When the Digital Society Initiative (DSI) launched back in 2016, UZH had set itself the ambitious goal of creating 36 professorships in the field of digital transformation. “This recent batch of tenure-track assistant professorships means we’re well on track to achieving our goal,” says Elisabeth Stark, Vice President Research and the member of the Executive Board of the University responsible for the DSI.
Sixteen professorships were advertised in the first round, which started in 2016. The last of these 16 professorships will be filled on 1 February 2023 and will focus on legal tech. A further eight professorships were created in a second round starting in 2020 and are expected to be filled by 2026. These last eight professorships were co-funded by the Digitalization Initiative of the Zurich Higher Education Institutions, or DIZH for short. Three of these professorships are so-called bridge professorships, in which one of the canton of Zurich’s three universities of applied sciences will be involved.
This cooperation with universities of applied sciences is one of the great benefits of UZH’s digitalization drive, believes Elisabeth Stark. “Launched at UZH, the DSI is benefiting the entire area of higher education in the canton of Zurich. Without the DSI and DIZH, this cooperation between Zurich’s higher education institutions wouldn’t have developed as strongly as it has,” says the Vice President Research.
In the final stage of expanding digitalization expertise, another seven tenure-track assistant professorships co-funded by DIZH are now being created. Tenure-track means the professorships will be transformed into permanent professorships after six years. This way, the DSI wants to provide junior researchers with long-term perspectives and keep the expertise that is built up with these professorships at UZH. According to Elisabeth Stark, this is a crucial element in strengthening UZH’s position as an attractive place for promising young scholars. In close consultation with the faculties, the ten assistant professorships that had originally been planned for this stage were thus converted into seven tenure-track assistant professorships.
The DSI aims to develop competences on issues of digital transformation on as broad a basis as possible and to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching networks in this area. Elisabeth Stark believes this is already happening.
The wide range of subjects represented reflects the fact that digitalization isn’t primarily a technological challenge, but affects the whole of society in myriad ways. That’s why fewer than one-third of the DSI professorships will focus on data science and technology, while the rest cover topics ranging from healthcare to ethics, democracy, education and the world of work. One of the new professorships is in the Faculty of Theology.
The 30-plus professorships provide the cornerstone on which the DSI’s other activities, such as networking, project funding or the development of study programs on digitalization, are based. “The DSI professorships create opportunities to develop innovative and cross-faculty ideas for teaching,” says the DSI’s managing director Markus Christen. One example here is the new minor study program DSI Minor Digital Skills, which will be open to students from all faculties from the 2024 Fall Semester.
The program brings together DSI professors from various fields and features an introductory module that will provide a broad overview of the topics and issues linked to digitalization – and allow students to think about them more deeply. Meanwhile, practical skills are promoted in a project module, where groups of four students will each develop solutions to specific interdisciplinary problems.
The wider DSI network currently includes around 900 researchers, ranging from PhD students to professors. It is divided into communities, in which researchers from a wide range of disciplines share ideas on topics as diverse as mobility, work or health and develop transdisciplinary projects. “These communities may even give rise to professorships, as was the case with the professorship in cybersecurity, which is currently posted,” Christen explains.
While direct seed funding for professorships in the field of digital transformation has now ended, this doesn’t mean that additional professorial chairs won’t be created in these areas. The DSI already has a few affiliated professorships, which were created when appointing full professorships. “Digitalization has penetrated virtually all academic fields,” says Elisabeth Stark. Against this backdrop, and with the expertise in digitalization issues now emerging at UZH, further professorships are likely to be added to the network in the future.