Caroline Maake and Jan Helbing both serve as co-presidents of the association representing the recently established Senior Researcher and Teaching Staff Representative Body. We sat down with them to discuss their initial goals, research conditions at UZH and bringing passion to the classroom.
Interview by Alice Werner
How many people fall under the representative body for senior researchers and teaching staff?
Jan Helbing: Currently around 4,300 people. But this number can vary, both due to normal fluctuation and also because people can apply to change their representative body membership if they are employed in different functions (like in an administrative-technical role and in teaching) or positions that overlap with another membership group. But in any case, we're glad to see that already around 300 are people taking an active role in our organization, the Association of Senior Researchers and Teaching Staff (VFFL), so soon after its founding, and we hope that more people will take an interest in the important and exciting work being done on committees at UZH.
How would you describe the new representative body for senior researchers and teaching staff (FFL)?
Helbing: In a nutshell, it's comprised of highly qualified members of the UZH community who are heavily involved in research and teaching. In contrast to employees in temporary junior academic positions or SNSF Eccellenza professorial fellows, most FFL members are employed in permanent roles, which means they have a special stake in long-term developments at UZH. So establishing our new representative body has brought people with similar interests and issues together under one umbrella – definitely a welcome development.
But at the same time, your members are also very diverse.
Helbing: Yes, that's true. If you look closer, you'll definitely find people with different employment contracts, types of jobs and responsibilities. For instance, we have academic associates working under professorial chairs who manage a bulk of the teaching and don't really have the time or resources for research, but we also have scientists with their own budgets for research projects who have managerial responsibilities within a department or institute, such as heading an independent research group. The FFL body also includes the large group of external teaching staff, like educators from the private sector, hospitals and schools who bring a great deal of practical experience to their teaching duties.
Caroline Maake:And on top of that you also have the different traditions and cultures of the various departments and institutes. You can see this heterogeneity as an expression of diversity, which is of course one of UZH's strengths. In any case it's clear that as a representative body association, one of our first important jobs will be to get familiar with and understand the different realities faced by our members.
What do you already know in this regard?
Maake: Differences are apparent on the faculty level and especially on the institute level. We've noticed that senior researchers and teaching staff are sometimes very well integrated and perceived as the independent senior academics that they de facto are. You can see this, for instance, in how some faculties grant them the right to award PhDs, while in other faculties they have to involve a professor when overseeing the conferral of a doctorate. Even within departments there can be different ways of handling information and co-determination rights, for instance when it comes to sitting in on department assemblies.
The founding of the Association of Senior Researchers and Teaching Staff (VFFL) took place last November – not that long ago. Have you already been able to identify additional goals, on top of the issues you just mentioned?
Maake: Speaking very generally, the VFFL advocates for the interests of our body and our members with regard to educational and university policy at UZH, chiefly for issues of co-determination and shaping the direction of teaching and research at the University. One of VFFL's main jobs is to make sure that our members get the recognition and attention they deserve by virtue of their qualifications, their importance to the functioning of their departments, and their contributions to excellence in teaching and research. We believe that this ultimately benefits the University as well.
Helbing: Most senior researchers and teaching staff are long-time employees of a particular department and important members of their faculty's teaching staff. Many of them also have management responsibilities. They feel like part of the academic community, but from a purely technical standpoint, they are not members of the professorial staff, so they are underrepresented in departmental assemblies, with just one or a few university body representatives. We believe that senior researchers and teaching staff could be more involved here. With their vast experience and expertise, they could give important input for the future development of UZH, for instance when it comes to curriculum development or the strategic direction that should be taken by their department. An important goal for the near future will also be creating the administrative framework for the rescheduled departmental elections.
How are your members coping with combining their research and teaching duties?
Helbing:UZH traditionally places a lot of emphasis on combining research and teaching, which we support. In this respect, most FFLs enjoy very good research conditions, at least here in the Faculty of Science. Only in a few isolated cases do people from our representative body get placed exclusively in teaching roles or in a particular teaching area.
Maake: A significant portion of courses at UZH are taught by FFLs. There are marked differences in the teaching load between our members, however, depending on the faculty and role. There are certainly FFL members who put in an above average amount of teaching work and who therefore have little time for research. But in general I find it important for university instructors to also be involved in research.
Students seem to appreciate the great dedication of FFLs in the classroom. Last spring, during the coronavirus outbreak, they had the opportunity to nominate particularly passionate instructors as “teacher of the hour.” Many of those who were honored belong to the Senior Researcher and Teaching Staff Representative Body. Caroline, you yourself received a “Goldene Lehr-Lorbeere”, a special award for excellent teaching, in 2019 and were named “Teacher of the Hour” in 2020.
Maake: On a personal level I was very happy to receive these honors. As a university body representative, I support the various awards that UZH gives out in recognition of excellent teaching. They serve as a signal to our members that their outstanding teaching work is appreciated.
Anfang April 2020 trat das teilrevidierte Universitätsgesetz in Kraft, das unter anderem die Neuordnung der Stände beinhaltet. Eine der Neuerungen betraf den bisherigen Stand der Privatdozierenden, der durch den neuen Stand der fortgeschrittenen Forschenden und Lehrenden ersetzt wird. Ihm gehören Mitarbeitende an, die in der Regel unbefristet in Lehre und/oder Forschung an der UZH tätig sind. Die neue Einteilung orientiert sich konsequenter an Funktion und Laufbahnphase der UZH-Angehörigen, so dass Habilitierte und ähnlich qualifizierte Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler ohne Habilitation möglichst gleichgestellt werden. In vielen Disziplinen, insbesondere in den Naturwissenschaften, sind äquivalente Qualifikationsformen an Stelle der Habilitation weit verbreitet. Von der Neuordnung der Stände waren auch die meisten Standesorganisationen betroffen. Für die etablierten Forschungs- und Lehrpersonen an der UZH hat sich Ende November 2020 die Vereinigung der fortgeschrittenen Forschenden und Lehrenden (VFFL) formiert. Im Rahmen der Gründungsversammlung wurde ein neues Ko-Präsidium (Caroline Maake, Titularprofessorin am Anatomischen Institut und Jan Helbing, Gruppenleiter am Institut für Chemie) sowie ein Vorstand gewählt. Dieser soll nach Möglichkeit im Rahmen der nächsten Jahresversammlung im Frühsommer 2021 erweitert werden.