Published: 04.10.07
Farewell address by Konrad Osterwalder

Close to perfection

He has held a responsible position at ETH Zurich for three decades, the last twelve years as Rector and more recently, during a turbulent period, also as President pro tempore. Konrad Osterwalder’s analytical competence and experience, his strong leadership and his political skill as a motivator for education and research have contributed much to making ETH Zurich the important voice it now is in the global higher education symphony. The dynamic worker is now tackling a new task: United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon has appointed Osterwalder to be the new Rector of the University of the United Nations in Tokyo.

Norbert Staub
The parting rector and his successor: Konrad Osterwalder beside Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach in the Audimax on September 28th.
The parting rector and his successor: Konrad Osterwalder beside Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach in the Audimax on September 28th. (large view)

“Unfinished” – It is no surprise that the title of Konrad Osterwalder’s farewell address last Tuesday 25 September 2007 initially brings to mind Schubert’s most famous orchestral work. The versatility of his interests would also have allowed the long-serving ETH Zurich Rector to take up a career other than that of an outstanding physicist which took him to the top of ETH Zurich. Writing recently in the newspaper NZZ, ETH Zurich Physics Professor Jürg Fröhlich, who has known Osterwalder for decades, said that he also cherished a passionate interest in philosophy, literature and music – and pursued it with equally great ambition.

The new Rector Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach welcomed the public who completely filled the Audimax hall, and stressed that Osterwalder had always been very prudent and committed in his work for ETH Zurich. She thanked him for enabling her to take over a well cared-for area of responsibility. She said that when the decision to introduce phased degree programmes throughout Europe was taken in Bologna in 1999, the outgoing Rector and President immediately recognised its implications. He pushed the implementation forward quickly but always with the requisite good judgement. For example it was thanks to him that the Bachelor degree within ETH Zurich was never regarded as a professional qualification but rather as a pivot for inter-university mobility. It is clearly apparent from the long list of Konrad Osterwalder’s positions of responsibility that he has rendered great services for ETH Zurich and the whole world of higher education not only at ETH Zurich but also in many national and international committees.

Outstanding questions as a stimulus

Like a distillation of his creative activity and works, Osterwalder’s farewell address touched on three problem areas in research, teaching and educational policy that remain as “unfinished” as ever. First of all on the subject of research: in high-energy physics, for example, he said that quantum theory and the theory of relativity are necessary to describe the properties of elementary particles. However, according to Osterwalder it was still as unclear as ever whether the two could be neatly unified mathematically into a single theory. This remained true even though it had been possible to use both in calculations for a long time and to verify their effects astonishingly well in real-world experiments. According to Osterwalder, unanswered questions stimulate researchers’ creativity and imagination. He said physicists had learned how to deal with unfinished edifices of ideas and to use them – as in financial mathematics – in a profitable way. However, Osterwalder pointed out that interest in the further development of elementary particle physics could also dwindle, for example just as the theory of angels that was constructed with such great seriousness and intellectual skill in the Middle Ages gradually faded into oblivion.

No blurring of differences

Living with incompleteness in university studies as well: reforms were indispensable here – not because past achievements were bad but because circumstances in society, politics and business are changing rapidly. He said the extremely fast growth in student numbers was one central factor. According to Osterwalder, reforms were “indispensable” if the quality of training in Switzerland was to be maintained. Large numbers of students broadened the range of abilities, performance opportunities and preferences. As a response to this Osterwalder recommended diversification of the range of study programmes, i.e. by “supporting and expanding instead of increasingly blurring” the higher education system with universities and technical colleges of higher education. Osterwalder said universities should differentiate among themselves. He said not every university could or should be a world leader – and correspondingly expensive. A higher education system must take care of the elite but at the same time also the great majority who sensibly ‘only’ want to pass through a sound higher education. He said the route being followed in Germany with the Excellence Initiative was the correct one.

Bologna: Work in Progress

The outgoing Rector is often absolutely identified with the Bologna Reform – phased study programme, harmonisation with the Anglo-Saxon system – introduced throughout Europe. However, Osterwalder said the impression that it has been completed was deceptive: for example the schedules were still very full and too rigid. Young students in particular would have to learn to cope with the unfinished and model nature of the science. Too often there was a lack of freedom for reflection and good pastoral support. “In this respect the Reform has still not yielded the expected improvement in this respect.” The required adjustments were underway here and there, pushed forward by the pressure for science to think increasingly in a joined-up way, among other things. To improve student mobility even further, Osterwalder recommended setting up small networks of comparable institutions of higher education. For example these could offer shared Master and doctoral programmes and could support each other in quality assurance, which was of such great importance.

Konrad Osterwalder described autonomously defined admission requirements as an indispensable instrument for this purpose. Thanks to the equivalence agreement, it would be possible in the foreseeable future for increased numbers of students with Bachelor degrees from the surrounding countries to enter Switzerland, including coming to ETH Zurich. “And that would include those who do not succeed in entering the top-class universities in Germany.” Osterwalder’s warning question: “Does Switzerland want to become a compensating pond for systems of excellence in other countries?” The ability to determine admission autonomously was a central instrument to be able to keep up with the international competition. “The French Grandes Écoles have it, and the German universities will also get it in the next few years.”

The global challenge of the environment

He said that a new feature of study programme contents nowadays was the way one topic was coming to the fore which was so crucial for humanity that every intellectual must make a contribution. “What I mean is sustainability, specifically the problem of the environment and the associated ones of energy, climate, water and health.” Osterwalder commented that study programme reforms were always long-drawn-out and laborious. That was why they needed to be well thought out and approached with a sufficiently large time budget – a minimum of four to five years. “Every reform remains unfinished, but the next one should not arrive before the previous has had an opportunity to bring about positive results.”

In conclusion, Konrad Osterwalder shed light on Swiss educational policy, especially the ETH Domain. Upgrading the cantonal EPUL (École Polytechnique of Lausanne University) to EPF Lausanne in 1969 raised the question between central management and the autonomy of higher education institutions. However the work on the ETH Act of 1992 and 2002 left no room to doubt that the Parliament wants two autonomous higher education institutions and four autonomous research establishments.

A supervisory board for each university

Unfortunately the reality looked rather different. He said the ETH Board had steadfastly tried to strengthen the central management, which had repeatedly led to friction. Osterwalder said “The way it is being handled at present, we have one management level too many.” He said that nowadays every higher education institution needed its own university council “which is unreservedly the friend of this one university.” It must exercise supervision, share in developing strategies and above all represent its university to the outside world. He said that the ETH Board could not fulfil this task. The outgoing Rector’s unequivocal comment: “In its present form there is no longer any need for it.” To this criticism he added criticism the indicators as a management instrument. He said what was needed was politicians and academic management staff who took the decisions for which they were responsible prudently and responsibly.

The ancient Egyptians had left the gigantic obelisk where it lay in the Assuan quarry, incompletely hewn out, probably because it was cracked and would have broken in two when set upright. Leaving the unfinished where it lies and making a new start elsewhere – “That is occasionally the only strategy that leads to satisfactory results,” was Konrad Osterwalder’s conclusion. He paid thanks to all who had accompanied him and from whom he had gained much during the long years at ETH Zurich. Osterwalder had always been a member of the Mathematics Department. At the very end, the Chairman Hans Rudolf Künsch did not miss the opportunity to wish the speaker all the best for his new life in Japan.

Konrad Osterwalder

Konrad Osterwalder, born in 1942, is Professor of Mathematical Physics. His research is concerned with the mathematical structure of the relativistic quantum field theory, with problems in elementary particle physics and statistical mechanics. After research visits to the USA, including as Professor at Harvard, he was appointed full Professor for Mathematics at ETH Zurich in 1977. He has held the office of Rector of ETH Zurich since 1995. Osterwalder was also Chairman of the Bologna Project management for the whole of Switzerland and is co-founder and President of UNITECHinternational, a co-operative organisation of eight European Universities of Technology. Konrad Osterwalder is also a member of the supervisory boards of several European universities; he is Chairman of the Supervisory Board at Darmstadt University of Technology. Under his leadership, ETH Zurich has become one of the first Swiss universities to change over completely to the international structure of study programmes with Bachelor and Master degrees

Reader comments: