Author: Alexander.Menz

“Global Problems Can Only Be Solved in Global Networks.”

An Interview with RWTH Alumnus Prof. Dr. Joybrato Mukherjee, the New President of the German Academic Exchange Service – DAAD

About 45 minutes before the interview was scheduled to begin, I received an email from the DAAD Office in Bonn: “Professor Mukherjee is on his way, but he may be a little late.” This
message was not at all alarming. After all, it was a Friday afternoon with heavy traffic on the freeways between Bonn and Aachen, a little bit of normality, so to speak. But what’s normal in the year 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed people’s lives all around the world? In June 2019, Professor Dr. Joybrato Mukherjee, President of Justus Liebig University Giessen (JLU), was elected the new President of the DAAD. Since January 1, 2020, he has been at the helm of the world’s largest funding organization, which offers funding for around 145,000 students and scholars and operates 70 offices abroad.

Born in 1973, the son of Indian immigrants, in the city of Düren in the Rhineland, Joybrato Mukherjee completed his studies in biology and English at RWTH in the 1990s. He then pursued a doctorate and habilitation (post-doctoral lecturing qualification) at the University of Bonn. In 2003, Joybrato Mukherjee was offered the professorship of English Linguistics at JLU and in 2009, he even became president of the institution.

Alongside DAAD President Dr. Margret Wintermantel, the RWTH alumnus had already gained valuable experience as Vice-President of the DAAD since 2012. Now, in his very first year as President, he is facing great challenges with the coronavirus pandemic. The new DAAD President already expressed the special role of international relations in combating the global pandemic in a video message in the spring: “Global problems can only be solved in global networks.” It should also be noted that, in addition to his office at the DAAD, he is
also in charge of leading a university at this difficult time. In an interview with RWTH Alumni Magazine, Professor Joybrato talks about his personal experience in this unique year while also touching on his time spent studying in Aachen.

Professor Mukherjee, how did you personally experience the situation when the whole of Germany went into lockdown in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic?

For me, the weekend of February 29 and March 1 was when everything switched. I had recently returned from a delegation trip to Kenya and Sudan with the German President. It was still the old days, so to speak: people saying goodbye with handshakes and hugs. And on the following Monday, back at my university in Giessen, we abolished handshakes in a circular letter. The Hochschulpakt (University Pact) negotiations in Hesse also discussed this issue shortly afterwards: are we even allowed to shake hands now? On Wednesday, March 11, the Hochschulpakt was signed and two days later, the decisions from the round of the German Chancellor with the State Prime Ministers to initiate the first protective measures were announced.

I felt it was a big upheaval at the time. I didn’t expect the new social norms to take hold so quickly. You’ve got to get it straight: We don’t shake hands anymore, we don’t hug anymore. We have new standards of protection, like wearing masks, keeping your distance. We also behave very differently in the supermarket. This has all been adopted insanely fast. But it also shows that our society is quick to learn.

At the DAAD, our immediate focus was on crisis management. How do we take care of all the individuals we are funding around the world? Thousands of scholarship holders, students, and scholars who either came to Germany from abroad and were stranded, or our grantees throughout the world who had to be brought back to Germany – all of them had to be advised individually. Through all this crisis management in the first few weeks, you didn’t really think about the situation at all. It was only during April and May that we could look back in shock at how quickly the world had changed so drastically.

You just implied that the work of the DAAD has changed considerably as a result of the pandemic. What were the particular challenges in change management?

You have to distinguish between two phases at the DAAD: From mid-March, the focus was less on change management and more on crisis management. Thousands of scholars and our member universities asked: What are we going to do? Of course, this was also a challenge for us at the DAAD, since our 1,100 employees could no longer work as usual. Many started working from home, others we had to bring back to Germany from countries all over the world. So we were in a process of upheaval ourselves as an institution and had to look after our grantees and member universities at the same time. But everything that happened from May onwards is what you have already rightly called change management. We can already see that after the pandemic there will be no going back to the way things were in 2019. We have a whole series of questions we need to ask ourselves. After all, this concerns issues that were already on the agenda before. Coronavirus accelerated many discussions. We had already begun to ask ourselves, from an environmental policy perspective: How should mobility actually develop further? How can we organize exchanges without putting people on planes right away? How can we be involved in international networking without always having to travel? Coronavirus is also accelerating the whole question of digitization options. Who would have thought a year ago that we would now be working with so many digital and hybrid formats? And added to these questions – What is the mobility of the future? When do we need mobility? When do we use digital options? Which hybrid formats can we consider? How can we allow people to have intercultural experiences without going against our sustainability standards? The pandemic not only accelerated the discussion, but also provided us with an opportunity. We are now forced to address these issues.

The German and state governments are facing a dilemma in developing strategies to prevent further coronavirus infections. On the one hand, it is important to protect the nation’s health, on the other hand, citizens’ democratic rights and individual freedoms must be upheld too. Do you see a way out of this?

I don’t know if it necessarily has to be perceived as a dilemma. Protecting citizens’ health is, of course, a high priority. I don’t think the government in our country is making such a narrow argument at all either. At the time of the initial lockdown measures, the aim was to ensure that our health care system was not beyond capacity. I am also saying this as President of a university with a medical school and an affiliated university hospital. When conditions in Giessen get out of control, the problems end up in the university hospital. It’s no different here in Aachen. So now, as we move into fall and winter, we need to think carefully: how can we keep the health care system from going beyond capacity? We learned a lot over the summer. But we must not play this off against democracy, against civil liberties. We have to keep thinking this through together, and I think that is also a great strength in our country. We have always weighed up matters carefully, we have been prepared to question situations and to learn. I recall the mask issue. We as scholars can also only say again and again: science also entails having doubts and this leads to insights. And this is just as true for politics. That is why we in Germany came through the crisis well in the summer. According to different studies, this was also perceived abroad. We Germans do not live in an authoritarian state, but rely on a free society in which most people – unfortunately not all, but most – go along with the rules. We will now rely on this willingness for the fall and winter. We need to explain the situation over and over again so that people will cooperate out of their own conviction. That’s our system. In her coronavirus speech held in the spring, the Chancellor already spoke about our system being based on two things – shared knowledge and participation in her coronavirus speech. And that’s something we scholars need to champion as well. Shared knowledge is important – which is why virologist Prof. Christian Drosten also receives awards for excellent scientific communication, and rightly so. And to get through the pandemic, we need the participation of more than 80 million residents of our country.

You mentioned the word “insight”. Many people are denying the dangers of the coronavirus and many are denying the existence of climate change despite all the scientific evidence. As a scholar, aren’t you a little worried about this?

I don’t think we should take action from a worried state of mind. As I was saying: We live in a free society. It is absolutely legitimate to have a different opinion, to have doubts, to criticize things that don’t suit you. At its core, our state thrives on a large majority following rational arguments. There will always be a minority who are fundamentally opposed to this. Then it is necessary to react with certain government measures. In principle, however, our system cannot function exclusively with repression. That is not our way.

Of course, I am saddened to see that many still doubt that climate change exists, that some people still believe that the concept of the Anthropocene is a fantasy, that others still believe that Bill Gates created the coronavirus. You can worry about this indeed, if you like. But that is not, I think, what we should be focusing on. We should look to the majority of society. I am firmly convinced that the vast majority of the population will cooperate. It is important to strengthen this majority and not to narrow the discussion to the statements of a few loud voices.

As an English scholar who is certainly closely connected to the UK not only through language, you must also be looking rather anxiously across the channel in view of Brexit. EU representatives are now also threatening “better no deal than a bad deal”. How do you see this development?

On this matter, I would first like to concentrate on my connection via my profession as DAAD President, which focuses on science policy. Other aspects, of course, come to the fore – trade policy, economic policy, Northern Ireland. For us at the DAAD, it is important not to forget scientific cooperation. That’s my top priority. And there’s one thing you have to keep in mind: Brexit is a loss for us too. We Germans are losing a very important partner country in the EU. British universities are extremely respected and popular. In the figures for the current winter semester, we are now seeing that British universities are not suffering from a slump in international students after Brexit, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. UK universities are among the best performing higher education institutions in the world. And we will lose these high-performing partners if, for example, we fail to keep them in the ERASMUS program. I say this also because the DAAD is the national ERASMUS agency for Germany. For our German students, the UK is the second most popular destination after Spain. This means that Brexit is an issue for us too. That’s why it’s in all our best interest to come to an agreement. And, of course, it would be great if academic relations were taken into account in the process.

As DAAD President, do you have some connection to Brussels and could have an influence on this matter?

Not directly, but the DAAD is in the alliance of the ten most important German educational organizations, which are in constant exchange with the German Government. Together with the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Max Planck Society, the Leibniz Association, and other organizations, we advise the German Government on science policy issues. The DAAD also has a branch office in Brussels and directly represents our interests there. However, this does not mean that we can say this is the way things have to be done, rather we offer our expertise on certain issues. One example: shortly after the Brexit referendum, the relevant committee in the House of Commons had a hearing on science policy issues in 2017. My predecessor as DAAD President, Professor Wintermantel, was invited to attend. The hearing addressed important questions about scientific exchange outside the UK. And Professor Wintermantel clearly emphasized the importance of ensuring these exchanges could continue. Let’s be clear, though: science policy issues are unfortunately not the linchpin of the negotiations.

When you took office as President of Justus Liebig University Giessen in 2009, you were the youngest university president in Germany. What prompted you to take this step from teaching and research into top university management?

It wasn’t THE big move at the time because I was already first vice-president. Basically, you have to put it into perspective with age as well. I had already been working as a professor in Giessen for a number of years and had also been involved in academic self-administration – in the Dean’s Office, the Senate, and the Presidium. But all this was not part of my plans at all. When I came to Giessen, I had not planned to run for the Senate and then head one of the professor lists there. It just worked out that way. I had no plans to run for president either. My predecessor at JLU, Stefan Hormuth, who sadly passed away far too early, and who, by the way, was also DAAD President at the time, had decided not to run for a third term. None of us expected that. The decision to run for office in Giessen was based on very specific reasons: I am extremely grateful to this university. As you pointed out: I was the youngest university president in Germany, which also had something to do with the fact that I became a professor very young. The Department of English in JLU has been a very high-performing one for many years, perhaps on a par with the University of Freiburg, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and Freie Universität Berlin – according to the Science Council and evaluations by other organizations. I was offered the position there at the young age of 29. Great trust was placed in me from the beginning, so I have always felt a certain sense of obligation. And when I joined in 2009 I was greatly supported. I was then elected by a large majority in the first ballot. That was the final proof that my decision to run was certainly not wrong.

It is not only universities that engage in alumni work. The DAAD is also strongly connected to its former scholarship holders. In your opinion, what is the value of alumni relations?

Well, to put in plainly: this is the real mission of the DAAD. We award scholarships, we support projects, we advise our member universities, we do many things. But at its core, the DAAD’s mission is to create “friends” of Germany, to have people in the world and people in Germany who have gained intercultural experience, but also to have people in the world who feel connected to Germany because they have been sponsored by the country. Here’s a special story from my trip to Africa with German President Steinmeier just before the coronavirus pandemic. When you are in Kenya and see that several members of Kenyatta’s cabinet and the Deputy President of Kenya are DAAD alumni, you see this same Deputy President approaching you before the state banquet, thanking you in front of everyone because he was sponsored by the DAAD in the early 1990s, and he mentions this again and again in every speech during the three-day state visit, it shows what an impact the DAAD has. These are leaders who feel connected to us. That is our real mission. I could give many other examples. Creating alumni, so to speak. is actually the most important thing we do at the DAAD. This is a network of friends in the world who perhaps approach things with the same cooperative and international spirit as we try to do in Germany.

As an RWTH alumnus, what can you still remember from your student days in Aachen?

Of course, my studies here were a very formative time. I come from Düren, a city nearby, and studied in Aachen together with my wife – we were not married at the time. She studied biology and I pursued a teaching training degree in biology and English. Back then, I got to know Aachen very well because I was constantly commuting back and forth between the central area around Templergraben and the new buildings on Campus Melaten, i.e. English here in the center and biology out at Melaten. In biology, you also conduct your first identification exercises, which involves field trips to the neighboring countries. This gave me a great opportunity to get to know the area. And as I sit here, looking out from SuperC at Kármán Auditorium, many memories come flooding back. I also mentioned this at the DAAD scholarship holders’ meeting that we held here last year. That was a special moment for me in the Aula of the Main Building next door. Because that’s where Orientation Week began in my first semester in mid-October 1992. Coming back after so many years in a completely different capacity, you remember such times fondly. Yes, RWTH gave me a lot. And I thought Aachen was a great city, especially because it was so international. The city, of course, borders two countries. Aachen is an international city and I think it’s no coincidence that I ended up at the DAAD with this background.

That’s a wonderful note for us to finish on. Thank you so much for your time, Professor Mukherjee.

This interview has been published in RWTH Alumni Magazine “keep in touch” No 69/70, Winter Semester 2020/21

#IndoGermanForum

Join us on March 16 – 17 at the #IndoGermanForum on ‘Cities and Climate’ organised by DWIH New Delhi. By 2050, urban population will increase by 2 billion people and about 68% of the world population will be living in cities. 8 panel sessions present how research can promote #sustainable urbanisation and minimise the impact of cities on #climatechange. Next to that, you can visit the virtual fair and network with a number of international institutions and stakeholders.

Register: https://lnkd.in/dYY-DXN

https://www.dwih-newdelhi.org/en/event/indo-german-forum-cities-and-climate/

IGCS Summer School on Sustainable Smart Cities: Focus on Urban Mobility

Srinivasan KG

– Digital event, October 05-16, 2020

Source: Srinivasan Kg
Source: Srinivasan Kg
Source: Srinivasan Kg

IGCS Summer School on “Sustainable Smart Cities: Focus on Urban Mobility” was hosted by RWTH Aachen University, Germany. Applying for the event, I was eagerly waiting to attend the school in-person in Germany. I was interested in learning more about the different aspects of urban mobility in smart cities as my PhD research topic on “hybrid vehicles for smart cities” is dealing with a similar issue. I had a few questions before attending the summer school:

  • What are the factors influencing the acceptance and implementation of smart and sustainable mobility?
  • What would be the role of smart and green transport in sustainable cities?
  • What would be the environmental impacts of mobility?
  • What would be the future of mobility?

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we received an e-mail from the host informing the change of school from in-person to a completely online mode and inquiring about my willingness to attend the school. I was eager to participate in the school anyway as the topic was interesting and relevant for my field of study. We then got an e-mail from the host institution well in advance regarding the start and details of the online summer school. Afterwards, I received a confirmation of participation and the schedule of the school.

It was my first experience of attending this kind of workshop online. After being selected to participate in IGCS’ first-ever digital Summer School, I attended online lectures, engaged in panel discussions and worked in a group project in an international environment. All the school activities were conducted in the online platform Zoom, and online Moodle was used to interact with the lecturers and participants from different countries.

In the end, we all had to present our findings from the group project. There were five groups, each containing six members. Each group were presenting on a topic on the last day of Summer School. Teams for the workgroup were well distributed; members of the group were from both Indian and from German institutes and from various field of expertise. Our group topic for the project was well constructed by the host team. I was afraid that my internet connection would not hold. Still, everything was fine on the day, and our group successfully completed our presentation. Our presentation was on the topic “Environmental Impacts on Mobility”, and we mainly focused on: 

  • Evolution and challenges of different modes of transportation
  • Share of transport on the total emissions of greenhouse gases
  • Environmental impacts due to dominant/conventional modes of transportation
  • Health impacts due to predominant/conventional modes of transportation
  • Environmental and Health impacts due to alternate/future means of transportation
  • Analyzing the convenience of the alternative means of transport in the contexts of developed and developing countries

After completing the school, I got many of my questions answered, and there are major inputs that I have taken away from the school for my research:

  • I have learnt more about the environmental aspects of mobility
  • Recent trends and advancements in the automobile industry (Ford) towards sustainable mobility
  • Working on our project group with friends from different disciplines increased my understanding of different aspects of engineering as well as environmental, geographical and sociological topics
  • With other projects, I have learned more about the public-private partnership in the mobility sector

The entire summer school was well organized, and fortunately, there were no problems with internet connectivity in my case. During the online summer school, I liked all the activities. In particular, I was mostly involved in our workgroups as it helped my research, and I got valuable inputs from my team members. The weekend activity task was very interesting, and it was a great opportunity to explore my personal mobility and priorities.

I networked with participants and professors in this online school too. I became friends with many of the participants, even though we only met online. Next to that, I got much help and guidance from our group mentor Dr Daniel Rosado related to environmental aspects on mobility.

I would recommend the following suggestions for the participants who are applying for the upcoming (online) Summer- and Winter Schools

  • Be excited to work with interdisciplinary workgroups
  • You will attend lectures from top universities in Germany, IIT Madras and leading global Industry professionals
  • Have a stable online connection and a web camera (for online schools)

IGCS Testimonial Winter School 2020

My journey from being a Graduate in Electronics & Communication Engineer to joining for M-Tech in Renewable engineering was nothing short of an adventurous ride. However, over the past months at my University at Gandhigram Rural Institute, I realized that to achieve my dream, I should first be capable of embracing different cultures. This would enable me to learn the different ways I could approach things in life that were outside my comfort zone. Hence, this decision to mingle with people from different walks of life, people born and brought up in a different culture, and who spoke other languages from that of mine, pushed me to apply to the IGCS school programs.

I still remember that day; it was a late night at the end of January. I received my invitation letter from IGCS to participate in their Winter School 2020. I was super excited. From being a girl from a remote agricultural village in Kerala, who had hardly travelled out of state, let alone mingled with people from a different culture and language, now I was going to be a part of an international level program.

I started wondering about how this experience would be. Would my language skills be sufficient to interact with the other participants? Would I be able to communicate with the team? All excitement changed in an instant. The reasons that made me apply for this School stood up straight against me and I started to question my calibre. I was so confused and questioning myself: “Shall I accept this or not?” That was an endless night with circling thoughts. I tried to calm myself: “If I miss this chance, I will never get an opportunity like this”. I tried to be strong thinking: “Whatever happens, I’m going to be a part of the Winter School.” I accepted the offer to be a part of IGCS Winter School 2020, and then, I did it again and participated in the Summer School 2020 too.

The 15 days of Winter and Summer school made a substantial positive impact on me. All my previous fears were wrong. The IGCS team was very supportive, and they were frequently in contact, and they are always ready to help and always willing to listen.

I am sure that apart from being a platform to develop myself as a person, the IGCS Winter School Program also helped me a lot as an aspiring engineer. It is with extreme happiness; I say that I was not mistaken. In particular, I must say that the 15 days I spent at IIT Madras for the IGCS Winter School program 2020 brought about many changes in me both as a person and as an aspiring engineer. From language to culture, it was all diverse there, and that helped me a lot in coming out from the cocoon I had surrounded myself in. The unending discussions I had with students from Germany and the different states of India helped me understand how the differences in culture influence how we see and approach things. That strengthened my belief that as an aspiring engineer with an ambition of working in the rural sector, I should embrace these differences and try to incorporate different perspectives into my work.

The interaction I had with students and officials from Germany gave me a glance at how Germany is leading the way in Renewable Energy. The Winter School on “Sustainability in the Peri-cene: Human settlements, Food, Ecology and Governance” was instrumental for me to explore and learn about various scientific and technological solutions and contribute ideas to the issue of sustainable management of the environment and governance structures in the peri-cene. The peri-urban interface creates different kinds of problems and challenges regarding the broader consensus of environmental sustainability, regions at the edge of peri-urban areas are continually changing and expanding. The presentations and group projects gave me a good overview of the peri-urban interface. It creates various problems and challenges regarding the broader consensus of environmental sustainability and the human settlements on the Chennai greater corporation (GCC). The most exciting and challenging task was project work. My group consists of five members coming from different disciples that made our project group very interdisciplinary and exciting.

The participants’ food and accommodation, which had been taken care of by IGCS coordinators, was delicious and well planned. The coordinators were always ready to help the participants. I believe that the boundaries of countries are never going to separate people’s views and ideas but in fact, people from different geographies and backgrounds can learn from each other. Here, IGCS is an excellent platform for every student to improve their ability to exchange ideas. This platform allows every student to speak and express himself or herself without fear. For me, the 15 days of Winter School were an unforgettable experience where I met new people that became good friends. Now, I can proudly say that I am also a part of the IGCS family. I strongly suggest IGCS schools to everyone because it positively influenced my personal and academic development.

4th Indo-German Dialogue on Green Urban Practices

26 & 27 Nov + 3 & 4 Dec 2020 Online event

Well-being & the Good Life – The Human Being in Sustainability Transformations

This event is the 4th iteration of the Indo-German Dialogue on Green Urban Practices series (IGD). It is conceived as a continuous series of an annual interaction of academics, civil society activists, government officials, policy makers, and the corporate sector where appropriate. Its key objective is to provide a platform of sharing and exchange of experiences of social urban innovative change in Germany/Europe and India in order to leverage action towards new transdisciplinary research and practice projects.

Some key questions that will be addressed:

  1. What are our underpinning principles, values, worldviews, beliefs, ethical-moral guidelines that inform the work we do?
  2. What are our personal and collective inner resources, capacities and skills that we apply or intend to utilise in our activities?
  3. What kind of methodical techniques and practices can be used to support personal and collective inner transformation?
  4. How can these inner resources, etc. be honed, grow and developed further to leverage sustainable urban futures?
  5. How can we perform awareness based social action research?

Approach and Methods of Interaction:

In the past, the format of the IGDs has been participatory and interactive, with the programme being co-designed and conducted by the delegates. We will retain this approach for the digital event as well as far as possible by deploying an array of tested methods in online interaction. For example:

  • Expert talks
  • Digital field visits
  • Group work
  • Sharing and discussions
  • Exchange and practice of methods of inner work

Contact:

Dr. Christoph Woiwode christoph.woiwode@geo.rwth-aachen.de

Prof. Dr. Petra Schweizer-Ries Petra.Schweizer-Ries@hs-bochum.de

Tanja Cimador Tanja.Cimador@hs-bochum.de