Redefine excellence to reach diversity goals, universities told

ETH rector says academia should focus on ‘excellent performances’, not quantity of research

September 12, 2019
Sarah Springman (right) at the THE World Academic Summit
Source: ETH Zurich/Andreas Eggenberger
Sarah Springman (right) at the THE World Academic Summit

Universities must redefine their notions of excellence if they are to make any ground on improving diversity and inclusivity, according to a university leader.

Sarah Springman, rector of Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, said that there were many talented people from diverse backgrounds but the “demonstration of what they have done, especially for those who have had families along the way, has to be rewritten”.

She said that the assessment of academics’ achievements should focus on “excellent performances and quality” and university leaders should “not worry about quantity”.

“We have to redefine what excellence is,” she told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, which was hosted at her institution.

However, Professor Springman noted that this was a “big challenge”, highlighting that university rankings often included metrics of citation impact, which rewarded both quantity and quality of research.

“We have to have a dialogue that we talk about...quality and that’s the most important thing to us and we don’t care what that means in the sense of the rankings. Institutions need to think about whether they’re prepared and ready and able to do that,” she said.

Less than 18 per cent of professors at ETH Zurich are women.

During a panel discussion on achieving diversity in leadership, Professor Springman said that universities should also be supportive of the “very challenging” assistant professor and tenure track phases of academic careers and ensure that there are “no biases” on the path to professorship and that “proper allowances are made when [scholars] have children”.

She added that the support of others has been key to her own success, revealing that “at the key crossroads” of her life one of several “fairy godfathers” encouraged her to apply for opportunities.

After the panel discussion, Professor Springman told THE that she had changed the questions that are asked in job interviews at ETH Zurich, which had helped the institution become more diverse.

The university now explores candidates’ “views on mentorship, supervision, coaching their students and their general institutional citizenry”, she said. “Clearly we want people who are outstanding scientists and teachers. But we also need the personalities to fit as well.”

Also speaking on the panel, Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius, principal of Kaospilot, a business and design university in Denmark, said that leaders did not need to “decrease the standards of people that [they are] looking for” in order to achieve diversity, but they must have “a genuine interest in bringing [different] people on board” and accept that there are “many paths to one goal”.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Redefine excellence to hit diversity goals, says rector

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