France and Germany are pursuing parallel initiatives to bolster
“We’re developing an institution
their best universities. Do they go too far or not far enough?
with all of the characteristics
of a research university.”
PARIS SCIENCES ET LETTRES
“Everyone says that a large university is hard to turn round, like a
supertanker,” proclaims Axel Freimuth, rector of the University of
Cologne in Germany. “But that’s simply wrong. We have 40 new
appointments every year. Our size gives us the potential to act
A solid-state physicist, Freimuth personifies what a German uni-
versity leader needs to be: three-parts persuader and one-part auto-
crat. That combination has worked well for Freimuth, a bear of a man
who became rector at Cologne in 2005. In June, his 40,000-student
university competed successfully for a €50 million, 5-year “future
concepts” grant, one of 11 winners in a federally funded “Excellence
Initiative” designed to build stronger German research universities.
The grant supports a strategic plan to develop the entire university.
It builds on earlier support for a research “cluster” in Cellular Stress
Yet Freimuth acknowledges that some of his col-
leagues at Cologne are skeptical that the initiative will be
able to turn a handful of German universities into global
powerhouses. In addition, some faculty members outside the sci-
ences still question whether they should be judged on their ability to
obtain competitive funding.
The Excellence Initiative, launched in 2005 by then-Chancellor
Gerhard Schröder, was born of politicians’ and scientists’ fears that
Germany’s research universities were falling behind in the global
race to attract the best faculty members and students. Two years later,
French President Nicolas Sarkozy began pushing through a set of
measures with the same goal. After passing laws that gave univer-
sity presidents more autonomy and greater control over their institu-
tions, France established a program to select and support eight major
research universities, eventually granting them public funds as the
basis for building private endowments.
Both initiatives assume that world-class research universities are
essential drivers of economic growth. And the initiatives follow the
same game plan: Inject money into a small number of leading uni-
versities and allow newly empowered administrators to spend it on
developing the institutions’ strengths.
with author Colin
2 NOVEMBER 2012 VOL 338 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org