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Conversation with the new President

“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.
Roger Nickl, Stefan Stöcklin; translated by Michael Craig


“Cooperation is a big issue in terms of universities’ readiness for the future. It boils down to the question of what we’re going to do jointly with other universities, and where we’re going to be in friendly competition,” says Michael Schaepman. (Picture: Frank Brüderli)


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 example?

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.

What needs to change here?

For example we could help researchers write applications for EU and SNSF projects. Of course they have to take care of the academic part of the application themselves, but we could provide support with drawing up budgets and financial plans. The documentation required can vary wildly for different types of projects. One of the goals is to make the entire administration of third-party funding more efficient. Eventually researchers should be able to get this support from a single point of contact. That’s not yet the case.

One thing tied up with creativity is innovation. That’s something very close to your heart. Why?

When it comes to innovation there are various distinct areas, and it’s important to recognize the difference. On the one hand, basic research is innovative in itself. It’s about new ideas, concepts, theories and experiments. Research has to be innovative, otherwise it won’t survive. On the other hand, innovation is often used to mean marketability and relevance to industry, or translation and diffusion. That has to do with technological developments and new products. For me that’s not primarily what it’s about. But we have to show society that UZH is innovative and generates plenty of ideas that contribute to the country’s ability to innovate.

So it’s mainly about communicating the potential for innovation?

Yes, because innovation is an important contributory factor in the reputation of UZH. All it takes is a small investment to enhance our reputation so that society gets an insight into how much UZH actually contributes to innovation.

But our daily business will continue to be basic research?

Absolutely. Basic research is 100 percent – or let’s say 98 percent – the most important business. Goal-oriented research will not be UZH’s primary goal in the future either.

In the 1990s you yourself co-founded a start-up. Is there anything from that experience that you intend to bring to the office of president?

Yes. One experience had to do with choosing between an academic or a business career. We should be giving our students a good basis to help them decide whether to follow the business or academic path. To this end, the Faculty of Science will be offering a minor study program in BioMed Entrepreneurship, designed to give students insights into entrepreneurial thinking. I’d like to support initiatives of this sort throughout UZH.

Let’s move to the term “cooperation” that we were talking about earlier. What’s important for you in this respect?

Cooperations start with people at the university. They’re about interdisciplinary questions, but also collaboration with other institutions. I would very much like to see a diversity of collaboration with ETH Zurich. Cooperation is a big issue in terms of universities’ readiness for the future. It boils down to the question of what we’re going to do jointly with other universities, and where we’re going to be in friendly competition. Another point has to do with the use of infrastructure. With experiments getting more and more expensive, we should be using and refining costly technologies together.  

Is that a commitment to increased cooperation with universities in Switzerland, and in the rest of the world?


Which brings us to globalization. The Covid-19 pandemic is underscoring the great importance of international collaboration among academics, but at the same time it's making it harder. What’s UZH’s position in this situation?

Internationalization is very important. We’re in competition with the best universities in the world. The pandemic really has made global exchange more difficult. Just think of all the scientific conferences that have been called off. We have to find ways of continuing dialogue at the highest level but on a more sustainable basis, in other words with less air travel.

Does that also mean that UZH has to augment its infrastructure for videoconferences and other forms of sharing?

Absolutely. Digital media are basically no substitute for personal contact. But there is potential for optimizing the technical tools.

Would the future be a digital university where students only meet their professors on an occasional basis?

UZH is not going to become a distance-learning university. But I do think that in the near future hybrid models will influence the way universities operate.

What impact do you expect the coronavirus pandemic to have on teaching? In other words, is there going to be a wave of digitalization?

I’ve been very interested to note that students have become hugely more responsible and independent. On the supply side the question arises as to how to get the material across properly so that it can be presented on digital platforms to meet the requirements. At the moment we’re tending to run the risk of packing too much material into digital formats. There shouldn’t just be room for the material on digital platforms — there has to be room for it in people’s heads as well.

Climate change is an important issue for you as a geographer and biodiversity researcher. Are there also lessons to be learned here from the Covid-19 pandemic – in terms of conserving resources – that will be important for UZH?

Absolutely. The question is how much potential new methods have. If we want digital conferences to be truly climate neutral, for example, we first have to produce the electricity to run them on a sustainable basis. In other words, we have to carefully compare the emissions of air travel, digital conferences, and internet applications, and assess their sustainability. I’m sure there’s still potential for conserving resources.

What are the ideas behind the notion of complexity?

On the one hand, I think it’s important to reduce complexity. That also applies, for example, to the election of a member of the university’s executive board, including its president. We also have to keep administrative set-ups and regulations as simple as possible to make the most efficient use of the time available for teaching and research. On the other hand, complexity in research is the most important driver of new discoveries and methodologies. Here the question is how we can support complex theories and experiments in research. That’s something we have to discuss.

The office of president is a challenging, stressful job. What do you do to strike a good work-life balance?

Everyone creates their own stress, and we’re each responsible for our own agenda. I think the notion that someone who becomes president or a member of the executive board develops superpowers and starts working 20-hour days is antiquated. For me it’s important to let people know when you need space and some free time.  

How do you use this free time?

Travel’s important for both me and my wife. We’re both geographers, after all. We like to spend our vacations visiting very remote regions with our teenage kids. One of the things that drives me is a spirit of discovery and the search for peace and quiet. One of the downsides of digitalization is permanent distraction. I’d rather follow in the footsteps of Humboldt and get to know all the fantastic places this world has to offer.