Eva-Maria Feichtner is Vice President of Internationality and Diversity at the University of Bremen and Professor of Algebra at the same institution. In this wide-ranging interview, we asked her about her role in promoting diversity in all its forms and where she feels that more needs to be done. Prof. Feichtner also told us about her own research and the importance of “non-applicable” science.
AcademiaNet: Prof. Feichtner, you are Vice President of Internationality and Diversity at the University of Bremen. Why did the university feel the need to create such a role and what do you do to promote internationality and diversity?
Prof. Feichtner: I have been in office for a bit more than a year, the vice presidency was established in 2011. Nevertheless, I can still tell you some of the story the way I see it in hindsight. International affairs have always been the purview of the Executive Board of the university. What emerged in the previous decade was the need to attend to a wide variety of intercultural matters on campus brought about by a highly culturally diverse student body.
My predecessor in office, Yasemin Karagasoglu, held the position from 2011 to 2017. Based on her academic background in Intercultural Education, she shaped the new Vice President role. In 2015, she brought about a change in denomination from "International and Intercultural" to "International and Diversity," where diversity is understood to encompass intercultural affairs, gender equity, and inclusivity.
Our work on internalization and diversity is informed by strategy papers, but these are not declarations carved in stone. These documents develop, mature and change, while serving as guidelines. The process of involving large parts of the university community again and again in discussions and exchange is way more important than the printed result. It is an indispensable part of having the ideas and concepts propagate throughout the university. In the end, it is about bringing our visions of an internationally connected university and a diverse campus community to life. Thus, it is many tiny pieces of a mosaic – be it cultivating a longstanding partnership with a university abroad or nurturing the activities of a student interest group, which are the day-to-day activities that eventually make the visions laid out in our strategies come to life.
Specifically for your field of mathematics, how important is international mobility for a successful research career?
On first thought, maybe in the way I was brought up mathematically myself, I deem it absolutely mandatory. On second thought, however, times have changed and communication has become instant, global collaboration is at hand without the hurdles of travel and relocation. As so often happens, the truth lies somewhere in between. I would advise any graduate student and early career mathematician to go out and travel the mathematical world, work in different academic settings; it is the perfect time to make professional and personal contacts for life.
Diversity can encompass many aspects, from gender to ethnicity to religious and political beliefs. Where do you think, in general, European institutions of higher learning are doing well in these respects? Where do you think more work is needed?
European institutions have come a long way in international student mobility. The Erasmus programs have made the study-abroad experience readily available. This has also helped a significant number of students develop proficiency in a second if not a third language. This opens many doors both for personal professional development and for appreciation of diversity in a broader sense. Much remains to be done, but student mobility seems to be on the right track.
The shortcomings in European higher education when it comes to diversity are varied and depend much on national settings. Let me focus on the German setting: we still face a highly homogeneous faculty that does not reflect the diversity in our student body, let alone in our society. The notorious glass ceiling in academics is hanging lower than we like to admit. It is tedious and often unwelcome to work against unconscious bias in hiring committees. Still, with recruiting the similar, not necessarily the best, we are missing out on a lot of potential for our future and positioning in the academic world.
When interviewed for these pages, Dame Athene Donald emphasized how important it was for universities and other institutions to offer support to both women and men who may not follow a standard career path because they take time out as parents or carers. Are you supporting “non-traditional” career paths in your role as a mentor?
Definitely, this is an issue very dear to my heart. I have three children aged 12, 7 and 7. Though I never took time off formally, I of course have devoted a lot of time to family life, and I still do. My kids would probably state the contrary, which just shows that family-work balance is infinitely hard to achieve!
I try to be a mentor for parents with young children in my surroundings. Family obligations usually slow down an academic career – there is not much to argue with there. However, family not only enriches people’s lives, it also enriches people’s ideas and creativity. It is important to provide any institutional support we can possibly think of in terms of flexibility (work hours, contracts) and child care opportunities. As Vice President of Diversity, I work hard to promote these issues.
Let me make one more point here: to support the career of women balancing family and professional life, we also need to acknowledge the time that fathers take off for their family! Not only in formal terms of parental leave, but when it comes to the little issues, day to day, when they leave work early to pick up their kids from school and miss the rest of the meeting. What is socially accepted for a mother is not necessarily accepted for a father in professional life. You won't encourage fathers to do their share if the workplace environment does not appreciate these efforts!
Do you think that the current political climate in Germany and Europe with right-wing views gaining more and more popularity will affect your work or does the academic bubble remain untouched by these developments?
As a researcher and faculty member in basic sciences I am rather unaffected. In my role as a vice president I am affected almost every day. The university campus is an environment where people spend a significant amount of their time, students, faculty and administrative staff alike. It is a mirror of a somewhat selective, yet broad part of society, so any development has its analogue and its parallel on campus.
Concerning diversity issues, my personal observation is that the call for and the enthusiasm to embrace diversity for all its benefits is shifting towards a call for protection and antidiscrimination measures. Having certain diversity characteristics has become more of a private matter. This worries me.
Concerning internationalization, we are as a university enthusiastically following the developments related to the European Universities initiative. Within a consortium of seven like-minded universities, we will participate in the pilot call within the Erasmus program issued this month. This is a unique chance to re-think higher education in Europe, how it relates to European identity and how it evolves in practice. I see students, faculty and staff becoming actively and wholeheartedly involved. This makes me hopeful.
Your own research focus is algebra, but you take a highly multidisciplinary approach that puts you at the intersection of geometry, topology and computer science. What are you currently aiming to achieve? What do you see as the most important applications of your research?
Indeed, I take inspiration and research problems from the natural sciences and from computer science. But I dare admit that I don't deliver back in terms of applications, at least not right away. I am working in pure mathematics, the classical discipline of knowledge-driven research. Let me make a plaidoyer here for seemingly non-applicable research, since it constitutes a particular strength of academic development.
There is a noteworthy article by Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. It is from 1933, the opening year of the Institute when Albert Einstein and Hermann Weyl joined as the first faculty members. It is entitled “The usefulness of useless knowledge.” The title speaks for itself, what follows is a testimony for the strength of unobstructed academic pursuit, for the freedom of thought that the ideal institution of research and higher education should strive to provide.
Universities nowadays are much inhibited by funding issues, acquisition of exterior funding, and thus project-oriented research has become central. We should keep reminding ourselves what academic scholarship entails and we should make room for it wherever we can.
(© Neysan Donnelly / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)