‘Alarming’ insularity of German university leaders revealed

Many presidents have pursued their careers just at one institution, raising questions about management skills, report finds

February 22, 2019
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German university leaders are overwhelmingly male, all German, almost entirely white, and many have limited experience outside their own institution, according to a report that has sparked debate about university presidents’ homogeneity.

There are fears that their lack of outside experience could be harming German university management.

Forty per cent of Germany’s 81 university leaders have worked only at their own institution since becoming professors, according to the report University Rectors in Germany, from the Centre for Higher Education thinktank based in Gütersloh.

Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, told Times Higher Education that this was a “really alarming figure”.

“This is a disadvantage as we need more people who have experience at different institutions,” he said.

Isabel Roessler, a senior project manager at the centre who helped compile the report, warned that the problem went even deeper.

“Some of them even wrote their PhD at the same university, so they have never seen another university from the inside,” she said. “When you want to manage such a huge institution, you should have a more holistic overview of institutions.” But the analysis did also find that the majority of leaders – women in particular – had spent some of their studies or career abroad.

The report revealed that 95 per cent of university leaders were born in Germany, while the remainder were Germans born in neighbouring European countries.

This uniformity was down to the “language issue”, Professor Alt said: leaders needed excellent German to “read between the lines” of the specialised administrative language used in the country’s universities. “If you are not fluent in German, you will fail,” he said.

“I would say it’s not necessary to be native German, but you have to be fluent” to lead a German university, said Dr Roessler.

Even then, there are multiple barriers to non-Germans, she warned. “You need a deep insight into the German university system” and state-level politics, as well as a “very good academic reputation in Germany. I’m pretty sure many academics [in Germany] have no idea about researchers and leaders from abroad.”

Not a single university leader was born in the communist German Democratic Republic, the report found. Academics who pursued a career in the GDR had to submit to the “rules of the system”, explained Professor Alt – reporting back to the state on academic conferences that they had attended abroad, for example – but were later punished professionally for this collaboration after reunification. “This was a lost generation,” he said.

Men make up 77 per cent of the university leadership, while just one university head – Joybrato Mukherjee, president of Giessen University – is non-white, according to Dr Roessler.

By comparison, in the UK, just under a quarter of institutions are headed by a woman; 25 out of 150 universities are headed by a non-UK national; and five leaders are non-white, according to figures from Advance HE.

The report has triggered media criticism of university leaders; the magazine Spiegel reported that it showed they were typically “59, white and male”.

But there are signs of change. In 2005, when data were last collected, there were only six female leaders. Now there are 19; five women had become presidents in just the past year, said Dr Roessler. “There has been a change,” she said, as female academics had gained in confidence from seeing other women win top jobs.


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Reader's comments (3)

Despite the laudable aims of gender equality and cultural diversity ostensibly advocated by this report one needs to be careful and critical towards CHE. It is a Bertelsmann supported "neoliberal" (I know it is a value- ladden politicised term) think tank that promotes "liberalisation and reform" (i.e. marketisation) in HE. Luckily, so far, they have largely failed to establish their rankings of universities to the obsessive extent it has taken hold of the anglophone world. I wish the old white male presidents of German universities that they manage to fend off the ideas emanating from CHE for a long time.
You write that '25 out of 150 universities are headed by a non-UK national' - yes, they will be from the US from the Commonwealth countries, native speakers of English. I doubt if there are any Vice-Chancellors in the UK who are from France or Italy. Language is important, wherever you go. When I was at the University of Mainz in the 70s the president was a legal scholar from Switzerland. Secondly, you probably got this wrong: 'The report revealed that 95 per cent of university leaders were born in Germany, while the remainder were Germans born in neighbouring European countries.' The 5% are most likely to be from German-speaking countries like Austria and Switzerland - not German citizens.
The article advocates mobility but on the other side of the argument, there's nothing wrong with Germans staying in Germany as they may have family or personal reasons to stay local. Being internationally mobile doesn't come cheap because while gaining exposure to different cultures and opportunities to network and collaborate, it comes at a cost of losing their network of family and friends. In the face of growing mental health problems in academia, one has to ask whether it is a price worth paying in pursuit of academic diversity.