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191. Dies academicus

Bridge Building, Good Governance and Grumpy Professors

UZH celebrated the 191st anniversary of its founding last Saturday. Daniel Jositsch, a member of the Council of States, held an opening address that humorously touched on the role of politics and science. President Michael Schaepman reflected on the 2023 academic year, and Vice President Gabriele Siegert was joined by host Barbara Bleisch to discuss the role of university governance in teaching and instruction.
Text: Marita Fuchs, Translation: Gena Olsen


The guest speaker at this year's Dies academicus was Zurich Council of States member Daniel Jositsch. (Pictures: Michel Buechel)

Council of States member Daniel Jositsch is a familiar face – not only in the federal government in Bern but also on campus at UZH, where he teaches criminal and procedural law. In his opening remarks, he described how President Schaepman had asked him some time ago whether he could hold a speech about politics and science at Dies academicus. No problem, thought Jositsch, but later the president requested that the speech contain a touch of humor. Jositsch said that as a social democrat and criminal law professor, comedy isn’t quite his forte. However, a few days letter he met former UZH President Michael Hengartner on the train from Bern to Zurich, who pleaded with him to hold a humorous speech. His wish was my command, said Jositsch.

A tongue-in-cheek account

Jositsch’s speech was a humorous and at times ironic account of federal politics and its tussles with science. He backed up his assertions by pointing to a report from the Federal Council concerning how Switzerland's scientific potential could be harnessed in politics. Since the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Council seems to have noticed that science is not only an area that needs to be funded, he said, but also one that can provide meaningful input, at least in times of crisis. Jositsch concluded his remarks – now on a more serious note – by expressing his gratitude to the university for giving him the opportunity to be involved in politics. “I also see it as a duty to build bridges between academia and politics,” he remarked.

Position paper from 1997

Jessy Duran Ramirez and Philip Zimmerman from VAUZ amazed the audience with a position paper from 1997.

The event continued its playful mood with the next address by Jessy Duran Ramirez and Philip Zimmerman from the Association of Junior Researchers (VAUZ). The duo pointed out that the workload of scientific staff had increased in recent years without receiving due recognition, that women continue to receive insufficient support for their career prospects and that career options outside the university barely receive mention even though only a few will make it to the level of professor. They continued listing off points. At the end of their remarks, they revealed a twist, with Duran Ramires turning to Zimmermann and asking: “Do you think they bought it?” Their points had actually been a recitation of grievances from a paper published in 1997. “I found it in the archive,” said Duran Ramires. “Seems not much has changed since then!”

Autonomy, global networking and an innovation ecosystem

In keeping with tradition, the president took the opportunity to reflect on the previous academic year. Schaepman emphasized that today’s universities have to fulfill both academic and social requirements, which often creates pressure to deliver measurable or immediately applicable results. These expectations could threaten the independence and autonomy of the university, he said, which would in turn impair academic freedom. The University of Zurich dealt extensively with this issue in 2023 and discussed it in a variety of contexts.

According to Schaepman, UZH enjoys a high degree of autonomy in academic affairs and decision-making power over personnel matters. Compared to other European universities, however, UZH seems to have some weaknesses when it comes to organizational and financial independence. This issue was explored in depth last year in a panel discussion with presidents of other European universities, where there was unanimous agreement about the critical importance of university autonomy. Excellent, responsible leadership would be required to protect this valuable asset, they concluded.

Two years ago, UZH joined the Una Europa network, which consists of 11 leading European research universities. One of Una Europa’s top priorities is developing innovative teaching formats, a topic which is of particular interest to UZH. According to Schaepman, UZH is set to participate in two Una Europa programs next year: the joint Bachelor’s program in European Studies and the joint Bachelor’s program in Sustainability. This marks an important milestone in UZH’s internationalization efforts and also furthers the goal of fostering interdisciplinarity. 

President Michael Schaepman in the festive hall during the 191st Dies academicus of the University of Zurich.

Offering guidance

The president also touched on the topic of innovation, mentioning the Innovation Park in Dübendorf, where a new innovation ecosystem is currently being built in Hall 4. He explained that a unique collaboration between the canton, the federal government, the municipality of Dübendorf, private players and research institutions such as the University of Zurich, ETH and Empa was currently giving rise to a new center of innovation on the site.

Schaepman concluded by thanking everyone in attendance for their courtesy and their support for the university, emphasizing that in an era of multiple crises, polarization and special interests, it is important for universities to remain places that offer objectivity and fact-based guidance: “Last year we were able to fill this role, and I will ensure that in the future we will continue to provide guidance of this kind and work for the betterment of society.”

Guests were then treated to a video compilation showing highlights from the faculties in 2023, and the recipients of honorary doctorates also shared a few remarks in short video clips. This year’s teaching award went to law professor Marc Thommen, who offers digital quizzes and feedback tools to students so that they can monitor their progress. 

“Go back in the kitchen”

Gabriele Siegert in casual conversation with host Barbara Bleisch.

To address the topic of teaching at the university, Vice President Gabriele Siegert was joined by philosopher and event host Barbara Bleisch in a relaxed a one-on-one conversation, which was a new format for Dies academicus that also allowed for personal questions and answers.

Prompted by Bleisch, Siegert recalled her experiences as a student at the University of Augsburg. In one lecture, the professor told all of the female students that it would be better if they left the lecture hall and went back to the kitchen. Siegert ignored this request, pursued a career in science and now works for the advancement of UZH in her role as vice president. 

She emphasized that good teaching is multifaceted: having a well-thought-out curriculum, good general conditions such as facilities and equipment, and clear and transparent governance. According to Siegert, teaching staff at UZH benefit from comprehensive, easy-to-access support; there are continuing education courses about university teaching methods, a variety of teaching tools and a platform where staff can quickly and easily share best practices. 

When asked by Bleisch whether those instructors who would benefit the most from this support were the hardest ones to reach, Siegert responded that there have always been grumpy professors who are resistant to change. However, she pointed out that there are a large number of instructors who teach well without dealing much with the topics of innovation and development. “If we want to develop teaching at the university, we need to reach this majority of instructors,” she said. 

The Zurich academic orchestra provided musical accompaniment for the event. The 191st Dies academicus came to a festive conclusion with a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.