Patrick Aebischer: “Donors do not get any control over research”

Europe needs more top universities with American fervor, Patrick Aebischer thinks. Under his leadership the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) developed to become a university of world stature. He carried through an Anglo-Saxon research model, managed to attract the best students and researchers from all over the world and raked in a billion euros in donations. During the TU/e Foundation Day in April Aebischer will give away how he went about this.

Patrick Aebischer (62) has been awake for well over three hours when at 8.30 a.m. he picks up the telephone for the interview. The former chief administrative officer of the EPFL is blessed with a need of sleep of merely four to five hours per night. That enviable quality enabled him during his chairmanship to continue leading the Neurodegenerative Disease Laboratory, among other things. “That was really essential”, says the neuroscientist, “this way I could stay in touch with the real research work. Sometimes postdocs would come up to me and say, what have you done this time!?”

He must have heard that exclamation more often during his 17-year administrative stint. Within that period the number of students doubled to over ten thousand, the number of postdocs increased eightfold to 825 and the number of PhD candidates was almost tripled (2,077). Talented students and researchers come to Lausanne from all over the globe to try their luck at the top university. Still, this success did not come without a great deal of friction.

Initially Aebischer himself was not at all keen on the top position. He was 44, bubbling with energy, and loved his scientific work. The only reason why he accepted the position in the end was that he was given the explicit promise that he could carry through drastic reforms. Thus, a new research policy was drafted, modeled upon American universities.

“The problem in Europe is that you have big labs led by professors who are administrators rather than researchers”, he explains. “I wanted to have more smaller labs with younger people, more students, more PhD candidates and postdocs and another organization for the research.”

“We are the only European university with real tenure tracks”

At Brown University, where he had worked between 1984 and 1992, he had got quite enamored with the tenure tracks, the possibility for young researchers to prove within a set number of years how good they are. If they succeed in this, promotion awaits them. If not, they have to leave. “It is a performance-driven system”, says Aebischer. “The European system is based more on seniority and constructed like a pyramid. We wanted to know what happens when you introduce it in Europa.”

And so there came tenure tracks. Talented researchers are given the opportunity in Lausanne to conduct entirely independent research. They have the same rights as professors, are exempted from administrative obligations and hardly need to teach.

TU/e also has tenure tracks enabling talented young researchers to move up to the position of Associate Professor. Still, these are a little less rigid than the ‘achieve or leave’ variant favored by Aebischer. “Although more universities in Europe say that they have tenure tracks, we are the only one with a fully-fledged tenure track after the American model”, says Aebischer with pride. “You are thirty, eager and ambitious and you go for it. You don’t count the hours and focus on your research. After eight years you either get promoted, or you leave the institution. And your promotion does not depend on the question whether professor X is going to retire at long last.”

TU/e to celebrate its 61st anniversary

The 61st Foundation Day of the university will be celebrated in the Paterskerk in Eindhoven at 15.30 hours on Thursday 20 April. The theme of this Foundation Day is “Will the university make it to 2040?”. Various speakers will from their own point of view and expertise shed some light on future developments.

The speakers are:
-Rector Magnificus Bert van der Zwaan of Utrecht University
-Patrick Aebischer
-TU/e President Jan Mengelers
-Associate Professor in Physical Chemistry Ilja Voets (TU/e) will be giving a squint at the research conducted within her group. It is working among other things on self-organization in soft materials, which are adaptive materials that adjust to their environment.

At every Foundation Day celebration, an honorary doctorate is conferred on a scientist who has earned his/her spurs. This year Rector Magnificus Frank Baaijens will be conferring an honorary doctorate on professor Lars Arge from Aarhus University. He is a pioneer in the theory of I/O-efficient algorithms, which are crucial to analyze big data in an efficient manner.

Afterwards there will be a reception from 17.15 - 18.30 hours in Hotel Pullman Eindhoven Cocagne, Vestdijk 47, in Eindhoven.

It all starts with name recognition

Raising the bar high for the selection of research talent is possible only if there are enough gifted people eager to join the university. For this reason the EPFL adopted a wide range of measures to put itself on the map throughout the world. For one, the university invested in projects that attracted international attention and changed the university site into an extensive ‘city campus’, where researchers and students can go at all hours night and day.

Name recognition is also essential for the external fundraising: persuading private persons and bodies to donate money. Whereas external fundraising has been perfectly normal for many years in the USA, in Europe this is only getting started little by little now. During Aebischer’s administrative stint the EPFL managed to rake in a billion euros in such donations. For now TU/e, which has recently set up a department for external fundraising, can only dream of such amounts.

“People told me that this is impossible in Europe”, says Aebischer cheerfully, “but nobody had really tried it yet. Nowadays there are very rich people who are willing to donate when they feel that an institution is genuinely ambitious. We now have 45 sponsored chairs, but we are very strict to the donors: you are not getting any control over the research.”

In the middle of the campus is the Rolex Learning Center, named after the generous donor. Yet two-thirds of the donations received by the EPFL come from private persons many of whom are not aiming at any degree of visibility. “Often it is pure philanthropy”, says Aebischer.

The future of the EPFL is looking bright. The university possesses the American attraction which Aebischer dreamed of as a forty-year-old, the campus is generating new startups every week and just last year managed to raise 400 million euros in venture capital. What is the advice that Aebischer would want to give TU/e? “You should not be shy of branding your institution”, says Aebischer, “even though that may not be very “European”. Take on high-profile projects, build a campus that arouses public interest, develop MOOCs, recruit professors that come with their own visibility. In China or India people are all dreaming of going to Cambridge, or to Stanford or MIT. Europe does not have the same powerful brands. You have to build super brands in order to attract the best people.”

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