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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
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Published: 09.11.2006, 06:00
Modified: 08.11.2006, 22:45
Rector Konrad Osterwalder takes over the President’s official duties
Leading ETH into the future

ETH Rector Konrad Osterwalder took over the functions of the President of ETH Zurich following the resignation of Ernst Hafen on Wednesday 1 November 2006. At a press briefing on Friday 3 November 2006, Osterwalder said he would ensure seamless continuity in research, teaching and the provision of services by ETH. One of the foundations of the Institute’s success up to now had been its eagerness to reform. Osterwalder now intends to continue shaping the future of ETH in a dialogue with all the internal groups.

Norbert Staub

In addition to his previous functions, Konrad Osterwalder has taken over the President’s official duties following the resignation of ETH President Ernst Hafen. Konrad Osterwalder is Professor for Mathematical Physics, and as Rector since 1995 he is responsible for the teaching area of ETH Zurich. Under Osterwalder’s leadership, ETH is one of the first Swiss universities to have changed over completely to the international study programme structure with Bachelor and Master degrees.

Balance of interests

“Although I am taking over the Presidency of ETH unexpectedly and in an unusual situation, I am nevertheless very well prepared for it,” said Osterwalder at a media conference at ETH Zurich on Friday 3 November 2006. According to the new head of ETH: “I know all the facets of this Institute and will ensure seamless continuity.” He added that the events of the past few days had focused public attention on the management level. On occasions the debate over the management structure had been tough and painful. “However, it was also an indication of an intact ETH culture in which solutions are always arrived at through dialogue.”

A temporary triumvirate: the Executive Board with Dimos Poulikakos, Konrad Osterwalder and Gerhard Schmitt (l. to r.). large

Strong management and the right to have a say

Osterwalder said that under his leadership there would be no change in the need to align ETH again and again to the demands of globalised science: “There will have to be a discussion about how this aim can be achieved.” At ETH the relatively pronounced hierarchy of the organisation with a strong President was balanced by an equally pronounced right of all the Institute’s groups to have their say. He said the latter needed to be included at all times. However, the right to have a say was not to be equated to co-determination, and ultimately the decisions had to remain the task of the management committee. In answer to a journalist’s question, Osterwalder said that reforming did not mean ironing out the mistakes of the past. “The decisive factor is that we constantly adjust to the new circumstances so we can anticipate problems in the future.”

In developing the management and organisation structures, Konrad Osterwalder builds on procedures that have proved successful internally. “My objective is a strong management that networks well and listens attentively.” Regarding the cue word “Americanisation” used repeatedly by the media in the past few days, Osterwalder emphasised that in all the members of the Executive Board have a total of 36 years of experience at universities in the USA, “And not at the worst of them.“ He said this experience – from the rank of student to professor – would make the Executive Board aware of the advantages of the US system of higher education but also of its limitations.

Flagship ETH Zurich

He said the ETH culture was one of the foundations of the exceptional scientific performance of ETH, which had never been in doubt. ETH was and remained the flagship of education and science in Switzerland and from the very start it was his intention to steer it resolutely into the future. Another characteristic feature of ETH was its eagerness to reform.


The centre of attention: on Friday 3 November 2006 Konrad Osterwalder explained the central points on which he intends to focus in his function as ETH President. large

In this context Osterwalder mentioned the autonomy of the Departments and the Bologna Reform, which ETH had implemented with a steadfastness that was exemplary throughout Switzerland and Europe. When asked about the relationship with the ETH Board, Konrad Osterwalder remarked that the collaboration was governed by the statutory basis. “Operationally the Institute is autonomous. The ETH Board is the supervisory committee for long-term planning." He said the professors were free to make their suggestions in the process to choose a successor for the post of ETH President.

Focus on teaching, research and structures

The main points on which Konrad Osterwalder intends to focus are the further development of Bachelor training, the newly launched Master programmes, top-class research, internationalisation and the dialogue with all ETH members. “Although we are emphatically an internationally orientated Institution, nonetheless 90 percent of the Bachelor students at ETH come from Switzerland. As always, we want to include their needs in our considerations.”

In the research area, the Executive Board intends to further strengthen and expand the numerous future-oriented projects as well as the extensive network of international collaboration. Dimos Poulikakos, Vice-president for Research, named the priorities as SystemsX, the system biology initiative begun together with other Swiss institutions of higher education, together with the Environment and Sustainability Competence Center for top-class research in the area of the environment and sustainability, and Quantum Tera, a program intended to increase greatly the performance of computers and communications systems through the use of quantum effects.

Gerhard Schmitt emphasised that the ETH multi-year planning for 2008 to 2011, already in progress, continued to run as intended and without any problems. He said it is supported by the departments. As well as in the core business of research and teaching, ETH also lives out its ambitious strategy in its infrastructure, for example in the permanent Campus Science City project on the Hönggerberg or in planning the Higher Education Institution Area in the Center jointly with other Zurich educational and cultural institutions.

Two hats

One journalist drew attention to a newspaper comment in recent days advising that the proud higher education institution should now practise self-confidence and self-criticism. Konrad Osterwalder said he could subscribe to that – since it had never been otherwise at ETH. Success came only to those who constantly and self-critically looked for opportunities to improve, and there was no such thing as absolute perfection.

Osterwalder said he was now wearing two hats and his task now was to free up additional sources of energy. Temporarily the duties in ETH management committee’s tasks would be partly redistributed. He said the large amount of backing given him by the professorate constituted decisive support.

Selection procedure starting quickly

Until the Federal Council chooses a new President, the Executive Board will consist of Konrad Osterwalder, Gerhard Schmitt (Vice-president for Planning and Logistics) and Dimos Poulikakos (Vice-president for Research). Their power to act is guaranteed even as a committee of three. On Friday the ETH Board announced that the process to choose the new ETH President was being started as quickly as possible. A check was also to be made as to whether the procedure needed adjusting.

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