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This month, Peter-André Alt took office as President of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK), Germany’s Rectors’ Conference’s new President. Alt is a professor of German literature and he was, until starting on his new job, the President of the Free University of Berlin (FU). He succeeds Horst Hippler, Margret Wintermatel (now President of ACA member DAAD) and Peter Gaethgens, also a former President of the FU, who stepped down after a revolt of HRK’s Vice-Presidents. Alt will face a multitude of challenges, among them a battle with Elsevier, one of the world’s largest publishers of academic publications and the looming danger of underfunding of higher education in the future.
On one of his first days in office, Alt gave an interview to Times Higher Education. One of the main issues of the interview was the network of European universities initiated by a proposal of France’s Emanuel Macron, for which the European Commission will start a pilot project next year. Alt criticised what he saw as the EU Commission’s focus on “technical” issues, rather than on content and substance. He pleaded for all of the European university networks to contain a studium generale element, consisting of the study of ‘canonical’ texts by European thinkers, such as Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Montesqieu, Max Weber, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Sigmund Freud (on whom he has written a biography). Admitting that the list was rather German, he remarked that some Italian and Spanish authors would need to be added to the list. Given that Alt’s list is made up entirely of dead men, ACA would suggest considering Penélope Cruz and Gianna Nanini.
More on the domestic front, Alt stressed the need for more support for and recognition of teaching quality and for making didactic excellence and not just publication records a key criterion in competitions over professor’s posts. As the FU President, he had spearheaded this approach. Not a believer in star universities, which are excellent in almost all fields, he pleaded for a ‘distributed-excellence’ approach, where individual German universities would focus their aspirations on one or a few disciplines only, rather than trying to be top achievers in everything and not achieving excellence in anything.