Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Professor for one year (week 16): What is excellence?

After one semester of teaching at the University of Konstanz, it's time for some retrospection.  Konstanz is one of those "excellent" German universities -- which also means they have a bit more money than non-excellent universities.  (By the way, how are these universities labeled: "ordinary", "miserable", "amateurish"?)

So far, I spent several years at the University of Zurich (UZH), at the University of Basel (I taught at both), and at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (although I didn't teach there).  As researcher and lecturer, I had contact to departments concerned with study affairs and teaching in the broadest sense (e.g., teaching evaluation, examination authorities, e-learning consultants), to people concerned with facilitating research activities (e.g., publication database managers, third-party funding offices), and to the general administration (e.g., human resources, secretaries, and the "Abwart" or "Hausmeister" [caretaker] -- nowadays called "facility manager" in German).

For general issues like getting keys and a badge, German bureaucracy meets all the known prejudices perfectly.  You have to go from pillar to post just to realize that today nothing will happen, you will not even get the form you have to fill before being eligible to get a key.  The scene where Asterix and Obelix have to get permit A38 is a perfect match.  You have to find out by yourself about all the things you might need.  I was told, I even had to fill a form and get the signature of the department confirming that they would pay the costs for a -- trash bin!  I didn't even try to get a pencil, yet -- I rather bought one myself.  Whereas at Swiss institutions (not only in higher education) everything is prepared beforehand and you will get an invitation when to come where and collect your keys and your badge.  You are taken care of.  You just go and grab a new pencil.

At all Swiss institutions I worked at, offices were cleaned twice a week, restrooms were cleaned twice a day (around noon and in the evening, so when you come the next day, everything is clean).  In Konstanz, offices are cleaned twice a month, restrooms once a day (around 16:00; of course, people use them after this, so when you come the next day, everything looks messy again).

Swiss offices and lecture halls are equipped with high-value furniture from USM or Vitra, and desks and chairs are renewed regularly.  There is a design concept defining which furniture goes in which kind of working space (there are different chairs for offices, lecture halls, cafeterias, and waiting areas).  It gives a good atmosphere, you feel valued.  Someone invested in getting you a great office to create a positive and creative working ambiance.  Chairs meet ergonomic standards.  Oh, and you just order a new shelf, another chair for visitors, or a desk lamp by e-mail or online -- some days later you find it in your office.  In Konstanz, desks and chairs look very used and accidentally assembled.

I was lucky that someone wanted to get rid of an old orange desk lamp with a proper light bulb and I could use it; I don't like neon light coming from the ceiling.  And yes, this red chair is a victim of the ravages of time.

The only design furniture I am aware of are original Eames Side Chairs on stretchers in front of some professors' offices (a kind of waiting area for consulting hours). 

But this is probably due to the time the university was build: In the 1960s, the Eames furniture served -- as intended -- as mass produced chairs; you can still find the fiber chairs in older stadiums, concert halls, or universities.  Today's Eames chairs are rather expensive (at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, several dozens of original Eames DSS had been stolen this Spring) -- but still very nice for large seating in cafeterias or concert halls.

What I do like in Konstanz are some rather "facilitating" aspects:  As lecturer you get a link to configure evaluation questionnaires for your lectures, then you receive the printed copies to use them in your class.  Only two hours after submitting the filled-in questionnaires, I got an elaborate analysis via e-mail.  That's great!  At the UZH I had to evaluate the questionnaires myself manually.  Part of getting the excellence label for Konstanz meant  investing in support for students -- for example, they have a very active writing center -- and for researchers.  They provide a regular newsletter pointing to open calls for grants and awards sorted by topics -- i.e., calls for linguists, for chemists, etc. -- and by career level.  That's very convenient!

And then there are some simple things when you realize that this excellence label means something else than the word "excellence" -- Swiss universities don't label themselves as "excellent", but they offer more convenience for scientists.  For example, let's consider getting reimbursed for expenses related with attending conferences.  As researcher you go to conferences and workshops to present and discuss recent findings and to do networking.  In some areas like computer science or computational linguistics, where publications are mainly conference proceedings, authors have to attend the conference and give a talk to get their articles published.  Depending on the location and the duration of a conference, this can get rather expensive.  Since the university has an interest in publications, they should pay for it.  At UZH and in Basel, researchers could get reimbursement up to CHF 1000 per year.  Swiss researchers can also get funding from academies.  So maybe going to two European conferences per year is possible.  If there is additional money at the general budget of the institute or as part of third-party funded projects, you can even publish more.  In Konstanz, the amount of money available is very limited -- less than 2000 € per year to be split between all junior researchers (i.e., non-professors) of one rather large department.  Oh, and don't forget the messy forms you have to fill in before and after the conference!  And of course you have to submit two copies of the form, both signed and filled manually (as always, the forms cannot be filled properly by using a PDF viewer).  If you don't have third-party money, you will have to pay everything yourself -- which is feasible with a professor's salary, but not with the usual 50% or less assistant salary.  In the end, this contributes to statements like "in engineering, regular money is less than 20% of the general budget" (see here) -- everything else researchers acquire themselves.  The time you spend writing grant proposals is time you cannot spend to do research, to publish, or to teach. 

Comparing just single elements (reimbursement of conference travels, furniture) at Swiss and German universities shows that indeed Swiss universities are much more attractive without labeling themselves as "excellent" -- of course not to do so is part of the Swiss culture, but then: what does this say about German culture and the German self-perception? But of course these conclusions are based on a very small sample.  

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