Academic year 2020/21: A message from the leadership

The Hertie School leadership highlights the key priorities and themes to guide the months ahead.

Dear Members of the Hertie School Community,

Welcome – and welcome back!

In normal times, the opening of the Academic Year would take place as a gathering of all members of our community in the Auditorium on the fifth floor of Friedrichstraße 180 with an official welcome by President Enderlein. We would welcome our new students. We would welcome new faculty members, administrative and academic staff. We would chat, share a laugh, and sometimes hug each other after spending the summer apart.

This year is anything but normal. As you all know, President Enderlein is unable to be here and has taken a temporary leave for significant health reasons. We are also still surrounded by a pandemic that requires changes in our behaviour. Some of you can’t be physically in Berlin at this stage: around a fourth of our student community is joining us online. And those who are in Berlin are required to adhere to the rules and regulations of the School and the local authorities to prevent the pandemic from spreading further.

The health of every single member of our community is the clear priority for all of us in the months ahead. We urge all of you to adhere to the rules, both inside and outside the School. Adherence to the rules produces a common good, namely a safe and healthy environment for all of us. Together we can ensure that we have a successful semester and Academic Year.

Our teaching approach is hybrid: we want as many in-person interactions as possible, but as much safety as necessary. Teaching will be blended or flipped, combining online and in-person elements. We will offer purely online-based instruction to the students not physically in Berlin.

In our research and outreach activities, we will all need to continue to remain creative and flexible. While there remain restrictions on professional travel, event size, and access to campus, there is a lot that can be done online to continue the engaging and cooperative spirit our community is known for. Let’s make it work!

While COVID-19 will clearly shape this Academic Year, we wouldn’t want the pandemic to be the exclusive driver and theme of our interactions in the year ahead. Before he went on leave, President Enderlein led discussions on themes we as a leadership team want our community to reflect upon, and to address, this year. We identified three themes, which the School Leadership will continue to develop in Henrik’s absence.

The first theme for the Academic Year 2020-2021 is about systemic and structural discrimination in societies and institutions – including the Hertie School. The global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement has caused many institutions to re-examine their own cultures and practices. We are among them.

While we are proud of our School as a tolerant and open place, members of our community have alerted us that we still have work to do. We are committed to doing this work. As many of you know, we established a Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion in the Academic Year 2018-2019. It recommended more than 80 measures to improve diversity and inclusion at our School, which we are now in the process of implementing. However, we have seen over the past year that we need to go further, especially with  respect to systemic and institutional discrimination, and in particular with respect to race.

As part of our commitment to address all forms of discrimination, the School Leadership will appoint an Anti-Discrimination Task Force, led by an external expert, to assess our progress and provide advice on where further changes are needed. This will include a learning from our peers in higher education around the world. We are delighted that our alumna, Dr. Emilia Roig (MPP 2009), will chair the Task Force. Emilia is the Executive Director of the Center for Intersectional Justice, a well-respected scholar on intersectional justice, and familiar with the School and our community. The Task Force will bring together members from across our community, including faculty members, current students, alumni, researchers and administration. In order to ensure that the Task Force possesses the relevant expertise and is sufficiently diverse, half of the members will be appointed by the School Leadership directly, while the other half will be selected as representatives by the respective School constituencies. The Committee is asked to present a report with specific recommendations by spring 2021, in order to allow the Academic Senate to vote on possible changes in the course of the spring term.

The second theme for the Academic Year 2020-21 is about preserving the core values of academic freedom and freedom of expression at our School. The open exchange of ideas is at the heart of everything we do as a university. Debate, controversy and sometimes even provocation are integral parts of academic exchange. And for good reason: it is often through disagreement and through voicing contrarian positions that progress in thinking and reasoning is made.

Legally, the only limit to the freedom of expression is discourse that qualifies as hate speech. The legal definitions of person-to-person hate speech are quite clear and solidly anchored in German and European legislation. However, the picture becomes less clear with respect to speech that does not target specific individuals, but is perceived to be deeply offensive or demeaning by certain groups. On campus, we have clearly defined rules to react to the first type of hate speech, i.e. person-to-person hate speech, which is part of the remit of our Ombudsperson for Diversity. Regarding the second type of speech, i.e. positions that do not target individuals but are nonetheless perceived to be offensive, we have asked the Anti-Discrimination Task Force to make a proposal as part of its report.

The Hertie School will always be guided by the principles that our faculty members and researchers are entirely free in the academic positions they take and in determining their areas of research, their teaching approach and their course material. These are not only principles at our School, but are also protected by the German Constitution and in international human rights law. The only limit is the extent to which the School, via its official communication channels, will explicitly associate itself with certain positions by members of our community. But we will always defend the academic freedom and freedom of expression of the members of our community in the public domain.

One important challenge for all of us is to avoid the situation where academic discourse simply replicates itself, and in doing so, replicates the underlying power structures. The primary answer to this challenge is greater diversity and openness on campus across all dimensions. We invite all members of our community to take these diversity and openness considerations seriously, whether it concerns panellists at events, faculty or staff hires, student recruitment, course materials and readings, or discussion topics.

Academic freedom leads to progress if it is based on open debate. We value reasoned contradictions with the aim to improve our thinking. We value facts, stringent methods, logic and rigor. We value the power of good arguments. Across the globe, many of these values are currently being challenged by those who do not believe in them. As a public policy school, we have the moral obligation to speak up in defence of these values and encourage constructive debate.

This brings us to the third theme for the Academic Year 2020-2021: Academic debate is much facilitated if it takes place in a context of mutual respect, empathy, and the capacity to listen.

We are a small community that draws its strength from respectful and meaningful discussions and direct interactions. Perhaps it was the requirement for social distancing, imposed by the pandemic, which contributed to a distancing in dialogue, and an unfortunate deterioration of the discussion culture that many of us saw and experienced over the past months.

Our wish for the upcoming academic year is that we can again strengthen our culture of mutual respect and closeness – despite the distance. This does not mean that disagreement or controversy aren’t welcome. Quite the contrary: disagreement and controversy are necessary ingredients to academic discourse. But controversy without some degree of empathy, respect, or the capacity and willingness to listen will quickly turn into less than helpful conflict and empty polarisation.

We invite all members of the community to remain respectful and constructive in our interactions, both online and off. In our endeavour to address the difficult and sometimes controversial challenges we face as a community, we will work with those who adhere to these principles.

The Hertie School is a place of vibrant intellectual exchange, of excellence in research and teaching - and of exciting policy debates. We want to be a role model in openness, diversity, inclusion, and respect. We still have work to do, but we can get there. Let’s do that work together.

We are excited to see so many new students, new faculty, new researchers and new team members join the School this fall. You have made the right choice to join us. We are a place of discussion, debate and learning. What we all share is the desire to actively contribute to the common good. The world surrounding us is changing rapidly – some of these changes are threats, while others are opportunities. Let us all work together to understand what’s going on today, so that we can shape tomorrow.

We wish you a successful Academic Year 2020-2021.

Mark Hallerberg, Deputy President and Dean of Research and Faculty

Axel Baisch, Managing Director

Christine Reh, Dean of Graduate Programmes

Andrea Römmele, Dean of Executive Education

And also on behalf of President Henrik Enderlein