From where I sit - Storms in a Swiss teacup

July 16, 2009

I can see Lake Zurich and even catch a glimpse of some snow-covered Alpine summits from my office. It is in a well-maintained fin de siècle villa, and the decrepit buildings with which I had to contend in the UK are a distant memory. I can't complain about my salary either, especially given the exchange rate.

There are losses as well as gains, however. Gone is the combination of intensity and ease with which academic and personal relationships are developed and maintained in the UK. Even as I was offered the chair at the University of Zurich, the head of department warned me: "Don't expect to be invited into people's homes within two weeks of arriving!"

When I told this story to a less recent academic import from Britain, he laughed: "More like two years with good behaviour." Swiss undergraduates are well educated, intelligent and hard-working but they are reticent - not the ideal starting point for lively debate.

Another gripe concerns the burden of teaching and administration. British academics seem to think their continental colleagues have to work less hard, but the opposite is the case. I have to teach eight courses a year, as opposed to four when I worked at the University of Reading. And we get a sabbatical every 12 semesters instead of seven.

Even more pernicious are certain aspects of the general academic culture: administration and university politics count for more, research and publication for less. Admittedly, there are still genuinely democratic aspects to the running of Swiss universities, instead of the ruthless top-down approach in Britain. But does that make up for having to spend five hours every fortnight in a huge faculty meeting?

In addition to the inevitable problems of relocation, I find myself embroiled in two more immediate scandals. There are "too many German professors" at Swiss universities, and they callously neglect the promotion of young Swiss academics - that at any rate is the message propounded by the local media and politicians. The reality is rather different.

Switzerland's German-speaking cantons are part of an academic market dominated by Germans for demographic reasons. The chances that the best applicants for any given position are German are bound to be high, especially since the advertised profiles tend to be narrow.

I have tried my level best to advance home-grown talent. Unfortunately, such talent often has better things to do than be promoted by the likes of me, notably pursuing more lucrative or less risky careers in teaching, banking or the Civil Service.

The second storm in a teacup concerns my department. The student union is laudably active. Alas, under the slogan "More Difference", it has launched a campaign to ensure that, irrespective of departmental demands or academic merit, two vacant chairs are filled by postmodernists rather than by representatives of analytic philosophy, which it labels "Anglo-Saxon". Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath and Georg Henrik von Wright - Anglo-Saxons? If so, I am a German teaching Anglo-Saxon philosophy in Switzerland. How much "difference" do they want?

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