"The University of Bern is moving briskly ahead"

At the 183rd Dies academicus of the University of Bern, the rector Christian Leumann broached the issue of the freedom of teaching and research, and took stock of the first "half-time" in the university's strategy. The President of the Executive Council of Bern, Bernhard Pulver, emphasised the significance of general political conditions for the success of the university – and looked back on 12 years as Director of Education. Zoë Lehmann Imfeld spoke for the Mittelbauvereinigung MVUB (Intermediate Staff Association of the University of Bern) and about Aristotle as a role model. Nine people were awarded an honorary doctorate and eleven researchers were given academic awards.

"The success of the University of Bern lies in the freedom of research and teaching, as well in its autonomy", said rector Christian Leumann in his address of welcome. However, research freedom is sometimes called into question, and regular attempts were made to have stricter control over it – whether by questioning scientific findings or with regard to the controversial handling of ethical issues on research and technological progress. Leumann argued that scientific processes should take place with higher transparency but without restrictions for universities, without being negotiated in a "pseudo scientific" dark elsewhere: "Because the variety and creativity of solutions to problems only occur if there is freedom of methodical approach".

Internationalisation and interdisciplinarity

For the 2021 strategy of the University of Bern, which is now at the halfway point of its implementation, Leumann quoted the most influential alumnus of the University of Bern, Albert Einstein: "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. – I am happy to say that the University of Bern is moving briskly ahead." The project sitem-Insel, in which the university is involved in collaboration with the federal government, the canton, Bern University Hospital and private companies in the area of translational research, is making excellent progress. Leumann mentioned the Centre for Diabetes Research as a representative example for several new projects, which received a donation of 50 million francs from Dr. Willy Michel, founder of the company Ypsomed, and which will make an important contribution to combating this widespread disease. With its strategy, the University of Bern further aims for interdisciplinary research by promoting the exchange of different scientific disciplines. The first of three research cooperations - "One Health" - has started, where 10 research groups from the faculties of Medicine, Science and Vetsuisse are researching together how changes affect populations of micro-organisms in soils, and how this affects animal and human health across the food chain. 

Many prizes and awards to Bern researchers were the highlight of this year's celebration again, such as the awarding of this year's Swiss science prize "Marcel Benoist" by the Swiss Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann to the climate researcher Thomas Stocker. The university's internationalisation strategy has become more focused and Bern has been accepted into "The Guild", an association of 19 research-intensive European universities.

Leumann mentioned digitalisation as one of the challenges as it is also an element of the university workplace, which is why the University of Bern is working to develop a digitalisation strategy. However, an even greater challenge is providing space for research and teaching, whereby existing infrastructures must be urgently replaced for the sciences and the preclinical department. "But I am confident that we can find good solutions together with the canton and create the necessary foundation for developing the university," Leumann said. 

President of the Executive Council of Bern Pulver: Bern as a center of medicine

After 12 years in office, President of the Executive Council of Bern and Director of Education Bernhard Pulver held his last speech at the Dies Academicus. He looked back on some prominent topics which especially shaped the university in this time and that will also shape it in the future. One of them is the university's autonomy, which was consolidated with the partial revision of the university law in 2010. "I am convinced that it is self-proven to further develop the autonomy of the university," Pulver said. In particular, it is wrong to dictate the interests of the university in the form of specialist areas or to demand a numerus clausus for the humanities and social sciences. This brings the risk of volatility and mediocrity. It is much better to further promote already existing strengths and research areas where necessary. Pulver mentioned the medical area as a prime example. "Our objective was soon clear: we want to be the strongest center of medicine in Switzerland." This determination moved things forward: With the merging of Bern University Hospital and the Spitalnetz Bern, the largest university hospital in Switzerland was created, and important companies such as CSL Behring and Ypsomed invested in Bern; the university added 100 new study places to human medicine and fully developed the pharmaceutical studies; and the centre for precision medicine planned at the university and Bern University Hospital was supported by the Executive Council with a start-up funding of three million francs. “This trump card, this reinforcement of Bern as a center of medicine, could only be done because a variety of players from politics, economy, universities and society work together as one,” Pulver was convinced.

Against the cliché of academisation

Pulver saw further future potential in the research activity and education of the university, which are significant for network industries in Bern. A strong entrepreneurial spirit could also be advantageous here in research: "I like the idea that the university can also become a place where an entrepreneurial pioneering spirit is supported and promoted for students who are interested and for emerging researchers."

For Pulver, a rather difficult issue of the last 12 years is the conflict between vocational training and university education, as well as a repeatedly claimed and negatively viewed "academisation" trend. Such as the cliché that graduates cannot find a job or that they content themselves with badly paid placements. Statistics show that this is not the case, Pulver reiterated: Even the supposedly unemployed humanities scholars have a lower risk of being out of work than the rest of the Swiss population, and the wages of university graduates are generally above average. "The future challenges of our society no doubt require not less, but more academically trained people across all disciplines," Pulver said. To master future challenges, university research in its full variety is needed now more than ever. For this reason, the university's freedom is just as important as the backing it must receive from the political system: "We cannot determine the future, but we can shape it!" 

ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) President Maurer: Research for better humanitarian work

Peter Maurer, alumnus of the University of Bern and President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, looked back on the beginning of his studies 40 years ago. His university experience has accompanied him in his professional life for over 30 years, and he is very grateful to the university: "To this day, I firmly believe that scientific methods and professionalism in working life go hand in hand, and that professionalism in the working world must also be grounded in the scientific method." He frequently found that scientific methods are an important and solid factor of political consensus-building, and that they could thus pave the way for progress in the humanitarian area. One of the many examples of this is the contract recently concluded by the United Nations for the ban on nuclear weapons, which is also the result of academic studies providing conclusive evidence on the unacceptable costs of a nuclear war and on the impossibility of coping with its consequences in a humanitarian way. 

Despite the huge increase of support, developments such as more people in need make the ICRC today challenge its own work. "More is not good enough," Maurer said. New approaches must be tested, adapted and put into practice. In principle, this is a scientific process. "Even the best players will never find long-lasting solutions alone," Maurer thinks. New forms of collaboration between universities, the private sector, public authorities and humanitarian organisations are very important here. Maurer mentioned the handling of negotiations on the front lines of conflicts as an example. The negotiation for humanitarian spaces amongst all the weapon carriers and warring parties to maintain minimal social services in crisis-ridden regions is essential. But the experiences of "frontline negotiators" must be integrated with scientific insights into the theory of negotiation handling, and also compared to economic negotiation handing and political mediation. An exchange with universities on the matter is highly promising, and a planned ICRC centre for practice and research should also boost the contact with Swiss universities. "Humanitarian and development work are the beginning of a new era, and we need systematic thinking to create new ways of working," Maurer said.

Mittelbauvereinigung (Intermediate Staff Association): Decelerating with Aristotle

Zoë Lehmann Imfeld, Co-President of the Intermediate Staff Association MVUB, delivered a speech written together with Co-President Rouven Porz. The activities of the intermediate staff – from assistant to postdoctoral research fellow – have a lot to do with the "Zeitgeist" of the university, and, according to Lehmann Imfeld and Porz, this is driven by great acceleration: Internet, digitalisation, globalisation, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp groups – "Everything moves quite fast, and a lot faster than it did 10 or even 20 years ago," Lehmann said. According to Lehmann Imfeld and Porz, members of the intermediate staff often do not dare enjoy the present, because the future is so uncertain for them. For this reason, a short deceleration is advisable with a journey back to ancient Greece, to Aristotle.

In many of his works, Aristotle differentiates between two forms of human activity: He talks about poesis and praxis. Poesis activities have an objective, praxis activities are about the activity itself. Applied to the academic context, this means that the intermediate staff is increasingly regarded as poetic, i.e. target-oriented. This stage has to be passed – in the case of a university career – in order to obtain a professorship as quickly as possible. The professorship is the poetic objective which must be achieved among the intermediate staff. It is not about the process, i.e. praxis, but only about the objective. "We understand this development, we are in the midst of it," Lehmann Imfeld said. But where is the enjoyment in the work, where is good practice – or eupraxia with Aristotle? 

As a form of deceleration, Lehmann Imfeld and Porz argued that we need to consider work in intermediate staff and for intermediate staff respectively not only as poesis, but also as praxis: i.e. carry out work well independently of the objective. This kind of eupraxis for intermediate staff would naturally also consider objectives, but it would not be fixated on them. Because poesis always aims at the future, while praxis takes place in the present. Lehmann Imfeld concluded with the advice: "Let's stay in the present a little more often!"


Dies Academicus 2017 der Universität Bern in der Französischen Kirche Bern. © Universität Bern, Bild: Stefan Wermuth.
Dies Academicus 2017 at the Französische Kirche Bern. © University of Bern, photo: Stefan Wermuth.
Hinten v.l.n.r.: Uwe E. Jocham, Prof. em. Dr. Peter Böckli, Rektor Prof. Dr. Christian Leumann, Prof. Dr. Takaaki Kajita, Prof. John Moore, PhD. Vorne v.l.n.r.: Prof. Fiona Tomley, PhD, Prof. Dr. Monica Heller, Metavel (Renée Koppel), Elezar Benyoëtz (Paul Koppel), Prof. Dr. em. Helmut Heid. © Universität Bern, Bild: Manu Friederich
Upper row from left to right: Uwe E. Jocham, Prof. em. Dr. Peter Böckli, Rector Prof. Dr. Christian Leumann, Prof. Dr. Takaaki Kajita, Prof. John Moore, PhD. Bottom row from left to right: Prof. Fiona Tomley, PhD, Prof. Dr. Monica Heller, Metavel (Renée Koppel), Elezar Benyoëtz (Paul Koppel), Prof. Dr. em. Helmut Heid. © University of Bern, photo: Manu Friederich