German university fears AI takeover could narrow mission

Struggling financially, the private Jacobs University is seeking new backers, but academics have been left shocked by plans for it to be turned into an AI institute by software giants

December 7, 2020
Two visitors check out humanoid robot REEM of Spanish engineering company PAL Robotics at the Automatica trade fair in Munich, southern Germany
Source: Getty

Academics at one of Germany’s most successful private universities fear for their jobs after local politicians announced that it could be taken over by software companies and turned into an artificial intelligence institute.

The struggle to find new backers for Jacobs University, an English-speaking campus set up in 1999 in the northern port city of Bremen, illustrates the problems that private universities continue to face in almost fee-free Germany, despite such institutions enjoying a renaissance over the past two decades.

In mid-November, Bremen’s left-leaning city government announced that it was in talks to hand over control of Jacobs University to a consortium made up of German software giant SAP, Chinese IT firm Neusoft and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence.

Since 2006, the university has been supported by the charitable wing of the Jacobs coffee dynasty, which traces its roots to Bremen, but earlier this year the foundation announced that it would withdraw its support.

Continuous financial problems, and repeated complaints from local politicians that they no longer wanted to subsidise the private, not-for-profit university, have led to a search for new backers.

But the city government’s AI plans appear to have taken the university management and faculty by surprise.

Academics at Jacobs, which offers courses in disciplines including health, natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities, were “very upset”, said Michael Bau, a geosciences professor and member of the university’s faculty council. The council has released an open letter warning that talks about the future have not involved academics.

At the turn of the millennium, the city proudly backed what was then called International University Bremen, he said.

But in recent years city politicians complained of having to subsidise the university, even though by Professor Bau’s calculations, it made the city money from reimbursements for out-of-state students.

“The idea of a private university where some students pay tuition fees is not something they are happy about,” he said.

The Bremen government hopes that a dedicated AI campus will boost the local economy, attracting skilled workers and companies, although the city and firms involved have not yet drawn up detailed plans.

But there are fears that Jacobs, which sells itself on its interdisciplinary campus, will end up with too narrow a focus.

“AI is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Professor Bau. “The big question is: only AI, does that actually make a good university? Universities and university education are something that does not have a small focus.”

At a time of growing technological rivalry between Europe and China, concerns have also been raised about the involvement of Neusoft.

In statement, the university stressed that it was open to other offers. “The state of Bremen is holding talks with the already announced consortium,” a spokesman said. “The same applies to Jacobs University and its leadership, who have engaged in initial talks and meetings with different national and international interested parties during the last weeks and months.”

A spokesman for SAP said it was “currently exploring a cooperation with the state of Bremen and other partners in the field of artificial intelligence and related educational offerings”. Details would be shared “at a later date”, he said.

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