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»Today we are farther away from being an ivory tower than ever before«

Interview with retiring Rector Professor Dr Axel Freimuth

After 18 years as rector, Axel Freimuth will retire in October and pass the baton to his successor Joybrato Mukherjee. He looks back on many achievements, but also disappointments during his time at the helm of the university. Also, he reflects on the difference between an elite university and a University of Excellence. And he offers a small glimpse of his plans for the future.

Interviewer: Jürgen Rees

Mr Freimuth, you recently mentioned that you were not very good at school. Is that true or was it just false modesty?

It’s definitely true. I had an A in sport, music and art, in all other subjects a D, even an F in chemistry and a C in physics, philosophy and English. That resulted in a pretty poor Grade Point Average – the second worst of the graduating class. But if I remember correctly, sport, music and art did not count for the final grade at that time.

Did your parents have to worry about you passing your school leaving exams?

No. They had faith in me and naturally didn’t want me to have to repeat a year. When things got critical in a subject because I had gotten a F, I had to take countermeasures. For example, I once memorized twenty vocabulary words in Latin every evening for weeks, and my mother quizzed me. The following year, I got a C in Latin.

How did your school leaving certificate influence your choice of study programme?

Not at all. At that time, I think there were only entry restrictions at the universities for medicine. But I knew that I didn’t want to study that, otherwise I would have tried harder, of course. Physics was one of the subjects on my shortlist, as were German studies and philosophy. In general, I’m probably someone who doesn’t learn well in formal school contexts. At university, too, I practically never went to lectures. Instead, I got the lecture notes, read a lot and otherwise did what interested me. Apart from physics, that was mainly music.

After 18 years as rector, you will soon be retiring. What were the three highlights during your long term in office?

One of the major highlights is that, compared to the beginning of my time as rector, the universities have become much more independent. They have more autonomy and can act more freely. This increased freedom has enabled us at the University of Cologne to make professors’ salaries internationally competitive and to significantly improve the framework conditions for research and teaching. One result is that we are in a much better position today, both nationally and internationally. The extent to which autonomy has enabled us to achieve certain things became visible, for example, during the coronavirus pandemic: we managed to switch to virtual teaching almost completely in the course of just a few weeks. Hardly anyone would have thought that we could be that flexible.

Another example of flexibility was coping with the double school leaving cohort in 2013 (editor’s note: due to a structural change in the German school system, two classes left school that year and had to be accommodated at university). We managed this challenge smoothly, although we had to increase both teaching staff and teaching space by 30 percent within a very short time.

As a result of these developments, we are now farther away from being an academic ivory tower than ever before. Universities – especially the University of Cologne – are much more socially networked today.

What is the second highlight? 

The significant success the University of Cologne has achieved in research. This includes not only the Excellence Initiative, but the quality of research as a whole. We have recruited many outstanding scholars and scientists, we have 16 Collaborative Research Centres – more than ever before – and four Clusters of Excellence. In Germany, only the University of Bonn has more. This shows that we are now one of the strongest universities in Germany in terms of research. 

Is the so-called Bologna reform – the Europe-wide standardization of study programmes and degrees aimed at creating a uniform European Higher Education Area – also part of this?

Definitely. Introducing the new degree programmes was an immense challenge from the very beginning of my term of office, and the process is not yet at an end. For example, the system accreditation of the University of Cologne is currently underway (editor’s note: this system will allow the UoC to develop and accredit its own degree programmes). In addition to the redesign of the degree programmes, the comprehensive introduction of graduate schools was important, allowing us to redesign the framework conditions for doctoral studies.

That still leaves the third highlight.

What has always been close to my heart is the question of how good the working conditions are at the University of Cologne and whether all employees can identify with their university. In terms of career paths, to pick up on a current topic, we have improved a lot, for example by introducing junior professorships with tenure track, which ensure more reliable career paths. We have also established comprehensive support instruments at all levels that prepare for both an academic career and the non-academic job market. There are many other programmes and facilities, for example mentoring programmes, a university day-care centre and Dual Career & Family Support. All this, I hope, makes the university a much better place to work for many. 

Another focus area was equal opportunities and diversity, with many projects to promote equality for women or to support students and early-career researchers who come from families that do not have an academic background. We are also the first university in Germany to have a commissioner for racism critique.

What do you think of the term ‘elite university’?

I have hardly ever used the word elite university, and if I did, it was only to complain about it. Today, about half of a school-leaving cohort gets into universities. That’s why it doesn’t make much sense to always talk about elites. Our task, rather, is to offer appropriate programmes for as many young people as possible, supporting them in their individual life paths. Of course, this includes academic careers and the promotion of top-level research, but not only.

Don’t elite universities and Universities of Excellence mean something quite similar?

Not in my view. A University of Excellence is a university that achieves top performance in research and teaching as well as in other areas such as transfer or the promotion of early-career researchers, and is an international leader. The term elite university, on the other hand, is a discriminatory formulation. It disregards the fact that universities have a great social responsibility: above all, to ensure the best possible education for many young people, who by no means all aspire to an academic career.

Rector Freimuth: Already climate-friendly on the road in 2009

Besides the many highlights from 18 years, there have certainly also been disappointments. Which was the biggest?

Despite the four approved Clusters of Excellence, we lost our status as a University of Excellence in 2019. Of course, that was a big disappointment. Perhaps we were too confident at the time, precisely because of the four Clusters. But we will learn from this experience and do everything we can to regain our excellence status.


How do you assess the framework conditions for universities today? 

The framework conditions have improved greatly in many respects. I have already mentioned some aspects, such as our gains in autonomy. But there are still aspects we cannot be satisfied with. The fact that we as the University of Cologne are responsible for our own construction projects is great. But everything is going much too slowly, which is mainly due to bureaucratic hurdles and time-consuming coordination processes. 

We recently planned, built and commissioned a building with the University Foundation, the recently inaugurated InnoDom, in just three years and within budget. This was possible because the project was not subject to the framework conditions of public construction. This shows that we can also do it faster and more efficiently. It is very gratifying that Ina Brandes, the Minister of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia, has undertaken to improve the public construction framework. I wish her good luck and success in this.

This year there were two cases of abuse of power by professors at the University of Cologne – including extensive reporting in various media. How stressful was that for you?

Very. When I learned in the proceedings that a doctoral candidate, for example, needed eight years to complete his thesis, that doesn’t exactly show good supervision and respect for the lifetime of the person concerned. On the other hand, the cases have also shown that our warning systems and counter-measures are effective, because the abuses came to light through internal procedures. We are working with great commitment and with the involvement of all groups at the university to lower the threshold for reporting and dealing with grievances.


We want to improve our ombudsperson system. Employees can file a grievance to these persons anonymously and confidentially if something is not going well. This will give us more information. It is important to make these structures even more visible and easier to use. All of this should make it abundantly clear that the university does not tolerate abuse of power.

What is the task of ombudspersons?

They are the first contact and confidants to turn to. This means that they are not accountable to anyone, not even to the rector or chancellor as their official superiors. They advise, for example, on whether or not a formal grievance procedure makes sense in the given situation, what that may entail and much more. It is important to know that a formal procedure usually only has a chance of success if the person concerned stands behind it with his or her name.

Speaking of power and importance: You have been rector of one of the largest German universities for 18 years: How do you feel about losing this power when you retire in October?

I am very much looking forward to being able to decide freely and spontaneously about my time again. I already reactivated a small music studio during the coronavirus pandemic and would like to make music again soon together with my wife. I was also very pleased that the university’s big band played two of my arrangements and even recorded them in a studio recently. We also bought a second-hand caravan to tour Europe and discover places where we have not yet been.


Professor Dr Axel Freimuth studied physics in Cologne. After receiving his doctorate in Cologne and completing his Habilitation, he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Karlsruhe in 1996. In 1998 he accepted became full professor in the area of experimental solid-state physics at the University of Cologne. From 1999 to 2000 he was managing director of the Institute of Physics II, and from 2000 to 2002 chairperson of the Physics Department.

From 2002 to 2006 he was the spokesperson of a Collaborative Research Centre. After a research stay at the University of British Columbia (Canada) in 2002, he was Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences from 2003 to 2005. He has been Rector since April 2005.

Freimuth was chairperson of both the State Rectors’ Conference of the universities in North Rhine-Westphalia and Kölner Wissenschaftsrunde from 2008 to 2010. He is also a member of the Supervisory Board of University Hospital Cologne.

Since 2007, Professor Freimuth has been chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research (Cologne) as well as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (Cologne), for Radio Astronomy (Bonn), for Biology of Ageing (Cologne) and for Metabolism Research (Cologne).