“Exploiting this enormous pool of knowledge”

Commissions act as an important hub where information from different parts of the university flows together. We spoke with Laura Beccarelli (V-ATP) and Hannah Schoch (VAUZ) about the meaning, purpose and benefits of serving on committees.

Interview: Alice Werner; English translation by Gena Olson

Beccarelli spricht mit Schoch
Laura Beccarelli (left), Co-President of the V-ATP, in virtual conversation with Hannah Schoch from VAUZ. Picture: Frank Brüderli

In June 2020, the first university-wide elections took place at UZH, with new delegates being elected to university and faculty committees. The new e-voting tool introduced by the representative bodies was also used. Can you sum up what took place?

Hannah Schoch: The elections were a tremendous effort, but we managed to pull them off successfully. The entire incoming group of delegates was elected after the new electoral regulations and revised University Act went into effect on 1 April 2020, which really strengthened the team spirit within and between the various representative bodies. The new legal basis creates consistency on all levels, from the university-wide committees down to the individual department committees.

The Association of Administrative and Technical Staff (V-ATP) has sent 109 representatives to university and faculty committees and 47 representatives to committees at departments, institutes and clinics. The Association of Junior Researchers of the University of Zurich (VAUZ) has 82 young scholars representing it on university-wide committees and 99 representatives on committees at the departmental level. Does this mean that all seats have now been filled?

Laura Beccarelli: Luckily we were able to fill all seats on university committees back in June. Special elections for the ongoing fall semester were held in early November, and now almost all seats on the faculty level are occupied. This really highlights how many UZH employees feel intrinsically motivated to contribute their ideas and knowledge and to take part in shaping the policies and academic development of the university. It also shows that it pays off to proactively raise awareness of co-determination rights among members of your representative body, to inform people about how to get involved, and to recruit people well-suited to the job and convince them to run for office.

Many people fear the extra workload that comes with holding office.

Beccarelli: Yes, and that’s understandable. Of course serving as a delegate means extra work: Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the committee. What many people might not know is that this extra work can be completed during your regular working hours – and not just partially, but fully. That’s an important signal being sent by the university. Whether this is practical on a daily basis depends on the individual. But if supervisors show flexibility in this regard, it would definitely be welcome. It would be very unfortunate if someone is motivated to participate but gets slowed down because of lack of flexibility from their supervisor.

Schoch: For junior researchers this rule only applies to a limited degree, as they often work more than the contractually agreed amount of hours. So in most cases, the time needed for delegate work comes on top of normal working hours. This makes it even clearer how motivated our delegates are and how committed they are to UZH as an institution.

What do you learn by serving on a committee? And what advantages are there for managers?

Beccarelli:  Serving on various committees and commissions gives you a better overview of the issues and activities that are important at UZH. You get to know colleagues from other areas of the university or from other disciplines. You grow your network. You get into more intense, more frequent internal discussions and as a result, you’re better informed. You also gain insight into how things are done at UZH: the processes, how the institution functions. Because of that you get a better understanding of certain processes and decisions. Expanding your horizons in this way can only be a plus for your own work. And the additional information that you get by serving on committees – it’s not only managers who benefit from this, but also entire working groups or departments. 

Schoch: I agree. You can gain valuable work experience by serving on a committee or commission. They bring together people with different backgrounds and from different academic cultures to work together on projects. In particular, junior researchers who want to have an academic career can gain some firsthand experience with the kind of work they’ll eventually have to do later on. Participating in (executive) committees, steering committees, project groups, etc. is all part and parcel of an academic career. So it would be great if supervisors supported their employees’ committee work as an important part of their career development. For instance, Swiss National Science Foundation project applications now directly ask about one’s involvement in academic self-governance, even as early as the doctoral level. I would also like to add that the various commissions and committees act as important feedback instruments for managers. Let’s take the corona pandemic as a current example. Junior researchers are reporting their experiences with distance learning to the Personnel and Teaching Commissions, and this information flows back to the highest levels of leadership at the university.

Would you like to see line managers actively promoting this kind of participation?

Beccarelli: It’s not about what we would like to see, but rather about a right enjoyed by every employee that is codified in the University Act.

Schoch: Yes, that’s really not the right frame here, because it suggests that we have some kind of external need that we want the university to fulfill. The participation of the UZH community is in the fundamental interest of the university and an important part of its self-conception. UZH has set out high-minded principles for itself as an institution: Self-management, subsidiarity, participation, transparency and balanced interests. In order to make sure these aren’t just pretty words, we have to live up to these values day after day. Serving on commissions is one major way of doing just that.

How so?

Schoch: Because commissions, at their core, are a reflection of precisely these values. Also, their value for UZH as an employer is that they present a good opportunity to engage with their employees and actively involve them in university-wide or faculty-level undertakings. Commissions also have an important role to play when it comes to collating information. They act as a hub where information on certain issues flows together from different parts of the university. No one person can know everything at an institution as complex as UZH. This makes the enormous pool of knowledge held collectively by UZH staff all the more valuable.

Ms. Beccarelli, you served on the Sustainability Committee for two years and are now a delegate on the Board of the University and in the Senate. What has your experience with this kind of work been like?

Beccarelli: My time on the Sustainability Committee was very positive and enriching because I was able to represent the perspectives and issues of the academic and technical staff (ATP) very well. Other ATP delegates report similar experiences. However, I would find it positive if committee members more actively solicited the participation of employees who are a bit lower in the hierarchy during exploratory meetings. More attention should be paid to using the knowledge of administrative and technical staff. For example, it would be a positive development if representatives from V-ATP could also make a contribution on professorial appointment committees. This is already standard practice in the Faculty of Science.

Michael Schaepman has been UZH’s new president since early August. Has the transition of power had any impact on the work of the representative bodies?

Schoch: Every president will of course have their own leadership and communication style and will set their own priorities. So in this regard we have to adapt to every time there’s a new president. But the representative bodies are now well established throughout the university and have become well-integrated into UZH culture over the past few years. So our work is less dependent on who occupies the office of president. Things look different on a faculty level, where the academic cultures can still be quite different. There we are more reliant on the actions of individual leaders who in the end can influence how well the committees are integrated into projects and processes. 

The Governance 2020+ reform program aims to strengthen the independence of the faculties, for instance when it comes to appointing new professors, managing resources and managing staff. How can the representative bodies support the faculties in this regard?

Schoch: The overhaul of the management system at UZH is an opportunity for the bodies to strengthen their role as intermediaries. Over the course of many years we’ve gained a lot of experience serving on various university committees, all the way up to the Board of the University, and are happy to pass this on to the faculty leadership. By being more closely involved in the professorial appointment process – not just by having delegates on the commission in question – we can collect input from our members and provide valuable feedback about the leadership qualities of the candidates. In this way we can contribute to the long-term development of UZH.

The measures implemented as a response to the coronavirus are no longer just an emergency solution – they will continue to shape our day-to-day working life until further notice. To what extent have the commissions been involved in working out new regulations?

Beccarelli: V-ATP as a whole has not been involved, sadly. I can’t make any definitive statements on the extent to which individual V-ATP members have participated. The crisis has shown us just how important it is to involve all members of an institution in decision-making. For instance, working from home is an issue that affects everyone, from Technical Services staff and admin employees to doctoral candidates and professors and department heads.

Schoch: We’re currently in a difficult period. On the one hand, we’re still trying to get to grips with the crisis, but on the other, we’re dealing with medium- to longer-term changes in the working world that have been turbocharged by the pandemic. This is a big burden for the university and for its staff. For that reason we’re glad that we can provide our input via the commissions.