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Letter from the President, Winter Semester 2015/16

To all members of the Berlin University of the Arts

 

Dear students, dear teachers, dear employees,

I would like to welcome all of you to the winter semester, and I hope that you have had a relaxing summer. Just in time for the beginning of the semester, I also want to inform you of a few developments that took place over the summer and briefly mention several important topics the university is working on.

All of you are probably aware of Ai Weiwei’s release from detention in China at the end of July and his almost immediate departure for Berlin. One of his first stops was the UdK Berlin. As early as mid-August, I had the first of several conversations with Ai Weiwei, in which he expressed his urgent desire to begin his work as visiting professor immediately, under his appointment sponsored by the Einstein Foundation Berlin (ESB). Through a joint effort of the ESB, the Colleges of Fine Arts and Design, the Graduate School, and especially the administrative offices involved, we were able to make this work. Just a few days from now, Ai Weiwei will conduct personal interviews with selected applicants for his class, and on November 1 at 5pm,  he will speak at an event titled “(Teaching) ART” at the UdK Concert Hall at Hardenbergstraße. You will soon be receiving an invitation to this special occasion.

I am writing this letter shortly after visiting Ai in his studio in Beijing. In our long conversation, he repeatedly expressed once more how much he is looking forward to his work with students at the UdK. As you may know, before he was detained we had already contacted Ai about a possible visiting professorship. After his arrest, over the course of just two days we were able to realize his appointment with the help of the ESB and the State of Berlin. During his four-year detention, we kept in touch and our offer remained open—which went without saying for us, but not for Ai Weiwei. He told me how pleased and impressed he was, and that now that his situation has improved so much he feels connected to UdK already.

Shortly after the end of the last semester, however, there was another development that touches us all deeply and poses great challenges both now and in the future. Having escaped unimaginable threats from war and terror, more and more people are reaching Europe. Germany and Berlin are taking in a lot of people and are faced with a years-long effort – at first the initial reception, and then the newcomers’ integration as well.

This undertaking is both a shared responsibility and an enormous task, and as I know, many of you are privately taking part in different ways. But from my point of view, institutions, including cultural institutions, and among them especially universities, have to do their part as well to contribute to the work of reception and integration.

Since the beginning of August I have held a large number of conversations, all of which have had a positive tenor. I talked with student representatives from different university faculties and committees; I spoke with the individual faculties as well as with members and representatives of several degree programs; I talked to numerous people in the administration; and so on. Of course I won't be able to name everyone or enumerate everything that was discussed, but I will present some of the conclusions below.

Very soon I was also in contact with the state secretary for science, Steffen Krach; the director of Berliner Festspiele, Dr. Thomas Oberender, whose discussion group now includes Vice President Prof. Dr. Hentschel; the General Manager of the Deutsche Oper Berlin; various schools and parishes; our Campus Charlottenburg partners; District Mayor Naumann; and many more. Some of these talks have resulted in new options for action that we will have to examine in detail.

Back in August, on the board of the Landeskonferenz der Rektoren und Präsidenten der Universitäten und Hochschulen des Landes Berlin (LKRP), I took part in drafting a paper which was adopted by the LKRP itself a few days later (see Appendix I). Some universities launched impromptu activities as well, some of which will be continued but some of which have since been abandoned due to a lack of realistic opportunities for implementation or a lack of demand. We proposed and published activities that are immediately practicable, such as providing advisory services and publicizing the respective contact information within the universities (here, the UdK named the International Office as first point of contact), as well as strengthening the preparatory Studienkolleg courses and waving the fees for guest students whose status does not allow for regular enrollment. For other universities, the issue of recognizing academic qualifications and records (which are often missing) is of greater importance. In our case, of course, it is neither possible nor intended to waive the personal assessment of our applicants’ qualifications, which are often not paper-based. This is an accepted hurdle that applies to all, but at the same time it also represents a completely different, equal-access admissions opportunity for artistic and creative degree programs.

At this point it is important to mention that the Berlin Senate, in particular Sandra Scheeres, Berlin Senator for Education, Youth and Science, has created and/or plans to create opportunities to sponsor such projects. Furthermore, new regulations were enacted last January according to which refugees are eligible to apply for the federal training assistance BAFöG much sooner than was the case until the end of 2014. It is currently under discussion whether the new requirement of waiting 15 months after asylum has been granted before being eligible to apply for BAFöG should be further reduced. Berlin's Interior Senator Frank Henkel also announced a few weeks ago that the stamped entry in many residence permits stating that the holder is not permitted to study would not be used anymore and was no longer to be considered effective in existing documents. Thus, it might be possible for a refugee immigrant to enroll as a regular student much sooner than before.

Dear colleagues, the many stories that personally affect us and the events of the past few weeks can easily result in an overly simplified outlook on a reality that is in fact very complex. Examples of this abound, among them the temptation to view the people fleeing to Europe as a homogeneous group that – outside of humanitarian aid – can be effectively served through generalized measures. This is not the case. The people arriving here come from many different countries, from various parts of those countries, from villages and small and large cities, and from a variety of educational and other backgrounds. There are old and young, women and men – and it should be mentioned here that especially when it comes to conveying principles that seem self-evident to us, such as the absolute equality of women and men, our society is now faced with great challenges.

At the same time, it is important not to overestimate our own strengths or capacity for effective action. Nothing we do should be for our own benefit or satisfaction, and every plan must be tested for sustainability. It would not be good if a good plan failed after implementation because of a lack of resources or exhaustion on the part of the at-first highly motivated institutional proponents.

In light of these constraints, and in addition to other ideas that were discussed in various groups, a fairly challenging concept evolved in conversation with the various people mentioned above; this concept has found proponents among our student body and concrete plans are already being developed.

In the past three years, all of us have witnessed the heated discussions regarding the new law on teacher education – a battle over the meaning of music and art in school curricula and the formats for teacher training that often was fought to the point of frustrated exhaustion. In the end, partial successes were accompanied by significant modifications to our degree programs, modifications that were, for us, almost intolerable because from our point of view the degree programs were weakened. During this process, however, it was clear that we will continue in our conviction that art and music are vital for human development, not least because they provide an opportunity for equal communication, openness, and personal development beyond a narrow understanding of subjects generally deemed “useful”. Taking action on the basis of this conviction is an obvious task for any responsible university of the arts. Thus, to continue developing and defending the artistic disciplines, we have recently established a center for teacher education in the arts, the Zentrum für Künstlerische Lehrkräftebildung (zfkl).

If we consider our options in the present situation from this viewpoint, our perspective changes and we begin to see some of those who have found refuge here in a different light. We realize that there is, in fact, one homogeneous group among them, and that is the children. They arrive without knowing the language of their new environment, and often with unbearable memories and experiences of loss, fear, and powerlessness, including that of their own parents, and of frightening circumstances along the way. We do not have the power to take all that away. But if we believe in our own statements of the past few years – and we do, passionately so – we, the only university in this region that educates teachers for the arts, need to at least try to follow our own convictions. And we can do this without being limited by language.

On the music side, a working group was established with the two program directors of the respective degree programs. This group includes Dr. Ickstadt; Prof. Granas, who served as Vice President for Teacher Education until this past May; and Prof. Dr. Fontaine, deputy chairperson of the zfkl and representative of the president for teacher education. For fine arts, Dr. Winderlich, chair of the zfkl, is developing a proposal together with the Grundschule der Künste. And a conversation I had at the end of September with colleagues in teaching and the workshops has resulted in a meeting on this topic on October 7, coordinated by Kilian Seyfried. In August, First Vice President Prof. Dr. Hentschel began work to initiate some Performing Arts projects, and the Studium Generale immediately offered to participate in all major such projects. In a few days a meeting on these issues will take place at the invitation of the student council AStA as well, and I look forward to hearing about the outcome.

Broadly speaking, these groups will be able to work on giving children, up to a certain age, the chance to participate regularly at our facilities in free artistic programs that are not primarily educational in nature. The following factors will be important to consider for each project:

The project needs to be realistic – it must be sustainable in terms of space, time, and personal resources

The project must be reliably supervised by a specific group of people

The project must be supported by all concerned parties at the university

The project must take advantage of opportunities to cooperate, for example with existing offerings in schools

The project should involve students as much as possible, while recognizing that many of them have to work in their free time. In order to achieve continuity, it might be necessary to provide a certain number of hours for student assistants

The project must identify and integrate our existing competencies, for example through the Studium Generale and elsewhere

Many questions remain unresolved, including how to promote the offerings among potentially interested children, how to alleviate parents’ concerns about their children's care, etc. These issues are being carefully considered at the moment, and anyone who would like to contribute is very welcome to do so.

Dear colleagues and dear students, it is my firm belief that to uphold the values we consider fundamental, the values that unite us here at the Berlin University of the Arts – among them equality, tolerance, freedom of speech and of the arts, respect for beliefs and religions on the basis of fundamental humanitarian values – we need to be clear-sighted, but we also need to be joyful, open-minded, and optimistic. It is, I believe, our duty to do the best we can to strengthen these values. From whatever man-made disaster or turmoil these people may have come, many have taken on great burdens for the chance to find respect and safety for themselves and their children here, where this opportunity was not at all times a given, either. Maybe we can contribute to easing those burdens just a little.

I do not presume to thank those of you who independently have contributed so many hours of volunteer work during the past few months; instead, I congratulate you for your invaluable efforts. Within the UdK, however, I would like to thank all those who are already involved in our projects, or will be in the future. It goes without saying that I am more than happy to be a contact person for any student, teacher, or employee who would like to contribute, and I can also extend this offer on behalf of Vice President Prof. Dr. Hentschel.

 

With kind regards,

Prof. Martin Rennert