ETH hires first woman rector: Professor Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach--the first woman to be named director of academic affairs for the Federal Institute of Technology in Switzerland--aims to guide the institution into calmer waters after a tumultuous time in which a former president was asked to step down.

AuteurHeddema, Renske
Fonction PROFILE

Her office is rather like a great hall overlooking the city of Zurich. A colourful painting over a vast expanse of wall, the conference table and even her desk are all in gigantic proportions. In fact, our voices resonate as if we were in Zurich's main train station.

But the ETH's new rector is not the least put off by this environment. The school is familiar ground. As a young student, she took biology in this very building. Her alma mater has also been her long-time employer since she returned as assistant professor in 1986.


She says being part of the history of an institution matters. When her peers asked her to be rector, the ETH Zurich was emerging from months of dissention between faculty and administration.

The young president who had just resigned, Ernst Hafen, had come from the University of Zurich and not from ETH.


And he had energetically supported changes including a controversial plan to reduce the number of departments and abolish the position of rector, deputy to the president, along with steps to strengthen the university's ties with industry.

The professors had never supported his vision. Instead, their resistance led to a letter to the Supervisory Board that manages both ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne, in which most of the Zurich faculty called for his resignation.

As a department head, Wunderli was closely involved in the controversy. But she doesn't dwell on it. All she says is that Hafen did not take the time to analyse the situation and, in the end, showed a lack of respect for the faculty.

When she was asked to step into the breach, she accepted the challenge.

Renske Heddema, Swiss News: The ETH Zurich management and Supervisory Board have been in the headlines for almost a year. Has the university been damaged?

Professor Wunderli: Fortunately, it's not the brief stay of a newly elected president that determines the reputation of the ETH.

It's the professors who are carefully elected, working with their students on a daily basis, that are the heart of an academic institution.

The public image may have suffered a bit but the ETH, as such, was not harmed at all.

What are your priorities as a rector, the 'boss' in charge of teaching and education?

Having passed through a period of reforms with the implementation of the Bologna reform during the last couple of years [Bologna introduced a bachelor-master degree system in place of a diploma system], my priorities are now the...

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