“I Share a Very Close Bond with Freiburg” – Change of Rectorate at the University of Freiburg

Mittwoch, 25. November 2020 | 

Schlagwörter »  |  Thema: Allgemein, Blog, englisch

Rector Kerstin Krieglstein and “rector emeritus” Hans-Jochen Schiewer speak about the past and the future of the University of Freiburg

Photo: © Patrick Seeger

It has taken more than 500 years, but now the time has come: For the first time ever, a woman is at the helm of the University of Freiburg. Prof. Dr. Kerstin Krieglstein’s term of office began in October. She is no stranger to taking over leadership positions as a woman. As early as 2014, Krieglstein became the University of Freiburg’s first full-time female dean at the Faculty of Medicine. In 2018 she became the first-ever female rector of the University of Constance, for which she was able to obtain Excellence status. Now she has returned to Freiburg – with ambitious plans.

You had been rector of the University of Constance since 2018. What moved you to return to our university? It is said that your goal is to lead the University of Freiburg back to Excellence status. 

The University of Constance is wonderful; Lake Constance is fabulous. But I share a very close bond with Freiburg, and when I received a corresponding signal, I allowed myself to be won over easily and wouldn’t be held back. And as far as excellence is concerned, Freiburg clearly belongs in the league of Excellence universities. I’m confident that we can be convincing in the next round of the competition.

After your election you said that you would like to strengthen the university’s capacity for reform. How do you aim to achieve that?

The capacity for reform is the core requirement of the Excellence competition. We need mechanisms that regularly question whether what we are doing is ideal for the goal we want to achieve. After all, we no longer have unlimited financial resources as we did 40 or 50 years ago. If we try plan A and realize that it doesn’t get us where we want to go, then we have to replace it with plan B. And if that doesn’t work either, then we need even better ideas. I think of it in terms of my discipline, neuroscience: When nerve cells grow, they have to feel whether they’re moving in the right direction. They have tiny fingers with which they feel whether positive or negative signals are coming from a corner. Which direction do we need to turn, left or right? Once the decision has been made, the entire team of nerve cells aligns itself with it and goes along with it. In principle, this kind of self-analysis is also what the reviewers of the Excellence competition proposals expect from the universities.

That’s a clear statement. Is that how you understand your task as rector?

At my send-off in Constance, everyone said: “Ms. Krieglstein, the striking thing about you was your clear statements.” I found that quite amusing. The question is what is meant by that. The task of a rector is to represent the university internally and externally. For me, that also means looking after it in its development, namely as it builds up structures that strengthen the community. I don’t make my decisions on the basis of individuals but on the basis of what is best for the community as a whole. I’ll always stand up for this, and it’s also what I’ll be judged by.

At the same time, you’ve stressed that you attach great importance to participation. How is that consistent with clear statements?

I think a lot about university development, and I come up with new ideas of what could be done better all the time. But there’s no use in imposing my will on people. The important thing for me is to keep asking different groups: Are you satisfied? What could we improve? And how, in concrete terms, can we achieve that? I want to create a space in which those involved can get together and present arguments and counterarguments to work out better or more appropriate solutions for  Freiburg – and then also implement them. This process mustn’t be overridden by “statements.”

Sometimes matters are also complicated by unforeseen events: The coronavirus pandemic that brought the universities to a standstill last summer semester was a major break for research and teaching.

That’s true. The pandemic was a time of great hardship for all of us, and isn’t over yet. The number of infections is now again rising daily, and entire regions or countries are again being declared high-risk areas. Freiburg too is now among the so-called corona hotspots, and that casts doubt on whether face-to-face teaching can be held at all in the winter semester. Our overriding goal is to protect the members of the university, and we also take our responsibility as the region’s largest employer very seriously. Luckily, many teachers and students gained some experience with distance education last summer semester. That makes it easier, though it’s not ideal. But in the midst of this pandemic, I’ve also observed something great: The universities have demonstrated how resilient they are and what a great service they provide for our society. Researchers were quick to network beyond the borders of countries and disciplines and shared their knowledge to work out solutions everybody can benefit from.

Do you see this as the task of a university in the twenty-first century?

A university will always remain an educational institution that imparts more than just data, facts, and methods. Here curiosity and the will to discover reign, and here we are not afraid to assume social responsibility. I see the university as an important source of inspiration for society, especially in times of widespread hostility toward science and “alternative facts.” Without the universities, we will not find solutions to the challenges of the future, be it in dealing with climate change, artificial intelligence, or pandemics.

Thank you for the interview!

The interview was conducted by Rimma Gerenstein.



Photo: © Silvia Wolf

He spent twelve years at the helm of our university as rector. Now Prof. Dr. Hans-Jochen Schiewer is returning to research. During his term of office, the medievalist served as head of the State Rectors’ Conference and the Confederation of Universities on the Upper Rhine (Eucor) and was also chair of the booster association Alumni Freiburg.

A term of office as rector of a university surely includes a lot of ups and downs. Which moments are you fond of remembering, and which ones presented a great challenge?

It is of course not so easy to sort out and evaluate all my experiences from twelve and a half years. One of the especially nice aspects of serving as rector is getting to know the entire university and all of its departments. I found that very enriching over all the years. Individual events that touched me especially were my reelection in 2013 and my send-off. The Senate sent me off with standing ovations, and when I left for my last business trip, the entire central university administration took me by complete surprise by having a brass band play me the “Badnerlied” (the unofficial hymn of Baden). That was very touching. What was a particular challenge, on the other hand, was investigating the doping scandal. Our desire to clear everything up was frustrated by many obstacles, as we couldn’t access all the information. For many years that was a great burden.

Financial support for the university is another major challenge. As chair of the booster association Alumni Freiburg, you had a part in launching numerous donation campaigns for students. In your opinion, what were the most important projects with which the alumni could support the students?

I experienced a great willingness to support our university from the members of the booster association Alumni Freiburg, the alumni clubs, and many committed alumni. The alumni donate for things like the Deutschlandstipendium (Germany Scholarship), thus providing us with a funding instrument for especially talented students. The Alumni Prize for Social Involvement, funded by former students, gives us the possibility to recognize student involvement for the community. What impressed me particularly was the response to our call to support the “emergency financial aid” program we set up in view of the coronavirus crisis. We succeeded within a very short period of time in raising around 150,000 euros for students in serious difficulties, with the alumni contributing a large part. It’s great that we were able to build up an aid program in cooperation with the Studierendenwerk so quickly and unconventionally. The program provides students with up to three months of non-repayable financial aid to tide themselves over in their emergency situation. That worked much quicker and simpler than it would have at the political level. 

In your time as rector, you also visited alumni clubs all over the world. What were your impressions of these visits?

The alumni network has clubs across Germany and in many parts of the world, for example in Japan and Cameroon. And so I was able to get to know very different people who are rooted in their respective cultures but also have a close relationship with Freiburg. For one thing, I was able to experience firsthand how the Freiburg experience also has an emotional impact on people around the world. Again and again, I came across alumni who met the love of their life here. In addition, I was very impressed by the generosity of the alumni I met in the past years in our American alumni club, the “Friends of Freiburg” in North America. With the typically North American giving-back attitude, they support the alumni network with great commitment and great dedication of a kind that is unknown in continental Europe. But I don’t want to conceal the fact that our clubs in Germany, most of which I had the opportunity to visit in person, are also very active.

Face-to-face meetings for alumni are not possible at the moment due to the coronavirus pandemic. How did you find the university’s crisis management in the past semester?

The coronavirus crisis is a once-in-a-lifetime challenge for all of us personally. As a university, however, we have demonstrated our ability to react quickly and resolutely. Thanks to our many committed employees, we succeeded in keeping the university running. Of course, we shouldn’t make the situation seem better than it is: We currently have a different culture, a different kind of studying, and must spare no effort to find the way back to a university that is full of life.

During your tenure as rector, you never ruled out the possibility of returning to your research. After twelve years, you will now return to your chair in medieval German literature and language. What are the next research projects you have planned?

I’m currently in the process of setting up my new research post. After this first step, I will devote myself to two book projects. One of these projects is connected to my work with former students on Jesus Christ’s favorite disciple. The second project is a book intended for the general public, to be titled “Bestsellers in the Middle Ages.” That’ll be enough to keep me busy for the time being. In addition, I would like to continue my involvement in alumni work, even as rector emeritus, as I like to call myself, because it’s still my university.

Thank you for the interview!

The interview was conducted by Laura Glomb and Alexandra Stiem.

More interviews with Prof. Dr. Hans-Jochen Schiewer:

Badische Zeitung: “Freiburger Uni-Rektor: ‘Es gab eine enorme Professionalisierung der Hochschulleitung’”


University of Freiburg Press Work and Public Relations Office: “It was a tremendous gift”



This article was originally published on the website of the press department of the University of Freiburg.

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