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›It is important that we all see ourselves as members of the university‹

Interview with Rector Professor Dr Joybrato Mukherjee

A new Rectorate took office on 1 October. For the first time, there are new Vice-Rectors for the areas of sustainability and transfer. Rector Professor Dr Joybrato Mukherjee on what he finds appealing in his new role, which priorities he will set – and where more work needs to be done.

Interview: Jürgen Rees and Eva Schissler

Professor Mukherjee, you are originally from the Rhineland, but have lived in Hesse for many years. Does the change from Giessen to Cologne feel like a homecoming? 

I know Cologne very well from my youth and also have family ties here. At times in the past twenty years, I also commuted regularly from Giessen to Aachen, where I did my university studies. When I would cross the Rodenkirchen bridge on Autobahn 4 and saw the Cologne cathedral to the right, it did feel like a kind of homecoming. To me, Cologne was always a gateway to the region.

We have to ask in this context: Where do you stand on the topic of the Carnival?

In my time in Hesse, it got a bit obscured – although the region does have its own carnival tradition. But during my youth the carnival was part of my regular programme and brought me to Cologne many times. So it is not something completely alien to me.

The University of Cologne is one of the largest universities in Germany. What challenges does this pose to the university leadership?

Cologne is the one large university in the Rhineland with which I have not had many points of contact so far – my academic background is in Aachen and Bonn. Due to the size, importance and history of the university, this is a very exciting new task for me.

If you look at the hard numbers, Justus Liebig University Giessen, from where I come, with its 27,000 students and 5,800 employees, is not exactly small either. It is the second largest university in Hesse after Frankfurt, shaping the city and the region. However, with just under 95,000 inhabitants, Giessen is a completely different city than Cologne with its one million inhabitants. What they both share is that the city and the university are historically closely linked.

As far as management tasks are concerned, there are clear differences that I will have to adjust to. Giessen is a medium-sized university in a rather small city. The departments usually have 20 to 40 professorships. The University of Cologne, on the other hand, has very large Faculties that, for historical reasons, are relatively independent. I will therefore be working with strong Faculties here. Judging from the talks I have conducted so far, I find the Deans and their teams to be extremely competent, prudent and strategic in their thinking – they are, so to speak, ›partners in leadership‹.

At the same time, the university has developed a strong common identity, especially under my predecessor Axel Freimuth. I would like to build on this and further strengthen this identity because the success of the individual institutes and departments depends on the success of the university as a whole.

Among the challenges you will face is the Excellence Strategy process: The draft proposals for Clusters of Excellence were submitted in May, the application in the funding line Excellence University will follow next year. How will you go about this?

This process has been ongoing since the last decision in 2019. At that time, Cologne was granted four Clusters, some of them jointly with other universities, but unfortunately lost its excellence status. The research base at the University of Cologne is outstanding, but we are the only university with so many Clusters that is not a University of Excellence. Conclusions have certainly been drawn in recent years because of this situation.

Excellence Strategy – The Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and the Länder aims to strengthen Germany as a research location and to make it even more competitive internationally through top achievements, profiling and cooperation. It comprises two separate funding lines: Clusters of Excellence and Universities of Excellence. The University of Cologne currently has four Clusters of Excellence and, if it receives at least two Clusters of Excellence in the current round, will apply again for the status of a University of Excellence.

Are they the right ones in your view?

In the new Rectorate, we are working to complete tasks that are already underway and looking at issues we still have to address for our proposal. For example, we are currently working on a holistic transfer strategy, which we need when we are assessed as a University of Excellence. This strategy will cover all three pillars defined by the Wissenschaftsrat, the German Science and Humanities Council: application and utilization, but also consulting and communication.

At the moment, however, our top priority is the first funding line, the Cluster proposals. This is necessary for us to qualify for the second funding line. Then we will complete our preparations for the Excellence University funding line. In doing so, we must be aware that we are facing very tough competition and that others are also well prepared. In the end, we must be able to say with a clear conscience that we have prepared and presented ourselves in the best possible way, that we went the extra mile. But then, as always, there is also an element of luck.

What will your first weeks and months in office look like – apart from the Excellence process?

Some important things are well underway. For example, the university has already adopted a sustainability strategy. This process must now be implemented, so for the first time a Vice-Rectorate will be responsible for this area. In addition, a new University Strategy Plan has been drafted in a participatory process. The new Rectorate will finalize this plan and – with a development planning framework of institutional goals, priority sub-goals and measures as well as indicators for target review – is set to adopt it in the fourth quarter of 2023.

In the field of research, we will also continue our process of profile area development, independent of the Excellence Strategy. On the one hand, the university is very successful in winning third-party funding, and on the other, it has its own promotion schemes to support cutting-edge research and attract the best talents. One of our great strengths is that in the ABCD-J region, we are part of an excellent regional network together with the universities in Aachen, Bonn and Düsseldorf as well as Forschungszentrum Jülich and other non-university research institutions. The further strengthening of this regional network is, of course, at the top of my agenda; Bonn, the university in our closest vicinity, will continue to play a special role in this.

In the new Rectorate, you will take over the topic of internationalization. Does that mean that this issue will be a priority? 

Take over? I would put it a little differently: I see that the International Office is very successful and also takes on strategic tasks. In addition, the European University Alliance EUniWell under the responsibility of Beatrix Busse in the Vice-Rectorate for Teaching and Studies is an important pacesetter in the field of internationalization. With this in mind, I would like to address the tasks of internationalization in a team composed of myself, Vice-Rector Busse, the International Office headed by Dr Susanne Preuschoff and a Rectorate Commissioner for Internationalization.

What priorities do you see in the area of teaching and studies?

First of all, the system accreditation of our degree programmes gives us completely new opportunities to develop and offer courses faster and more independently within our own quality-assured framework – and to further develop existing ones. This greatly improves our ability to respond to changing demands. In future, certain key competencies, for example regarding the digital transformation or sustainability, will play a greater role in our degree programmes. And we will consider developing additional interdisciplinary courses that connect the Faculties even more strongly.

In all this, it is important that students see themselves as members of the university. They are neither customers nor simply recipients of knowledge. The success of the university is also influenced by the success of our students and how they contribute their own initiatives and interests.

System Accreditation – The German Accreditation Council confirmed the University of Cologne’s internal system accreditation on 28 September. With this step, individual degree programmes or groups of programmes no longer need to be accredited by an external agency; rather, the university’s quality assurance process has been accredited as a whole, so that it can henceforth accredit its own programmes.

A major social issue is the shortage of teachers. What role should the University of Cologne play in the future as a major training institution?

The UoC plays a prominent role here. Almost 30 percent of our students are in a teacher training programme. We must therefore consider what contribution we can make to this issue. We know that, across Germany, less than 30,000 students out of the 55,000 to 60,000 who start teacher training become regular teachers. Starting from the first day at university to the induction period in a school, we see considerable losses. Since we at the University of Cologne are responsible for the first leg of this journey, we should ask ourselves how we can bring more highly trained teachers into the classroom.

In addition, our contribution as a university is to combine teacher training with empirical educational research to contribute evidence-based results to opinion-making in society and decision-making in politics.

You are a member of the German Social Democratic Party and are considered to be well-connected in politics. Do you see this as a conflict of interest?

I see it as one of the tasks of a university president or rector to seek a conversation with political decision-makers – primarily at the state level, but of course also at the federal level because as Rector I represent the university’s interests vis-à-vis politics. We are public institutions and get our basic financing from the state. Therefore, the exchange with politics is existentially important and in no way objectionable. As universities, we cannot act in isolation from our involvement with the state. You do not always have to agree with politics, and of course you should not ›chum up‹ with politicians. But politics sets the framework for our work, and that is why a trusting exchange is in our own interest.

The fact that I became a member of the SPD at the age of 16 has reasons that have nothing to do with university policy. I have never been active in party politics. Incidentally, this has never affected my exchange with the other democratic parties, and it does not play any role in my performance as Rector, as was the case in Giessen.

Axel Freimuth’s 18-year tenure as Rector has certainly shaped the office. Do you fear resistance to change?

Axel Freimuth has led the University of Cologne very successfully over the past 18 years. I was also president of JLU Giessen for a total of 14 years. Of course I realize that in such a long time the person is strongly influenced by the institution and vice versa. So I can understand very well that some new developments may be viewed with reservations or with concern, in any case with an expectation of change. And yes: a new Rector is now taking over, so many things will certainly be done differently in terms of style and content – and a number of other new colleagues also came into office as Vice-Rectors. But on the other hand: As much as I had an important function in Giessen and Axel Freimuth was formative for Cologne – a university does not just rest on a single person. That is the beauty of universities.

What do you, in turn, expect from the members of the university?

Now, in the initial phase, I will get to know the university better – and it will get to know me. My expectation is actually quite clear and is applies to myself no less: We all serve the institutional interest of the university. We are not a collection of 55,000 individual interests, we form a large team. That is how we should understand ourselves, that is how we should act, that is how we should deal with each other.