Anger grows in clash over elite university site

February 24, 2006

Austrian Education Minister Elisabeth Gehrer has come under fire for a decision to create an elite university on the site of a former psychiatric hospital used by the Nazis to carry out acts of "euthanasia".

About 600 patients in the town of Maria Gugging, 20km from Vienna, died at the hands of Nazi doctors, said Josef Broukal, opposition science spokesman.

Despite its past, the site has been chosen to house Austria's "academic and scientific centre of excellence" to rival Oxbridge.

"Gugging has the distinct advantage that its campus is ready for immediate use," Ms Gehrer said. She added that the state of Lower Austria was prepared to inject more money into the university than the state of Vienna, and it was hoped the centre would be ready for its first intake of students in October. But the Minister has been accused of making a short-sighted political move to please Erwin Proell, the powerful governor of Lower Austria from Ms Gehrer's own conservative People's Party, rather than giving it to Social Democrat-led Vienna.

Some 39 Austrian scientists working abroad objected to Gugging in an open letter to Ms Gehrer. They call the decision "overhasty" and request a re-think beyond short-term "party political considerations".

Molecular biologist Renee Schroeder, Austria's 2002 Scientist of the Year, said she did not believe any top scientist would come to such a location.

The ministry is also facing problems over the university's name - the Wittgenstein Institute of Technology - named after Austrian philosopher Ludwig Josef Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein's descendents objected to the use of his name. His great-grand-niece Christina Wesemann-Wittgenstein said: "Under these conditions he would never have allowed his name to be used." The family is considering legal action.

The university will offer postgraduate and doctoral courses and will begin with ten research teams and five scientists focusing on the natural sciences. Over the next decade it will expand to accommodate 500 researchers and will extend its research areas.

Attempts to put Austria on an international academic footing with the UK and the US have been applauded. But the manner in which the Government has gone about it has drawn criticism from opposition parties and has led to the resignation of a leading scientist who was involved in the project.

Anton Zeilinger, the world's leading teleport expert who has beamed a photon between high-rise buildings more than 16km apart, stepped down from the project after the location was announced.

Colleagues Peter Schuster and Arnold Schmidt also pulled out.

Professor Zeilinger said: "The scientists chosen by Ms Gehrer to initiate the project are unified in their rejection of a rash decision that favours a sub-optimal solution for the elite university."

Economist Peter Mayerhofer of the Austrian Institute for Economic Research said it was hard to comprehend why Maria Gugging had been chosen.

"University locations have to be mutually fruitful, as much arises and develops from informal contacts. It will be hard for the elite university to develop connections with other institutes such as the Technical University in Vienna. In my opinion, it is crucial that such a university is connected to other relevant Austrian universities."

Up to €80 million (£55 million) is expected to be invested in the university until its completion, with a further €70 million each year after that.

The Austrian Students' Union described it as "a waste of money".

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