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From Würzburg into the world


Ulrich Brückner - the Würzburg student turned Stanford professor. He feels privileged and enjoys working with the students at Stanford University in California.

Ulrich Brückner
First a solid basic education at the University of Würzburg, followed by changing to a large institute plus some luck: This is how Ulrich Brückner describes his career. (Photo: private)

Which jobs do graduates from the University of Würzburg work in? To present different perspectives to students, Michaela Thiel, the director of the central alumni network, has interviewed selected alumni. This time, it is Ulrich Brückner's turn. Brückner studied Political Science, German Literature and History in Würzburg before moving to Berlin. From 1999, he worked as a visiting professor in the US, China, Russia, Slovenia, Turkey and Slovakia. Today, he is a professor under the EU's Jean-Monnet Programme and works in California and Berlin.

Professor Brückner, the European Union is your special field – where is the EU heading? It would be unprofessional to make such a prediction given the fact that there are more numerous and important unpredictable factors regarding the EU's future development than at any point since its establishment. This is true for both internal and external disintegration forces. But it is also possible that worries of a potential collapse and the threat to the EU's core values will result in a better working union. At any rate, we cannot count on the EU assuring peace, prosperity and stability just because it has always done so.

A lot of people say that the EU has grown too large and that the Eastern enlargement is too big a challenge. What's your opinion on this? I don't believe that there is a "right" size for societies living together. Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom or Canada comprise fewer parts and still there are moments in the development of these nations where some elements are on the verge of disappearing. The US consists of much more states and that has been working neatly for quite some time now without any signs of disintegration.

How do you rate the Eastern enlargement? The EU's Eastern enlargement was a historical feat, because it allowed sovereign national states to "return to Europe" after these countries had been cut off from their "Western" culture by the Iron Curtain. This has boosted the variety in the EU and along with that conflicting interests. But at the same time, it has demonstrated that the EU is not just a capitalist event or a club which states can join if they feel it will benefit them, but rather that it stands for shared values which it also practises. Since the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago, all "European" nations have been invited to become members. And this was not meant in a geographical sense, but referred to a way of living, a commitment to open societies and a pledge to a specific legal, economic, social and political system while retaining a certain measure of independence.

Which of the Eastern European countries you worked in has the strongest desire for European integration in your opinion? Poland with its currently very nationalist government has a distinct pro-European population that has understood the huge benefits membership in a united Europe entails, not only financially, but also culturally, in terms of life opportunities and not least added security.

Is working in the US different from working in Germany? Yes, like every country is different from Germany. But what strikes me most is that people in the US are generally friendly whether you know each other or not and whether you actually mean it or don't, because that is not the point. For a start, people always exchange pleasantries first before getting to the point, even if they are in a hurry.

Does this attitude also show in the interaction with students? Working with the students is enjoyable and a privilege most of the time, because given a rejection rate of 95 percent, only the very best are admitted. Not only are these students told to be members of an elite. They are also treated like customers who can expect top-class services from the university in return for paying high tuition fees. And this pervades all areas: the professors, the co-students, the infrastructure and the leisure program.

So studying in the US differs significantly from studying in Germany? Undergrad education corresponds much more to Humboldt's ideal of education than at German universities. It is not about specialized training from day one. Rather, the young people have the opportunity to find out what they are good at; their talent is discovered and promoted. As a result, the labour market gives greater weight to where someone has studied than to their diploma. And this allows students to refinance their costly education. On the other hand, such a learning environment sparks different ideas than the ones that earn you a lot of money.

What do you like most about your job? The freedom that comes with it and which I am allowed to pass on and teach.

What would you recommend to students who are looking to pursue a similar career? Take the time you need. Do not put yourself under pressure to meet assumed expectations. Try out things.

Stanford has a large alumni community; German university in comparison find it difficult to establish such networks. A huge portion of the billions of dollars with which Stanford operates are from alumni who identify strongly with their Alma mater and generously give back to the university in return for what their education has allowed them to accomplish in life. This is a central constituent of the business model and is hardly comparable to what is happening at public German universities.

What do you remember of your time in Würzburg? My time in Würzburg was happy. Especially at the beginning of my studies everything was perfect for me there: I got a solid basic education and an understanding of what the subjects I chose are actually about. However, in order to study politics it was the right step to change to a large institute. And then I was lucky because professional opportunities turned up when the Wall fell, the government moved and the EU grew larger.

Thank you for the interview.

By Michaela Thiel / Gunnar Bartsch