«Collegiality and individuality need to be in good balance»

One of the main tasks of a president is to bring together different stakeholders and to identify balanced solutions. His time as a professor of Remote Sensing at the Department of Geography shaped him in this respect. And the university needs to diversify, says Michael Schaepman.

Deutsch 🇩🇪

Michael, you have been President of the University of Zurich since August 2020. How does your everyday life look like?

Michael Schaepman: As President, I am something of an «information broker». I have many meetings, gather information, make a synthesis, form my opinion, and thus represent the interests of the university. Implementation is not usually my responsibility. Rather, that is undertaken by my staff or the appropriate university units.

Changing from one topic to the next within a very short time span is very demanding. From a political meeting I jump straight on to an interview for the media, then to finances, human resources and so on. But this breadth is also very exciting. Unfortunately, almost all meetings take place online at the moment. I can no longer walk from one place to another. Those little breaks in between meetings are gone.

Before that you were a professor at the Department of Geography. What did you learn in that role?

Satellite remote sensing depends on many researchers involved in a mission agreeing on one common approach. On the other hand, this research field is extraordinarily regulated. Until you can finally launch a satellite into space following extensive preparations based on experiments, virtually every single screw has to be certified several times and the evaluation programmes have to be supported by all those involved. I am therefore very cautious about introducing new rules that do not aim at promoting creativity.

And this applies not only to research, but also other areas. At the time of the lockdown last spring, we made some deliberately vague decisions so that these could be interpreted by UZH staff themselves. For example, how many people should continue to work on site. We relied on self-responsibility. I was impressed by how well that worked.

On the other hand, I experienced the Department of Geography as being very democratically organised. The opportunity for everyone to have a say is perhaps more pronounced than elsewhere. This is probably due to the very broad themes addressed within the department. It was an everyday thing to discuss questions spanning human geography, physical geography and quantitative methods in meetings. This taught me not just to integrate different cultures and approaches, but also to respect diversity. Collegiality and individuality should be well balanced.

Mapping functional diversity of forests with remote sensing: Michael Schaepman and his team have developed a new method which was recently selected as one of NASA’s metrics relevant to the prediction of ecosystem processes and functional diversity (Nat Commun 8, 1441, 2017; Remote Sensing of Environment, 257, 2021)

Before becoming President, you also acted as Dean and Vice President of Research. What are the most important differences?

As Dean, it was my job to think strategically for the Faculty of Science. And I knew there were six other deans doing the same for their faculties. As Vice President of Research, the overall university interest in the area of research came to the fore. I suddenly had to manage a horizontally distributed task, no longer a vertical one.

As President, I am now responsible for the entire university. We are acting as a collegial body within the Executive Board of the university, but nevertheless each member represents their area of responsibility as strongly as possible. My job is to distil balanced proposals and then represent them with integrity and leadership.

But there is another difference: your exposure to the public.

That’s true. The media is not shy about maneuvering you into whatever position they want to see you in. One example is the coverage of my interview in the «NZZ am Sonntag» at the beginning of March: I launched the idea that people without matriculation could also take on microcredits at the university. It made very big waves.

For example, it was claimed that I wanted to open up studying for a degree to everyone. But the idea I presented was different – we have to ask ourselves: Who is doing what in education? We will not offer professional education, apart from medicine, law and veterinary medicine. What UZH offers is an academic education. That is why we are not competing with universities of applied sciences.

So far, we mostly offer packages in continuing education. You have to attend a predefined set of courses. However, many people have already acquired a variety of competences in their professional life. I would like to discuss whether we can offer highly personalised combinations of courses. And the universities of applied sciences should join in! Academic education and professional training complement each other very well.

Research is your passion. Will you be able to continue this in the future?

As Dean and Vice President Research, I had some «protected time» to remain active in research. As President, that is impossible. My research group is now managed on an interim basis by a member of staff. If one day I am no longer President – and not yet retired – I can return to research in an ad personam professorship. In the meantime, my current professorship is being advertised anew. I think this trade-off is profitable for all.

What are the most important goals you would like to achieve as President?

One of my goals is that University of Zurich continues to be recognised as an institution where top quality basic research is performed. And it’s important that we are perceived as offering something to society. I want to ensure that people experience our university as being accessible and approachable. Because top research quality has nothing to do with working in an ivory tower. And lastly, we must be able to finance our university to a reasonable extent. We must communicate very clearly and make accessible what we do and what we achieve. Communication plays a central role.

More about Michael Schaepman

Interview: Magdalena Seebauer