Together, historically aware, open-minded, and future-oriented
In conversation with Julia von Blumenthal, who has been president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) since 1 October 2022
Adlershof Journal: What priorities have you set for your term in office?
Julia von Blumenthal: We as a society are facing enormous challenges due to the multitude of current crises and developments – just think for a moment of the pandemic, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, and climate change. As places of research, teaching, and scientific discourse, we as universities are particularly sought-after. I am convinced that we at Humboldt-Universität, with our strong research profile, the vibrant university community, and chequered history, have the chance to test new forms of the university of the future, one that is well-equipped to face the challenges of today and tomorrow. We are a university that takes a public stand for academic freedom, that is carried by its students and their very different educational biographies, that fosters diversity, that lives sustainability, and that engages in an exchange with society through innovative formats. To continue to do so, I will push the activities taking place under the umbrella of “Open Humboldt” forward and expand cooperation.
I wish to deepen our collaboration with Berlin and Brandenburg’s non-university research institutions, strengthen regional and international networks, and lead the Berlin University Alliance to success together with our partners. By 2030, we want to achieve the goal of the carbon-neutral university. This calls for changes in our working habits and the smart development of the campus. We want to provide our students with modern courses and teaching concepts that are more about competence than career orientation. On this path, we will recombine research, teaching, and action and develop Humboldt-Universität into a university of the future, albeit with an awareness of its tradition-rich history. Together, historically aware, open-minded, and future-oriented, these are the four terms under which I placed my presidency.
What course should policymakers set to ensure excellent research?
More than 250,000 people work or study at Berlin’s universities and research institutions. Berlin is a strong “science metropolis” and an attractive place for researchers from all over the world. We are working together with policymakers to ensure this remains so in the future. Ample and stable funding is the basis for excellent university research. The federal-level resolutions on funding the University Excellence strategy and the dynamisation of the “Zukunftspakt Studium und Lehre” are laying the essential groundwork. The responsibility lies primarily with the State of Berlin to ensure basic funding despite these being times of rising energy prices and inflation. Particularly in the natural sciences, research is energy-intensive and thus we are very grateful for the support of both the federal government and the state government in the current energy crisis. I very much hope that the great importance that science and research have for Berlin will continue to be reflected in future university contracts, which we are currently negotiating.
Moreover, we require a stable legal framework. This affects particularly our collaboration with non-university partners in research. During this prolonged transition period, the federal government should finally solve the issue of VAT obligations in favour of science and research.
The comprehensive amendment of Berlin's Higher Education Act continues to be a challenge for developing modern staff structures that combine reliable career paths with the flexibility required by innovative research. We rely on federal and state regulations to give us the necessary leeway to remain successful in third-party-funded research and in attracting excellent international researchers.
Many university spin-offs came from the HU’s natural sciences. How high up is the issue of start-ups on the HU’s list?
Knowledge and technology transfer is one of Humboldt-Universität’s key strengths. By supporting university spin-offs, we not only create new jobs in Berlin but also career paths for our students and researchers. They allow us to carry ideas and innovation from the university into society and contribute to tackling current challenges, for example, in sustainability and environmental protection.
If we summarise all the institutes based at the Adlershof site, the institutes are among the Top 10 of all German states in the federal ranking “University-Based Business Start-ups”. Our “Startup Inkubator”, for example, or the Advanced Materials LAB, a think tank that funds topic-specific start-ups together with companies that opened this year, are contributing to this success. Moreover, we are motivating woman students and researchers to go down this path with the “Marga Faulstich Program” and “Female Founders Day”.
You emphasise the role of HU and its excellent scientific research plays in solving the great issues facing societies in our time. What potential do you think lies in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences in Adlershof?
We know that mankind must make major changes in a very short time to slow down the rate of global warming.
I see very large potential, especially in Adlershof and the institutes based there, both in the research in the individual disciplines and in their participation in interdisciplinary research. There is the newly founded Center for the Science of Materials Berlin (CSMB), for example, that brings together researchers from physics and chemistry. With its outstanding innovative research on energy supply and information and communication technologies, the CSMB will make important contributions, especially from the perspective of sustainable resource use. Sustainability research is an important topic at the Department of Geography, including aspects like biodiversity, land use, and climate change. The Department of Psychology of the Faculty of Life Sciences, which is also located in Adlershof, stands for research on the ways individuals and societies may adapt. I also want to mention in this context the ongoing excellence clusters in which Adlershof is participating. The Matters of Activity project, for example, pools expertise in sustainable product design; UniSysCat is creating opportunities for developing novel materials; lastly, the MATH+ project is laying the mathematical groundwork for using ever-growing amounts of data, which is indispensable for modern research approaches.
Last October, the Center for the Science of Materials Berlin opened in Adlershof. What other research developments are planned for the HU’s campus in Adlershof?
In research, the founding of the Center for the Science of Materials Berlin (CSMB) has been a clear sign of the continuous expansion of materials science research at Campus Adlershof. To create international visibility for this, the centre aims to pool the expertise relevant to these topics from the disciplines’ departments within the HU and connect it to our university and non-university partner institutions. The focus here is on the development and research of materials for energy conversion and storage, for energy-efficient information and communication, as well as quantum technologies.
Research also includes the necessary infrastructure. To respond to the increasing computing needs of the researchers, the HU is also planning to expand high-performance computing in Adlershof. By doing so, we want to create services that are more efficient than a multitude of smaller clusters and that are open to cooperation with our university and non-university partner institutions.
In the area of teaching, I would highlight our bachelor-level course “Informatics-Mathematics-Physics”, which is the only one of its kind in Germany, as particularly forward-looking. The physical proximity of the three disciplines on campus also offers ideal conditions for this course of study. A large number of applications from highly motivated students for this restricted-admission programme proves that we hit a nerve with this course. The graduates are excellently trained, especially for the research taking place on the Adlershof site.
Cooperation with the state of Brandenburg is also a special concern of mine. We want to expand our regional cooperation environment along the newly developing Berlin–Lusatia Innovation Corridor and an exchange with BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg is currently underway in which we are looking to develop joint research fields.
Talking about construction on the HU campus in Adlershof: This summer, the foundation stone was laid for a new 3-field gymnasium for teaching degree students in physical education. Your predecessor's plans also included an expansion of Berlin's Museum of Natural History and the construction of a central university building with a large lecture hall, a so-called Science Hub, in Adlershof. What’s the status of those projects today?
To continue to develop Adlershof also in terms of construction remains at the top of our agenda. I am glad that the gymnasium is now finally entering the construction phase. This is an important milestone for our students. The Science Hub is a very future-oriented project in the development planning of our university locations. In addition to Erwin-Schrödinger-Zentrum, the Hub will create a new centre for Campus Adlershof. The space requirements, functions, and requirements necessary for the structural investment are currently being determined. We are connected with the Museum of Natural History through large-scale projects as part of the museum’s future plans. The museum’s plan for Adlershof is making progress in addition to our archive and library building and we are working together on a future science campus located at the museum’s main location.
The number of first-year students has been falling for several years. This not only affects HU but all other universities in Berlin. What are you doing to tackle this?
The number of first-year students at HU is currently still constant, but we have seen a decline in applications. While 35,129 applications for study places were received in the winter semester of 2021/2022, only 29,706 were received in the winter semester of 2022/2023. For us, this means becoming more active in advertising our university’s courses and attracting prospective students. In doing so, we can build on tried-and-tested formats. In the field of teacher education, for example, we are looking for direct contact with pupils from schools through Schülergesellschaften, student societies. They can be used to look at and discuss any incentives or reservations pupils have about going to university. It also helps us to understand pupils better and to improve our study offerings and make them more attractive. Another example is UniLab, a laboratory for school children. As a place of learning outside of school, it builds a bridge between the school and research in the natural sciences. Lectures of HU frequently conduct experiments with school classes to reduce reservations towards STEM fields and stimulate a sense of curiosity.
What are your personal interests besides your work?
To balance out the many meetings and video conferences, I appreciate moving around in fresh air and nature. When there is little time, going for a run in one of Berlin’s parks must suffice. If I have time for a longer hike, I very much enjoy the beautiful landscape of Brandenburg. Cultural stimulus is also very important to me: Berlin’s cultural landscape offers an incredible range of theatre, concerts, opera and special events. Most recently, Vinyago, the dancing performance at Humboldt-Forum. When I’m on holiday, I always need a good book with me. I’m currently reading a lot of Ukrainian literature.