RETHink project: preparing for the next 20 years

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ETH has expanded its Executive Board to include two additional vice presidents:
ETH has expanded its Executive Board to include two additional vice presidents: Vanessa Wood (left) and Julia Dannath-Schuh (right), with Jol Mesot (Image: ETH Zrich).

Rising expectations from both inside and outside the university have prompted the Executive Board to launch rETHink. One year on, this organisational development project is steadily gaining momentum.

ETH Zurich is a success story. The university enjoys a top international ranking in the fields of teaching, research and knowledge transfer. "But the pressure on ETH is growing," said ETH President Jol Mesot when he took the helm in 2019.

Some of this pressure stems from tougher global competition in higher education and research, including from up-and-coming universities in Asia. Equally challenging is the race to recruit new talent, with the private sector and the academic community increasingly competing for the same people. Swiss politicians are proud of "their" ETH, but questions about its governance are getting louder, particularly in response to isolated but headline-grabbing cases of misconduct. Shifts in societal values are also making themselves felt in the world of higher education, and employees now expect more in the way of professional strategic leadership and personnel management. Diversity in the workplace is now more important than ever.

"ETH Zurich has grown fast in recent years - the number of students alone has more than doubled since the year 2000 - and it has become steadily more diverse, both culturally and academically," says Mesot. Yet he notes that the university’s structures and processes have long remained largely unchanged. This situation led the ETH President to join forces with the Executive Board last year to launch rETHink, an organisational development project that seeks to take a participatory approach to addressing the key issues facing the university.

Staying in the top tier

"The idea behind rETHink is to ensure ETH maintains its top-tier position over the next 20 years," says Mesot. A key goal is to improve the cooperation between professorships, academic departments and central administrative units. This will help researchers and teaching staff perform their core duties more efficiently. "At the same time, we also want our university to be one of the world’s best in terms of leadership culture and personnel development and to cement our position as one of the key drivers of Swiss innovation," he adds. Last but not least, Mesot is keen to lead a wide-ranging debate on the corporate culture at ETH.

The rETHink project has been gaining momentum in recent months. One of the changes that is most visible to the wider community is the expansion of the university’s Executive Board: Julia Dannath-Schuh was appointed as the new Vice President for Personnel Development and Leadership on 1 November, and Vanessa Wood will be taking up her post as the new Vice President for Knowledge Transfer and Corporate Relations on 1 January 2021. This will consolidate and expand existing expertise in these two areas of responsibility.

rETHink takes shape

But rETHink is increasingly taking shape within the university, too. In the autumn of 2020, over 130 members of ETH drawn from all the university’s different groups - employees, students, and teaching staff of all levels - assembled in various focus groups to discuss fundamental issues concerning professorships. The participants debated the duties of a professorship, new duties stemming from increased expectations, and related questions concerning the use of resources. They also discussed the importance of autonomy for professorships and examined issues of leadership and supervision as well as numerous other aspects such as cooperation within academic departments and with administrative units.

The results of the focus groups are now being evaluated and compiled to reveal possible measures that could be incorporated in the ongoing discussion. Building on these results, further groups will discuss what consequences this should have for ETH structures - in other words, how it should affect the organisation and responsibilities of the institutes, academic departments and central administrative units.

In parallel, the ETH President and the Rector have launched a wide-ranging discussion on the university’s values. This is based on the five values that were defined by the Strategy Commission for the Strategy and Development Plan 2021-2024: responsibility, openness, diversity, team spirit and excellence. Does ETH already live up to these values? How are they put into practice on a day-to-day basis? And are there any other values that are essential for good collaboration? Following initial discussions in the workshops, ETH launched a blog that invited all members of ETH to respond to these questions. Based on this feedback, the discussion of values will now be systematically rolled out on a university-wide basis over the coming year. The goal is to promote wide-ranging reflections on the ETH culture.

"I’m absolutely delighted with the traction this project has gained, even with the huge additional burden that the coronavirus crisis has imposed on all the members of ETH," says Mesot, summing up the situation so far. As the discussion widens to encompass new topics and delves deeper into existing ones, the opportunities to participate will increase. This is where Mesot is hoping for the maximum involvement of ETH members. After that, a consolidation phase will lead rETHink into an ongoing process of discussion and review of the ETH organisation and culture - for example, in the form of annual workshops.

This text appeared in the 20/04 issue of the ETH magazine Globe

Roland Baumann