Handover with a shared vision

An interview with TUM president Thomas F. Hofmann and president emeritus Wolfgang A. Herrmann

After 24 years as the President of the Technical University of Munich, Wolfgang A. Herrmann hands over his office to Thomas F. Hofmann. The renowned food and organic chemist was Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation at TUM for ten years. For more than a decade, the two TUM Alumni have been working together on the vision of making TUM one of the best universities in the world. In an interview they talk about how they got to know each other, what challenges the presidency presents and why TUM means so much to them personally.

Professor Herrmann, in 1995 you became President of TUM. In the same year, Professor Hofmann completed his doctorate at TUM. Do you still remember your first meeting?

Wolfgang A. Herrmann (WH): Is that how it was? Really? Was it that long ago? (laughs)

Thomas F. Hofmann (TH): Oh, yes! While I was doing my doctorate, you were still Dean of Chemistry, the department I was at back then.

WH We are both chemists but the faculty was already very large at that time. I can’t remember running into you. Besides, us people from Inorganic Chemistry rarely dealt with food chemists (laughs). But I was involved in the appointment of Professor Peter Schieberle, Thomas’ doctoral advisor. Food Chemistry at TUM has always been a very strong discipline, which means that he comes from a very good school, without question. But it wasn’t until later that I really noticed him. I heard that there was a very young professor in Münster who did his doctorate with us and now wants to follow a call to the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich.

And that prompted your ambition to win over Professor Hofmann?

WH I did some more research on him, where he came from, what he’s done so far. Then I found out that he has family roots in Freising and I really wanted to give it a try. I said: on the way from Münster to Zurich we’ll catch this migratory bird in Munich. And that’s what we did. He got a very attractive offer and fantastic prospects for development. And so without further ado we won him over, a great stroke of luck. And after only two years he became Vice President.

Professor Hofmann, at that time you had almost already signed with the ETH Zurich. Why did you end up at TUM in spite of that?

TH When I got the call from Munich, I was actually surprised. At that time, Food Chemistry had a chair here, but it was filled. And I had indeed already negotiated with ETH and was about to sign there. So I just cut my vacation short and went to Munich. It turned out that TUM’s offer was great. Professor Herrmann also presented me with a remarkable development concept for Food Chemistry at TUM. He set up a new chair for me in no time at all, but what impressed me most was the outstanding line-up of potential cooperation partners in Munich. I liked that a lot and this was better than at ETH.

WH We had already begun to thoroughly reform the entire field of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the beginning of my presidency – initially against massive resistance. I wanted to turn the Weihenstephan faculties into a centre that deals with the question of how we can and want to feed mankind in the future. So we united the Nutritional Sciences, the Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Weihenstephan and also integrated physicians and engineers by adding Nutritional Medicine and Food Technology. Biology was relocated to Weihenstephan and strengthened. This was quite a drastic move, but very successful. Soon it was also apparent from the outside that things were on the right track here. Is there anything that makes a university more attractive than opportunities for development that extend the traditional subjects? This has become one of TUM’s major strengths.

What do you mean, exactly?

WH For the professors who come to work with us, it is usually not about whether they will get one or two additional assistant positions. This may have been the case in the past but is now old hat. A university has to be able to evolve, because the good people will find the money anyway. Third-party funding is available in abundance everywhere.

TH And what good is it if you are the greatest in your own right, but you don’t have a partner to exchange ideas on your scientific level with? And this is what it comes down to if you want to overcome the limits of knowledge and strategically develop the university.

WH That’s exactly it.

TH And that goes for all professorships. Outstanding scientists usually change their research focuses and working methods or expand them through effective cooperation with other disciplines. Those who are not that flexible will eventually end up on the holding track. On the other hand, curiosity, mental flexibility and the ability to learn are essential elements of any real breakthrough. This is why the cooperative environment and infrastructure of a university are so important.

WH And you can only be successful in the long term if you have your own line of research, if you leave your signature on a field of research. As a creative scientist this also ensures that you remain interesting for business and industry. If you allow the industry to abuse you as an extended workbench, you will soon lose all value.

Professor Hofmann, this dynamic at TUM is what attracted you in particular. In Münster, did you hear anything at all about the new president in Munich?

TH I already noticed him when I was still at TUM and did my habilitation.

WH Really?

TH Yeah, you were already pretty busy back then (laughs). I can still remember the inaugural speech during which you proclaimed your motivation and your great ambitions. I was very impressed.

WH And as the president, I made myself unpopular straight away when I initiated the changes in Weihenstephan (laughs).

TH At that time I was still at the Chemistry department in Garching, we didn’t feel much of Weihenstephan there. But the motto ‘At home in Bavaria, successful in the world’ hung over the doors of the faculty, where you had previously been dean. So I thought to myself: the president is a pretty cool guy. Really, I liked that. But when I came to Münster as a young professor at the age of 32, I unfortunately found an example for the opposite.

How was Münster compared to TUM?

TH The Faculty of Chemistry in Münster was an impressive faculty, scientifically strong, great colleagues who were very committed to Chemistry. But overall, the University of Münster was marked by a certain lethargy. There was no strategy for university development, hardly any new approaches to overcoming the hurdles of German academia, and there were no international benchmarks either. I was the first person there to carry out a research project with a US company in 2002. At that time, the university didn’t even have an English-language contract – I wrote the first one for the university myself. In a direct comparison with TUM, Münster was not active enough, not empowered enough, without any incentive to make the university fit for the future. In contrast, TUM developed quite differently. And that’s how it has to be if you want to reach the top!

On the 30th of September you, Professor Herrmann, handed over the presidency to Professor Hofmann. Do you remember when you were appointed yourself?

WH Yes, of course. We went to the ministry – my whole family and I. It was already a big family back then. My mother was also there, so we were quite a lot of people. We waited outside the office of the then Minister of Science Hans Zehetmair. Suddenly the door opens a crack and Zehetmair looks out, then he quickly shuts the door again. Later on his secretary told him that we were waiting. It turned out he thought we were the Russian delegation announced for 2 pm because we were so many people (laughs).

Why was it important to you to bring your whole family for the occasion?

WH As the president, the entire family is involved in this office. The children were sometimes teased at school with the fact that I had been called a ‘nuclear nut’ when I got the research reactor for Garching off the ground. One time a paparazzo was out on the street and took photos of our house. These are the not-so-funny dark sides of the job, and you have to bear them together.

TH I can only second that. I have two great children and an amazing wife without whom I would have never got this far. Fortunately, I have always had the support from home. Only a fool makes such a decision, running for president, without his family. Because this job infiltrates all areas of life.

WH It is a unique challenge, but also the most wonderful task in the world.

What is your main motivation, Professor Hofmann? Why do you want to be President of TUM?

TH In the course of the past ten years as Vice President, I have seen how incredibly well this university has developed. Today we are in a place that allows us to play in an international league. I travel a lot. Many of the world’s top universities are transforming at an enormous rate. Only if we don’t rest and constantly measure ourselves against the world will German Academia continue to be attractive for our students and partners. We can’t take a break, but have to keep checking every day where our chances for development and future opportunities are located, and we have to take measures to align the university accordingly in terms of content and structure. Lovers of the status quo will be relegated tomorrow. That is why it is so important to me, as the new president, to lead TUM courageously and sustainably to new heights and to make us deserve the responsibility for education and innovation the university carries in the midst of a modern society.

What was it like for you back then, Professor Herrmann?

WH I actually didn’t really want the job (laughs). I was happy where I was: a successful chemist, content in my field. I surely would have had a much easier time if I had stayed where I was.

And why did you become president after all?

WH As a dean, I was a member of the University Senate. I witnessed appointment processes, which were beneath contempt. Interdisciplinarity, internationality and competitive power played no role at all. That was, let’s say, a gathering of fussiness, and as a young professor this annoyed me. I often harshly criticised them, and together with students and assistants we gained the majority and also overturned the shortlist of candidates. When that was done, I vowed to leave this inefficient form of ‘university self-administration’ to others.

TH Whoa, are you serious?

WH Yes. But at some point more and more people approached me. They said that if you criticise that much, you have to also face your own duty. And that’s what I did after some hesitation. Actually it was facing-ones-own-duty for the sake of a better university. I have realised that just words are not enough. But I also promised myself: four years and not a day longer, then my duty is done.

It’s been 24 years.

WH Once I was in office, reforms were launched, driven by the then Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, who relied entirely on me. But this was not met with approval. Straight from the beginning I faced a lot of blowback. Many people probably thought: “This young president has yet to learn how things work around here.” They wanted to sit it out. But we didn’t give up and had strong political support. We were the ones who had good ideas. With our campus in Garching, for example, we set a structural policy in motion that right now, with a different motivation, allows us to again set off for new shores. TUM is experiencing a boom right now, and in Garching we have the spatial opportunities for development we now need. We have become an entrepreneurial university, and that was my goal from the very beginning on.

What does the presidency mean to you?

WH It definitively is not the most important thing. You know, the creative, skilled man at the lathe in one of our workshops is just as important as the professor. It is the diversity of talents that defines TUM. And that’s why I always wanted to make sure this diversity is being promoted. But not with the cheap scattergun approach, but according to talent. The success of TUM is not based on the president, but on a large motivated community.

And to you, Professor Hofmann?

TH In the last 24 years, TUM has seen great and far-reaching reforms. I have experienced some of them myself and have played an active role in shaping them. But our potential has not yet been exhausted, especially since we are constantly facing new challenges. I am proud that I can now make an even bigger contribution to improving TUM further. We want to place TUM more firmly in the centre of society and become a global leader.

Is there a moment from your presidency, Professor Herrmann, that you would like to put a frame around?

WH Oh well, there are so many. For example when we opened our TUM branch campus in Singapore in 2002. I stood in front of the building of the National University of Singapore, which has a wonderful driveway, with the Chain of Office around my neck as the president of a German university. The high-ranking guests drove up, and eight ambassadors were there – eight! They came to our opening. This gives you the feeling that you’ve done something right, even though according to the German mindset what we started there seemed pretty crazy.

How so?

WH The Ministry here lost it. They said there was no way, and that, after all, I was responsible for Munich. But we created our own legal arrangement for TUM Asia, which made it possible. It was a wonderful experience: to be in Singapore wearing my Bavarian Chain of Office, as a Bavarian lion.

Any other memories?

WH Of course also certain encounters with benefactors, for example with Klaus Tschira – God rest his soul. He gave us millions so that we could renovate the clock tower of TUM and transform it into a prestigious centre. After all, the tower is the symbol of TUM. Unfortunately it had fallen apart over decades. Just in time for our 150th founding anniversary last year, the tower was revealed in its new splendour. Personally I was very pleased about that.

Speaking of splendour: in July, TUM was selected as a University of Excellence for the third time in a row. What significance does this title have?

WH The award is the result of consistent reform work over several decades. It is the work of the entire university community, and that makes me happy. This third Excellence Initiative has once again shown that performance does not divide people, it unites them.

TH Yes, and it was precisely this joint effort by students, academics, the scientific support staff, the emeritus professors, alumni, partners, founders and friends that more than convinced the panel of experts during the formal presentation of our concept for the future. Now it is time to deliver – as a community.

WH I think overall we have presented a concept that is unique in the German university landscape. And not to forget: the Excellence Initiative upgrades certificates with a TUM stamp even more and makes them more valuable for each graduate going out of here and into professional life. They take along this seal of approval – the ‘TUM Brand’ – no matter what contribution they have made, it is their university.

Just like how it is yours and Professor Hofmann’s. You are both TUM Alumni. How important is an international and interdisciplinary alumni network for TUM? And why?

TH Their variety of talents, expertise, experience and cosmopolitan mindsets makes our 81,000 alumni valuable global citizens and brand ambassadors around the world. This is why we have started early to build a lively alumni network. And building it does not mean gathering dusty files on our students somewhere. Rather, it means that we maintain a committed mutual exchange with our alumni worldwide. Every year, 5,000 alumni, students and employees get together at our Advent Matinee concert and exchange ideas, refresh old friendships and form new ones. TUM cultivates a bond for life with its graduates, who in turn give back their experiences to TUM for the benefit of future generations.

And what can TUM still do for its alumni in the future?

TH Alumni who are successful in the long term remain students throughout their lives. Global labour markets are changing rapidly and are constantly placing new demands on employees and thus also on our alumni. As a modern and responsible university, it is our new mandate to bring our alumni back to their university again and again, to offer further training in order to keep them professionally competitive throughout their entire lives. In the future Lifelong Learning will effectively expand TUM’s profile.

Professor Herrmann, now that you are clearing out your office for your successor to move in, do you feel a little wistful?

WH No, not at all. And I will most probably find a nice spot at TUM close by. But I’m getting out of the way, that’s very important. Part of a successful person is a clean arrangement for the succession. Many people don’t manage to do that because they think there is no better person for the job. And that, of course, is nonsense. New challenges require new talents.

How will you keep in touch from now on?

TH That will be pretty undogmatic. Many imagine the exchange between the two of us to be more complicated than it really is. We talk on the phone or message, sometimes we have dinner together and exchange ideas. That’s good. Why shouldn’t we do that anymore?

WH It’s up to you how you want to do it, Thomas. You are the boss.