How a German university lost its chairs

Protracted battle to retrieve a computer centre’s seats for the elderly and handicapped at Bremen says much about the bureaucratic mindset

March 19, 2015

The disappearance of some ergonomic, adjustable office swivel chairs from a university computer centre and library may not seem very important. But this seemingly trivial event, which occurred at Germany’s University of Bremen, is illustrative of deeper structural problems at the institution, and more broadly across higher education in the country.

Prior to 1 June 2012, there were about 15 adjustable office swivel chairs in Bremen’s computer centre, intended for the use of the elderly and handicapped. They were then suddenly removed without any explanation.

The university’s human resources department was contacted without success. On 28 July, a letter was sent to the Bremen state government’s senator for education, science and health, as well as a copy to the university’s rector. On 25 September, an official from the ministry of education, science and health replied that the office chairs had been removed for hygienic and financial reasons. An inconclusive meeting with the university’s chancellor, who is responsible for administrative matters – while the rector deals with academic affairs – took place on 23 October. Between this date and 12 November, the vice-mayor and finance minister of the Bremen state government visited the computer centre, which angered some of the officials there but resulted in three office chairs being installed on 12 November.

A similar request had been made to the State and University Central Library, Bremen, in June 2012. Protracted efforts finally resulted in the arrival of four chairs on 12 March 2014.

It had become obvious by now that the university and the government were not interested in providing the requisite number of chairs. A petition was made on 11 September 2013 to the Bremen state legislature and a lawyer was involved in order to secure more chairs. The legislature approved the provision of four office chairs at its 22‑23 January 2014 session.

And so to the deeper problems revealed by this baffling affair. The creation of the Federal Republic of Germany did not result in any fundamental restructuring of the state bureaucracy, or of the deeply ingrained collective consciousness of the correctness of law as a foundation of the state under the rule of law (Rechtsstaat).

This was well expressed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Das Sonett (1802): “And the law can only give us freedom”. Not surprisingly, considerable submissiveness to officialdom (Obrigkeitsdenken) persists and, consequently, courage of one’s convictions (Zivilcourage) is relatively weak. At the University of Bremen, there is also the problem of the division of academic and administrative responsibilities at the chief executive level. This creates much confusion as to who is responsible for what, including the university’s interaction with various government ministries and vice versa.

The situation was further compounded by some officials believing that they know best – thus to question their decisions was seen as a challenge to their authority and knowledge. No ombudsman exists to investigate staff and student complaints, or requests for the authorities to take corrective measures. An extraordinary degree of pressure from outside and a phenomenal length of time were needed to resolve an internal matter that should have been sorted out without any fuss.

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