NOMIS scientist Michael Schaepman recently took on the role of president of the University of Zurich (UZH) in Switzerland. In an interview published by UZH, he shares his insights on interdisciplinary collaboration, research and more.
Giving people room for creativity
Encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, streamlining regulations, and giving people the freedom to research: These are some of the goals Michael Schaepman hopes to achieve as new UZH President.
Michael Schaepman, what does the University of Zurich stand for?
UZH is really well positioned in the competitive academic arena, both in Switzerland and internationally. As a center of research, Zurich garners huge benefit from its two universities, UZH and ETH, each of which is a strong individual player in its own right. They mutually enrich each other’s reputation.
On 1 August you take office as the new President of the University of Zurich. What are you most looking forward to?
I’m very much looking forward to helping shape the future of the university. I’ll be advocating a framework that allows creative research and collaboration to develop new ideas.
How do you see your role: As more of a facilitator, or as more of a creator?
I aspire to both: Creation and facilitation. The most challenging part of my first hundred days in office will be to find the right balance between the two roles.
You yourself do successful research in remote sensing. What prompted you to shelve your research and become president?
The research I’ve been doing is very interdisciplinary, running from engineering all the way to methodological basic research. I’ve always found this interdisciplinary quality to be a great advantage, and I think it also has many potential benefits for a comprehensive university like UZH. There are different academic cultures and a wide range of research topics at UZH. This diversity is a great asset. By connecting and networking different fields of knowledge more effectively, the university will be able to position itself even more strongly going forward. This is an area where I can inject some impetus for the future.
Does it not pain you to have to give up your research?
Of course it does to a certain extent. But I believe that as UZH president I can take the university a step forward by helping integrate different fields. If at all possible I’d like to keep a very small part of my research going.
What are the benefits of interdisciplinary networking?
It has a lot to do with the complexity of the world we live in. We’re having to investigate fields of knowledge in even more detail and provide answers to questions that are important for society and academia. To do this we need specialists. But they shouldn’t be working in isolation. What’s also needed is researchers who can integrate specialist knowledge in larger contexts. If the balance is right, interdisciplinary collaboration can be very fruitful.
Can you give an example of how and where we could be integrating and harnessing the academic diversity of UZH?
One example is the Digital Religions Research Priority Program, which connects sociology, ethics, and theology with informatics and research into networks and other fields. This is an area that’s rapidly gaining in importance. Societal effects – like radicalization via the internet – can only be researched on an interdisciplinary basis, which calls for a diversity of skills that are available in abundance at UZH.
You say diversity is one of UZH’s strengths. Where do its weaknesses lie?
One weakness is that because of powerful growth we’ll be limited in terms of infrastructure, in particular as regards buildings. The question arises as to how we’re going to be able to continue offering a growing number of students as good an education in the future as well. To do this we have to ensure we have the best possible supervision framework. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic we also expect more high school leavers to choose university rather than going directly into the workplace.
How do you intend to respond?
On the infrastructure side various projects are being built or planned, including the new chemistry building at Irchel and the Forum UZH on the City Campus. But given that we’re also going to have to give buildings back to the canton once the Forum UZH is ready for occupation, the amount of new space this will create is limited.
You’ve chosen three words to describe the program you’ll be pursuing in your term of office: Creativity, cooperation, and complexity. Let’s take a closer look at these concepts: To what extent is creativity important in terms of research and teaching at UZH?
I always use these words in reference to both research and teaching and to the facilities provided for research and teaching by Central Services. When it comes to research, creativity means giving people space for ideas, theories, and experiments. We have to keep researchers’ backs free to do the best research they can.
For doctoral candidates it’s important for us to respect their freedom to research, their protected time. We shouldn’t overburden them with teaching or other work for the university. Here clear rules are needed. For its part, the administration has to operate efficiently and support creative work in research.
Continue reading the UZH interview
UZH: Michael Schaepman Proposed as New President of UZH
Neue Zürcher Zeitung: Michael Schaepman wird neuer Rektor der Universität Zürich (German only)
Tages Anzeiger: Der «richtige Mann» für die Leitung der Uni (German only)
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