Section: Campus Life
ETH Board Chairman Alexander Zehnder on the ETH presidential election|
“Professors are involved in the election process”
On Thursday 14 December 2006 the ETH Board decided on the composition of the committee that will go in search of a new ETH president. The result: three seats will be occupied by ETH professors, while other committee members have connections with ETH Zurich. Thus the ETH professors were able to push through their demand for greater participation in the process. “ETH Life” asked ETH Board Chairman Alexander Zehnder about the procedure.
Interview: Norbert Staub and Roman Klingler
Professor Zehnder, the intention is that the new ETH President will already be in office towards the end of late summer next year. Isn’t that too soon in view of the importance of the position?
Alexander Zehnder: I do not think so. The number of potential candidates and the catchment area are limited. That is the difference between ourselves and higher education institutions in the USA, some of which start with three-figure numbers. If we have a list of at most perhaps 25 names to concern ourselves with in detail, that will be a lot. In any case, it really is in everyone’s interests to keep the current interim phase for ETH Zurich as short as possible.
How does the search for candidates actually take place?
Interested parties from all areas of science as well as from other fields are invited to submit the names of possible candidates to me by the end of the year. Every suggestion is recorded. A selection committee will carry out the process starting in January 2007. It filters out what is known as a long list of eight to twelve qualifying candidates – all excellent people who are really willing to take on the challenge of the ETH presidency. The committee will then hold interviews with all these persons until a date in March 2007. A short list will be drawn up from the long list on the basis of the interviews.
How many candidates will then remain?
That depends on the kind of applications we receive. Those on the short list will not only be qualified but will also fulfil in an outstanding way the profile we are looking for. That may even be just a single person if he or she completely outshines the others.
The selection Committee: who decides on its composition?
As Chairman it is my task to submit a proposal for this. The proposal has now been drawn up based on in-depth consultations with a wide variety of people in the scientific world. Part of the committee is pre-defined and consists of what is known as the Personnel Committee of the ETH Board. These four people include for example the representative of the two University Assemblies. However, the final decision on the composition rests with the ETH Board. Ultimately it is the ETH Board as a whole rather than the selection committee that nominates a candidate to the Swiss Federal Council.
The ETH professors have made it unmistakeably clear that they wish to be involved “in a suitable way” in the selection of candidates. How do you intend to take this demand into account?
The ETH Board has decided to include three ETH Zurich professors in the selection committee. This ensures that ETH Zurich has several persons representing it in the twelve-member selection committee. In addition to Prof. Heidi Wunderli and Professors Ulrich Suter and Rüdiger Vahldieck, a new member is Markus Stauffacher, the representative of the University Assemblies of Zurich and Lausanne mentioned above, who is a member of ETH. The committee member and President of the Swiss National Science Foundation Dieter Imboden is an ETH professor. (see box in left-hand column)
Five committee members in or close to ETH; this means you appear to have taken account of the request for representation.
I must make something clear on this point: representation must not play any part in a committee of this kind. Instead it is a question of a committee of acknowledged minds finding the best person for the job, and doing so in the interests of the whole of ETH Zurich. Parochial interests must not be allowed to cloud the decision. It was always one of ETH’s strengths that the selection procedure did not consist of lengthy internal processes and thus did not end up in compromise solutions as is often the case at other higher education institutions. It almost always enables the selection of more able management staff. The inclusion of the five committee members associated with ETH means that the professorate’s request has been taken into consideration.
May we please talk briefly about the short list? How does the committee deal with it?
Here again we must first of all wait to see what the short list looks like. If outsiders in posts for which they have not yet given notice are in the running, the next part of the process must take place in private, which would not be the case if only insiders were involved. However, the representation of the professorate in the selection procedure, which has been promised to the department heads, will be guaranteed in any event.
Have you made any changes in the selection procedure or modified the criteria because of the failure of Ernst Hafen?
Even after a thorough analysis I have not been able to detect any fundamental procedural error in the previous process, and incidentally nor have external specialists either. However, it is always possible to improve individual details. Therefore, after the experience that has been gained, I can imagine that it will be advisable for an external specialist in the selection of senior management staff to accompany the Selection Commission in a critical role but, please note, not to join in the decision-making. In addition we have designed the exchange with the department heads in a more direct and closer way. The committee will decide whether it is necessary to carry out an additional external assessment.
When will the decision regarding the new President be finalised?
The selection process should already have progressed a very long way by late March. The Swiss Federal Council’s decision should be available in June. What is clear in all of this is that outstanding people of the calibre of an ETH President are rare.
Will the candidate be from Switzerland?
Not essentially. However, it is appropriate to move outwards in concentric circles starting at ETH. The President of ETH Zurich is a prominent public figure who plays an important political role in our country. Such a person is in a very conspicuous position, because about 95 percent of the funding of ETH ultimately comes from the taxpayers. This means we need a person in the ETH presidency who is accustomed to and capable of dealing with Switzerland and Switzerland’s diversity and mentality. That might not be a problem internally. However, it would be difficult for ETH if the President was not able to assert him/herself in the landscape of Switzerland’s institutions of higher education.
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