At the end of 2017, the URPP Asia and Europe will reach the maximum duration of twelve years that the University of Zurich allotted for its University Research Priority Programs. Former and current academic directors and executive managers look back on the URPP’s achievements and answer the question of what will remain of its activities in research and teaching.
Interview: Roman Benz
How did the URPP Asia and Europe come into being?
Ulrich Rudolph: To a certain extent, the Swiss Asia Society’s junior researchers’ meeting, which has been held every three years since 1995, can be seen as a starting point for the URPP. The meeting is aimed primarily at PhD candidates and postdocs and it brings together researchers from all over Switzerland who are working on Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. As the junior researchers’ meetings have shown since 1995, there is common ground shared by the participating fields of study, which include not only the regionally oriented scholars on the field of Asian and Oriental studies, but also historians, geographers, ethnologists, etc.
This model of cross-disciplinary discussion was in the minds of those who were involved in the founding of the URPP. When the University of Zurich announced in 2004 that selected fields of study should be strengthened and mutually connected by setting up University Research Priority Programs, a group of six people was quickly formed in order to propose that the Executive Board of the University create a cross-disciplinary research project focused on Asia. Robert H. Gassmann (Chinese studies) and myself (Islamic studies) were from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Christoph Uehlinger (history of religions and comparative religion) and Konrad Schmid (Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism) from the Faculty of Theology, Andrea Büchler (private and comparative law) from the Faculty of Law, and Ulrike Müller-Böker (human geography) from the Faculty of Science. Our group thus reflected the diversity of the fields of study, as we already knew it from the junior researchers’ meeting of Swiss Asia Society. We were also supported—and this was a very important fact—by the Gebert Rüf Foundation in Basel, which agreed to provide financial support for the project’s initial three years.
What steps followed the commitment of the Executive Board of the University?
Andrea Büchler: At first, it was clear that the future project required an executive manager. We were able to find a very competent person for this office: Inge Ammering, a scholar in Islamic studies. In addition, we wanted to expand the group of professors involved in the project. All professors of Asia- and Middle-East-oriented fields at the university, as well as professors of social and cultural anthropology, art history, political science, and history were invited to participate, as well as professors of law, study of religions, and geography.
What role did the group of initiators play within the group as a whole?
Ulrich Rudolph: The six members of the core group never claimed a special status for themselves, but simply understood themselves as a founding circle. All of the participating professors involved in the URPP had the same rights from the outset.
Inge Ammering: The openness to new members continued. All newly appointed professors with a focus on Asia joined the URPP.
Christoph Uehlinger: It is remarkable—this fact was not only strategically conceived, but founded on a common concern—that the six initiators belonged to four different faculties. Our URPP was thus positioned in an unusually broad manner. It had the ambition to initiate research projects through cross-faculty cooperation, projects which can rarely be implemented within faculty structures but require university-wide cooperation.
Can you remember the beginnings of the URPP?
Inge Ammering: The project officially started on January 1, 2006, and the first meeting of participating professors took place that same month, with over a dozen professors present who were enthusiastic about the project. On the basis of the application documents, they selected the junior researchers with whom the URPP should start its research and teaching activities. Already in February, the first meeting, the so-called “URPP Colloquium,” was held to discuss research projects. At that time, only a few PhD candidates and postdocs had taken up their position and they were only a few in comparison with the professors.
Mareile Flitsch: Three years after the URPP’s founding, I joined the project and was impressed at being accepted as an equal member immediately after my professorial appointment. This was a very special welcome to the University of Zurich, and that’s why I feel particularly attached to the colleagues involved in the URPP. I was also impressed by the large number of events that were held to inform an interested public about current topics over the last years. Sometimes, these events were organized on short notice, and they made it possible to invite internationally recognized scholars to Zurich.
Andrea Riemenschnitter: However, it should not be forgotten that the URPP also meant an additional obligation for the participating professors, apart from the one associated with their chairs. Fortunately, there was an excellent staff in the administration office of the URPP, which contributed substantially to the project’s success.
David Chiavacci: Shortly after my professorial appointment to Zurich in 2010, I was invited to participate in the URPP. A newly founded chair is connected with a lot of administrative work, so I was afraid that the URPP could become a burden. But fortunately, I decided to join the URPP, which, thanks to the variety of subjects involved, proved to be a unique opportunity, because my chair for social science of Japan is a mixture of methodological and regional subjects. The URPP broadened my horizon as a researcher and helped me to establish a personal network within the University of Zurich in a short period of time.
What steps were taken to ensure the first four-year extension of the URPP (2010–2013)?
Christoph Uehlinger: Our URPP has always been administratively assigned to the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Its cross-faculty orientation was soon underlined when a law scholar and a scholar in the study of religions, both from other faculties, were appointed as academic co-directors. The ambition for a real cross-faculty collaboration has been dampened over the years by the relatively sharp division between faculties that characterizes the University of Zurich. The university management was hardly prepared for the particular needs of the URPP, especially in the field of cross-faculty cooperation. As a result, subsequent academic directors were all members of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. On the other hand, the institution of a co-directorship was upheld with only one exception.
Andrea Büchler: One challenge was the internal structuring of the URPP with regard to the diversity of research interests: Promoting a “flower meadow” with the greatest biodiversity was not viable under the given circumstances, even though it promised maximal stimulation. So we needed a more thorough structure for the growing group. What resulted were the three research fields—“Concepts and Taxonomies,” “Entangled Histories,” and “Norms and Order(s).”
Have the three research fields proved their worth?
Inge Ammering: At the beginning, the URPP was very manageable, and there was no need for this additional structuring. Yet over the two years that followed, the number of junior researchers tripled, with the group becoming too large and too heterogeneous, so that the creation of research fields seemed desirable to us.
Ulrich Rudolph: Their establishment was particularly helpful for PhD candidates and postdocs. By belonging to one of the three research fields, it became clearer to them what expectations were related to their research and in what context their own projects were located.
Christoph Uehlinger: In my opinion, the process, which was partly determined by others, has proved to be only partially successful. I considered it rather artificial that philologists and historians should be divided into two separate research fields only to comply with certain norms of science management. On the other hand, the immediate reference group became clearer again, and it was indeed easier to formulate joint research objectives. The third research field, oriented toward social science, became much more dynamic in the process and increased in overall importance.
Raji Steineck: The initial expectation of some people that it would be possible to carry out joint and coordinated research within the single research fields has not been fulfilled. However, there has been continuous discussion on subjects and research problems of common interest, which has proved to be particularly beneficial for junior researchers.
David Chiavacci: Once again, one should remember that the URPP as an overarching structure thematically covered two thirds of mankind and their cultural history. For that reason, a division into research fields was unavoidable in my opinion. By orienting itself toward the social sciences, the research field “Norms and Order(s)” was able to have a strong focus on methodological issues in this field of study, which would hardly have been possible within the overall structure. But it was also important that the boundaries between the research fields were permeable.
Was the application for a second extension of four years (2014–2017) accompanied by further major changes to the URPP?
Andrea Riemenschnitter: Since 2012, all junior researchers who were employed with university funds had a contractual obligation to prepare an application for third-party funding in their first year of employment, doing so with their supervisors and submitting it to the Swiss National Science Foundation or another research funding institution. As of 2014, the requirement has been for junior researchers to do so by the first half of the second funding year. This measure enabled the URPP to maintain its engagement in research and in the promotion of junior researchers in the third funding phase (2014–2017) on a nearly unchanged scale—despite degressive funding from the university. Furthermore, it laid the foundation for the promotion of junior researchers based on third-party funding in the medium term. I would like to mention that this strategic decision contributed significantly to meet the sustainability goals that the University of Zurich had formulated for its URPPs. In the course of the application for a second extension of the URPP, measures were also taken to acquire non-university funding for establishing a new professorship.
Was there a difference between the last four years of the URPP and the years before them?
Angelika Malinar: It was important to keep the commitment of all parties involved on a high level, even when the financial means available to the URPP declined due to the university’s degressive funding. After all, quite a few junior researchers successfully applied for third-party funding, so that the number of PhD candidates and postdocs at the URPP remained on a high level.
Simone Müller: Although the division in three research fields was retained during the last funding phase of the URPP, events were increasingly organized jointly by all research fields, for example the topical lecture series “’Asia and Europe:’ Actors, Concepts, Narratives” in the fall semester 2015; the URPP’s annual conference “Human : Non-Human – Bodies, Things, and Matter across Asia and Europe” in the fall semester 2016; or the movie series “Grenzgänger – Grenzenlos: Asien und Europa,” jointly organized with the Filmpodium Zurich. An overview of all the different projects worked on in the three research fields will be published in the edited volume Asia and Europe – Interconnected: Agents, Concepts, and Things.
The URPP Asia and Europe is not the only University Research Priority Program at the University of Zurich. How does it differ from the others?
Angelika Malinar: I would like to compare the URPP with other forms of interdisciplinary projects that I knew prior to my professorial appointment in Zurich. They include projects such as Clusters of Excellence, Priority Programmes, and Collaborative Research Centres. I did not know the form of University Research Priority Programs, and I was surprised that the participating professors did not have their own research projects, but rather were concerned with supervising the projects of the PhD candidates and postdocs.
Wolfgang Behr: In fact, the URPP Asia and Europe was very focused on the support and the promotion of junior researchers. This was also due to the generous seed funding granted by the already mentioned Gebert Rüf Stiftung, which made it possible to employ numerous junior researchers at the URPP. Later on, the Humer Foundation for Academic Talent made a major financial contribution to support PhD candidates. For a URPP in the field of humanities and social sciences, this excellent financial endowment was exceptional.
Christoph Uehlinger: For a URPP, this tight collaboration across faculty boundaries was unusual, as I said before. It has enabled us to establish contacts and forms of cooperation, which have also proved their worth in other contexts, such as the reform of study tracks or the cross-faculty supervision of doctoral theses.
Has the URPP developed in a way that the founders intended?
Ulrich Rudolph: The starting point was the conviction that it is definitely worthwhile to study exchange processes in a comparative manner, as well as from a historical perspective, by using methods stemming from social science and the humanities. We deliberately formulated open-ended research questions to avoid limiting our horizon. Thanks to this openness, I believe, the URPP enabled a great learning process for all people involved, for PhD candidates and postdocs, but also for the participating professors. In my opinion, they learned to answer questions in a more reflective and multipolar way—and I would dare to say that one can recognize whether a person has ever had the chance, or been required, to work in an interdisciplinary context.
Inge Ammering: When I remember the first research colloquia, the discussions were very controversial, based on perspectives stemming from different academic disciplines. Over time, discussions became calmer after getting to know each other’s disciplinary positions. In fact, there was a process of broadening horizons and getting to know different perspectives. It was a process of looking for a new language, a language that transcended the disciplinary boundaries.
Wolfgang Behr: The enhanced communication skills are always evident at the junior researchers’ meetings of Swiss Asia Society. When our PhD candidates and postdocs present their papers, it becomes clear that they have already come into contact with many methods and theories beyond their own subject’s boundaries, and that they have no difficulty in speaking with scholars in Islamic studies, Indian studies, or Japanese studies, with classical philologists or representatives of other subjects, while members of other universities sometimes find it difficult to speak in such situations. Thanks to the interdisciplinary structure of the URPP, they have learned to adapt to other scientific cultures.
Were there disappointments about the development of the URPP?
Ulrich Rudolph: Disappointment is too strong a word, I think. The URPP has indeed shown me the limits of joint analytical efforts, but I do not consider this to be a disappointment, but rather the result of a learning process. In addition, there is the insight into how important one’s own discipline remains despite all interdisciplinary cooperation.
Christoph Uehlinger: Reaching a certain size, every association that promises access to third-party funds consists of prime movers and freeloaders alike. The involvement of the participating professors certainly varied, but the strong commitment of our junior researchers more than compensated for this.
Raji Steineck: I think that the URPP would have had the opportunity to raise the quality of academic discussion in selected areas to a new level by establishing systematic joint research efforts across the participating disciplines. This did not end up happening.
Simone Müller: Despite the advantages of the URPP’s interdisciplinary structure, the limits to interdisciplinary research cooperation became visible. Some of the fields of study involved in the URPP have very different methodological and regional orientations, which has sometimes set limits to communication. Nevertheless, the advantages of the interdisciplinary cooperation have far outweighed their disadvantages.
Andrea Riemenschnitter: As Christoph Uehlinger already mentioned, the URPP Asia and Europe also had to contend with structural problems arising from its transdisciplinary and cross-faculty orientation. For structural reasons, the doctoral program was based at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Since there are no established models for cross-faculty structures at the University of Zurich, improvisational skills were sometimes needed to find a way to give credit to PhD candidates from other faculties for their academic achievements made in the context of the doctoral program.
Simone Müller: It would be desirable to have a university-wide, standardized model to set up cross-faculty institutions, which would regulate the recognition of the graduates’ academic achievements as well as their assignment to institutes and faculties—a controversial point between institutions because of the importance of having the greatest “head count” possible.
After 12 years, the URPP will come to an end. Wouldn’t it be better to maintain the structures that have been built up through so much effort?
Andrea Riemenschnitter: An achievement that we want to maintain is the international visibility of the Asia-related research done at the University of Zurich. We consider both the doctoral program and the continuity of our integrated media communication, such as the annual bulletin and our website, as good possibilities for signaling intellectual alertness, commitment and the ability to keep pace with the trends in our fields of study. The same also applies to several interdisciplinary cooperation projects among colleagues that are currently underway and have evolved from our activities at the URPP Asia and Europe.
Christoph Uehlinger: Most professors are also involved in other cooperations and projects and will now be able to devote more time and intensity to them.
Raji Steineck: The experience at the URPP has shown that research cooperation requires both common thematic interests and the possibility of systematically coordinating methods and theories with one another. In the end, the context of the URPP was too large for this to happen. However, the URPP made cooperation possible on a smaller scale that will continue to exist and develop.
What has the URPP achieved in the long term?
Ulrich Rudolph: The URPP has certainly contributed to the fact that the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences considers Asia as one of its strategic priorities. That has simplified the establishment of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies in 2013, which brought together the disciplines of Indian studies, Islamic studies, Japanese studies, Chinese studies, and gender studies. The initiative was taken by the disciplines, but our proposal was well received by the faculty, since there was already a well-functioning collaboration between these disciplines at the URPP Asia and Europe.
Angelika Malinar: In my opinion, the tried and tested collaboration also made it easier for the professors to take part in the new institute. The URPP had shown the existing levels of common understanding and exchange opportunities, as well as the limits in cooperation.
Simone Müller: The URPP created a doctoral program in 2009, which will be continued under the auspices of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies starting in the 2017 fall semester. The interdisciplinary and cross-faculty structure of the doctoral program will be maintained, including the participation of the professors who have been involved in the URPP so far, and who will continue to cooperate with each other beyond the faculty boundaries.
Mareile Flitsch: Right from the beginning, methodological disciplines such as social and cultural anthropology have been part of the URPP Asia and Europe. Such close connections to Asian studies were and still are a blessing for the methodological disciplines. Thanks to the URPP, these connections are now well established for the future. For students and PhD candidates in methodological disciplines, they impose high standards in terms of language skills and intimate knowledge of the regions. At the same time, these close connections also mean for students and PhD candidates in the field of Asian studies that they are continuously working on methodological-theoretical questions. To hark back to the URPP Asia and Europe, I was impressed by the fact that great emphasis was placed on linguistic competence when selecting junior researchers, even in awarding funding to PhD candidates of methodological disciplines. This seems important to me, because we work so closely with colleagues from all over Asia that a high level of language competence should no longer be negotiable even for anthropologists. Fortunately, the URPP was relentless in this point. Accordingly, the level of discussion was on a high level—but so were the demands. I sincerely hope that this orientation can now be maintained thanks to the continuation of the Doctoral Program Asia and Europe.
David Chiavacci: Apart from all the achievements in research, the successfully acquired third-party funding, and the countless new ideas and impulses that all members got, it must be re-emphasized that the URPP Asia and Europe was a means of promoting junior researchers par excellence. Former junior members of the URPP are now holding professorial chairs in Basel, Hamburg, Paris, or Edmonton. And we can be very confident that the number of former URPP’s junior researchers appointed to chairs will continue to rise in the future. Like no other institution, the URPP brought excellent junior researchers from all over the world to Zurich in order to send them back into the world from Zurich.