Turbulent times at Zeppelin University

Campus leaders must apply academics’ theories in the boardroom, suggests Brian Bloch

July 9, 2015
From Where I Sit illustration (9 July 2015)

Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, on the shores of Lake Constance in southern Germany, has hit the headlines recently. The private research university, founded in 2003, takes its name not from the airships but rather from Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the founder of the airship company who was born in the town of Konstanz.

Zeppelin’s former chancellor, Niels Helle-Meyer, appointed only in December 2012, was fired in August 2014. However, he has just won a court case overturning the decision. In fact, he was fired twice, once with notice and the next time with immediate effect.

Yet only months before, he had been praised by the former chair of the university’s foundation for his dedication and professionalism. Mr Helle-Meyer subsequently came under fire for alleged financial mismanagement and for allegedly stirring up dissent against the university’s then president, Stephan Jansen. The university also claimed that Mr Helle-Meyer had been disloyal and unprofessional in his capacity as the business and financial manager of the organisation, according to press reports.

The university does not accept the reasoning of the court that these allegations against Mr Helle-Meyer are unproven and it does not want him to return to work, but it will have to pay his salary until the end of 2017. Whether the university will appeal the court’s decision remains to be seen.

A relieved Mr Helle-Meyer said that he was “convinced that the truth would prevail in the end” and argued that he was being used as a scapegoat for financial and administrative problems that originated before his time.

Last year, Mr Jansen resigned as Zeppelin’s president after it was alleged that he personally pocketed commissions from research funding and industry sponsorship that he had acquired for the university. The German media reported last year that he was suspected of fraud and that a public prosecutor was investigating. It was a striking development, given Mr Jansen’s previous illustrious career as a capital market specialist with many awards and successful publications to his name. He has denied the allegations.

What all this reveals is that life in university management may be characterised by interpersonal conflict and even allegations of fraud, just as in the private sector. Events, such as those alleged to have taken place at Zeppelin University, are covered in detail in the relevant academic management literature. Having studied and taught management myself, it is interesting to be confronted with such a compelling and multifaceted case study of organisational conflict within a body that, literally, offers courses on how to manage people and processes efficiently, effectively and ethically.

The whole affair conjures up images of crashing Zeppelin airships, while cynics may be tempted to make comments about the hot air generated by scholars.

In recent years, the German media’s coverage of universities has included a litany of plagiarism cases and falsified research results. The Zeppelin coverage is at least, perhaps, a change from the usual fare. And, it serves as a useful reminder to universities about the need to practise in the boardrooms what academics preach in the classrooms.

Brian Bloch is a journalist, academic editor and lecturer in English for academic research at the University of Münster.

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Article originally published as: When at the controls, apply lessons from the flight simulator (9 July 2015)

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