Halls of Ivy May Receive Miracle-Gro in Germany

May 9, 2004


HEIDELBERG, Germany - No doubt Max Weber, the founder of modern sociology, walked along the leafy Philosopher's Way above the Neckar River here in Heidelberg, home of the university that is Germany's oldest and one of its most renowned. The philosopher Hegel, 100 years before, probably strode the path as well, maybe thinking about the ruse of history.

Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher and coiner of the term "the banality of evil," studied here, and Rupert Wilhelm Bunsen, inventor of the burner still used in chemistry labs, was a member of the faculty. So were seven winners of Nobel Prizes in Physics, Medicine or Chemistry.

It would not be right to say the Ruprecht-Karl-Universit‰t Heidelberg, to give the place its full name, has lost its luster. More than 26,000 students study here, in a town of narrow streets, slate-roofed steeples and a vast library with a collection of medieval manuscripts that practically reeks of Germany's tradition for academic excellence.

But there is also a recognition that Heidelberg University, founded in 1386, is not as great as it used to be, and that illustrates a problem becoming more and more widely acknowledged in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Over the last few decades, on the higher rungs of higher education, the United States has been outpacing pretty much everybody, especially in science and technology.

While some American scientists worry that the United States may be losing some of its edge, there is a recognition here that something basic has to change if Europe is to regain the luster it lost some time ago.

"It is definitely the case that we have not kept up the reputation we had in the past," said Peter Hommelhof, Heidelberg's rector. He quickly added that Heidelberg did a good job of educating its students, despite classes that are too big and financing that is too low, and that it had had major successes in the sciences, medicine and law, three of its strongest areas.

Still, there are many signs that at the very elite level, the international upper crust, Heidelberg, like the rest of Germany, has fallen behind.

In recognition of that problem, Chancellor Gerhard Schrˆder and the education ministers of the 16 German states have announced a plan to form a group of what are being called elite universities (and elite departments at other colleges) with about $300 million from the German government, starting in 2006.

"It is our common goal to raise the performance of German universities and research to an international top level in the next few years," said the federal education minister, Edelgard Bulmahn, acknowledging that in fact, they are not at the international top level at the moment.

In other countries such a proposal might seem like either a good idea or an inadequate one, but the principle of it would not shake the foundations of the culture. In Germany, where an egalitarian ideal has an almost theological status, the very idea of an elite has a subversive tinge.

"This became especially predominant in university policy in the 1970's, based on Supreme Court decisions that meant there was a development toward mass universities," Mr. Hommelhof said, speaking of the egalitarian ideal.

In 1972, the German courts ruled that any graduate of a gymnasium, the more academically oriented part of the German high-school system, had a right to a university education entirely paid for by the state. At Heidelberg this led to a jump in enrollment, from fewer than 10,000 students to more than 30,000, before it settled to its current level. "The whole notion of an elite was practically taboo," Mr. Hommelhof said.

Not everybody is happy with the idea of elite institutions, in large part because the government's proposal would involve not just money but, in the sharpest departure from the egalitarian ideal, also a much higher degree of selection of some students over others.

That idea has produced a few scattered demonstrations and placards like the one declaring, "Elite for Everybody." But there is little of the continuing, vociferous opposition that other changes, like cutbacks in pensions or medical benefits, have provoked, probably because of a dawning realization that the country has, academically speaking, been living on its past glories.

Germany's production of Nobel laureates is often cited as evidence of the decline at the upper echelons of the system. In the first third of the 20th century, Germany produced 25 Nobel winners in chemistry and physics alone, the most in the world. Between 1984 and 2003, the Americans won 10 times as many Nobel Prizes as did the Germans.

Then there is the annual ranking of universities by the Center for Science and Technology Studies in Switzerland: in 2003, not a single German university was named among the top 50 of the 575 universities studied by the center. Heidelberg came in at No. 71.

"When you have language courses with 40 people, you don't open your mouth," said Lars Scheithauer, an undergraduate in political science, voicing a common complaint at Heidelberg: too many students and not enough teachers.

Kirsten Heike Pistel, a graduate student specializing in medieval Latin, said, "You have students who took their second-year exams and who never talked to a professor."

There are complaints that efforts to improve teaching, for example, by publishing student ratings of professors have been vigorously opposed by the university staff. That has led to some black humor on campus:

Question: What can a professor do without having serious consequences?

Answer: Burn himself alive during his lecture.

"It's a matter of money and research support," said Jurgen Wolfrum, a professor of physical chemistry and one of Heidelberg's most celebrated science faculty members, speaking of the reason the university has fallen behind other great universities in the sciences.

Mr. Wolfrum, whose students included Wolfgang Ketterie, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001, said Heidelberg was full of very good students and professors. But, he said, the sciences are hemmed in by too much bureaucracy, too many controls, too frequent evaluations that produce no change ("It's the bureaucracy entertaining itself," he said) and not enough sustained financing of projects.

"To be in the top, you have to be continuously supported, and I must say that my colleagues in the U.S. have a big advantage there," he said. "If you're at the top, you have much more freedom to go into new areas. Here it's very hard to start new ideas and to get support for new ideas."

But Mr. Wolfrum and others, including Mr. Hommelhof, agree that another element in the picture was a dilution of the old German culture of discipline and hard work. The dilution was a perverse byproduct, they say, of the country's extensive welfare system, its idealization of the 35-hour workweek and its collective yearning to work until 60 and then retire to the Costa del Sol.

"Most people in Germany have forgotten the classical tradition that it's hard work to be good," Mr. Wolfrum said.