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Diversity and LMU

Differences are enriching

München, 03/21/2014

“We seek to attract the best, with their diverse talents and personalities.” LMU Vice President Barbara Conradt explains what diversity means at LMU: Equity and inclusion, family-friendly structures, equality of opportunity.

Diversity (mikiekwoods / Fotolia)
Source: mikiekwoods / Fotolia

Why is the LMU committed to fostering diversity?
Conradt: First of all, German society has become more heterogeneous over the last few decades, and this change should be reflected at LMU. The second point is that since we want to attract the best students, the best staff and the best faculty to the University, there can be no place for discrimination against individuals on grounds of sex or origin. If we are serious about giving those, who have the ability to study or work here, an opportunity, we must get rid of all such barriers.

So heterogeneity is now seen not just as an incidental feature of our society, but is increasingly recognized as being of value in itself?
Conradt: Exactly. Heterogeneity is an asset. We are not interested in making everyone conform to a single model. We want to nurture each individual’s special talents, helping each to succeed and so contributing to the success of the institution as a whole. When the word diversity is mentioned, many people still think it refers to aiding the less gifted to reach a higher level of achievement. But what we want to do is bring out the best in the most talented people, to open opportunities for them, no matter where their talents lie. Differences are enriching. It is no accident that LMU was an early signatory to the Charter of Diversity in 2011.

The Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft (a business association devoted to the promotion of education and innovation) has coined the motto “Ungleich besser” (“Unlikes Beat Alikes”).
Conradt: My background is in biology, which is full of examples of how diversity – more specifically biodiversity – can be advantageous in all sorts of ways. As the head of a research team, I can confirm that this holds for groups of people too. A team with diverse talents and temperaments can be much more creative and effective than one with a more homogeneous makeup – a monoculture, so to speak. Diversity is also a stabilizing factor. My group currently consists of 14 members, from 10 different countries. They come from different cultural backgrounds, have gone through different educational systems and complement one another marvelously. When such a group works well together, one can expect the best results. And that is an important advantage, especially in research.

In this context, would you agree that more must be done to persuade young women to study natural sciences?
Conradt: Of course. Nonetheless, a great deal has changed in recent years. Before I did my Abitur, I attended a briefing at a university because I wanted to study physics. I was the only girl there, and the experience scared me off the subject altogether. But that was 30 years ago. These days, women are no longer such rare birds in the hard sciences. And I think that’s the decisive difference. Now we have women who have made a career in their respective subjects, and can serve as role models. There is still a dearth of such role models in many subjects – that is something we have to work on.

And then comes the bottleneck.
Conradt: Yes, then the bottleneck comes. In Biology, some 60% of undergraduates and about half of the graduate students are women. But beyond the postdoc phase, the proportion of women drops below 20%. And fewer than 20% of LMU professors are women. It is certainly not necessary to enforce a 50% quota, but every woman with the ability and determination to do a good job should be given a fair chance. And we must design the infrastructure and support mechanisms that enable us to achieve that goal. With programs like LMUMentoring, the Dual Career Service, and its cooperation with the family services company “pme”, LMU is on the right track. We plan to extend these services in the future, so that everyone who wants to make use of them can do so.

Speaking of equal opportunity in education, what steps can universities take to increase the intake of students from migrant and underprivileged families, and thus help compensate for existing deficits in social and educational policy?
Conradt: This is primarily a matter for institutions other than the universities – in particular, the schools themselves. But universities do have a role to play at the interface between the secondary school and third-level education. Here, we can build on the range of information we already provide for secondary-school seniors via the Central Student Advisory Office – information that is very intensively used. There is room for improvement with respect to advisory services in the area of financial assistance and scholarships for students, and we need to extend schemes such as our Peer-to-Peer Mentoring programs for first-year students. Many Faculties also offer orientation courses, which allow secondary-school seniors to become acquainted with particular disciplines and courses. All of these measures can help to ease the critical transition from school to university, and to ensure that, ideally, all who are qualified to do so can attend university and successfully complete their studies. The same holds for physically or psychologically handicapped individuals or persons who suffer from chronic illnesses, many of whom may not even consider going to university because they assume that it would be especially difficult for them. We have to create the necessary infrastructure and eliminate the remaining barriers that deter these people from embarking on a university education.

You have created a staff position assigned to the topic of Equality and Inclusion. Can you outline the responsibilities of the holder of this post?
Conradt: The first task will be to make an inventory of existing measures and programs and to set up a roundtable that brings together everyone involved in their implementation. This should help us to better coordinate various activities in the future. The person will also act as a central point of contact for all concerned, and participate in the implementation and extension of measures related to equality and inclusion.

LMU plans to carry out a survey among students. What do you expect to learn? What exactly do you want to know?
Conradt: The survey is not only concerned with diversity. But we hope to learn more about how heterogeneous the student body already is. And we want to find out what sorts of advice and assistance they expect or wish to see. At this stage, we just want to know more about where things stand. Regular follow-up surveys will become part of a quality-monitoring strategy. Do our services really help? Are students satisfied with what they get out of them? – For a university like LMU that covers the whole range of academic disciplines and strives to bring them together in productive ways, diversity is extremely important. Catering to the diversity of our students, staff and faculty, just like fostering multidisciplinarity by promoting academic diversity, confronts us with a big challenge, but also with great opportunities.

Interview: math