape in Germany has become increasingly differentiated in recent years. As a research university, we believe that it is our responsibility to also reflect this research orientation in teaching. Specifically, the number of slots in Master and doctoral programs should be expanded. This fits the trend of Bachelor graduates pursuing a Master’s degree. Far more than was predicted ten years ago.

At the same time, one of the declared goals is to retain the breadth and quality of teaching, despite massive under-financing. How can this be done?

Thanks to successful system accreditation, we have the right funds to continue developing our courses of study on our own. Building on this, we want to expand existing quality management into a “quality culture in Potsdam.” One example for this is the Center for Teacher Training, an inter-faculty institution founded in December 2014, which is the only center of its kind throughout Germany. We brought together teacher training and education research into the Center because, on one hand, we wanted to be able to better evaluate how schools ‘function’ today; on the other hand, we wanted to have education research results flow directly into the training of future teachers.

What role will e-learning play in the future?

We will implement a hybrid model of on-site and online teaching over the long term. Any institution of higher education that is not actively thinking about this topic is throwing away major opportunities. This is why we want to provide centralized support to teachers at the University of Potsdam, to help them develop the right models for their teaching, to use media in a productive way, and to import or export content.

The opening of university admissions to professionally trained candidates without a university entrance qualification may result in entirely new challenges. How are we going to deal with this?

In order to meet the diversity of the student body, we will have to create additional supporting measures, especially for the introductory study phase. The goal must be not just to facilitate university studies for lots of eligible, interested people, but also to provide them with the best possible education, accompanying them until they finish their degrees.

In 2014, there were 54 start-ups that came from the University. What plans are there for the transfer unit?

Keeping up this level of start-ups is a challenge that we are happy to take on. We also want to expand cooperative agreements with businesses, especially through our circle of partners in industry and enterprise. In this way, we can open up new opportunities for out students and keep young, well-educated professionals in Brandenburg.

One of the newest initiatives is the “Potsdam tenure track model.” What are its advantages, and how has it been received?

It is going extremely well! In principle, this is a kind of anticipatory replacement of structural positions. Without major additional funds, we can create exciting positions that offer young scientists an attractive future, because good work can also lead to solid opportunities for a permanent position. We are currently analyzing every relevant position to see whether the model could be applied, and then we offer it to the Faculties. Acceptance is very high, regardless of the subject.

How should international networking be driven forward at the University of Potsdam?

First, we want to strengthen cooperation with priority regions, above all strategic partners, and especially in student exchanges. Second, the proportion of English-language Master and doctoral programs should be increased to make studying here even more attractive for international students.

What other elements of the UDP are particularly important to you?

We have achieved a great deal, and also have a lot ahead of us, in areas such as staff development. We want to be a good employer that gives its employees planning security in the context of what is financially possible. Alumni and fundraising should continue; for example, in the summer of 2015, we will have the first centralized graduation ceremony for graduates. Not least, the University will continue growing in terms of new construction in the coming years. The campus at the Neues Palais will be redesigned westwards, down the Lindenallee, by 2030. 

The UDP also makes it clear that existing conditions at the University of Potsdam are insufficient to tackle the current tasks and formulated goals. How can we, despite this, articulate an ambitious plan – and approach it?

That’s the challenge of a UDP! The document works basically from conservative assumptions. For example, the lower financial limit is drawn from the funds approved in the university contract. If state policy, however, were to move towards further financial commitments, then of course a great deal more would become possible. That would be good for the state of Brandenburg, because the universities are a decisive factor in bringing the state forward. 

The introduction to the UDP states that the University is an “intellectual crystallization point” and a “site of intellectual and cultural exchange.” What does this mean?

My counter-question is: Is a university more than a school for adults? Our answer is yes! It’s a place where knowledge is created – and where a critical exchange about knowledge takes place. And not just among scientists and students, but also with citizens in our numerous public events. The University can therefore do far more than short-term thinking about cost effectiveness would have you believe; it can contribute to the common good and to societal progress.

Text: Matthias Zimmermann, Online gestellt: Agnes Bressa, Translation: Dr. Lee Holt
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