Looking to the future

One of Thomas D. Meier’s main goals during his 13-year tenure at ZHdK: remaining alert to student needs. Photograph: Alan Maag

After 13 years, Thomas D. Meier will be stepping down as president of ZHdK in the autumn of  2022. Time to look back and forward. Because he will continue envisioning the future of ZHdK even when he retires. A conversation about responsibility, a feel for students and secretly playing the electric bass.

Lea Ingber


Lea Ingber: 13 years at ZHdK: What is your fondest memory?
Thomas D. Meier: First and foremost, the often extraordinary student productions and works that I was privileged to experience. All of this impressed and stimulated me and kept my critical spirit awake. At such moments, I always knew why I like working here and what our work is for. Another fond memory is moving into the Toni-Areal. That was a milestone for our further development. Milestones were also the major projects in the area of internationalization and the establishment of the doctoral programs.

What did you find challenging?
Change processes, and they have always been important to me, are factual and emotional roller coasters. It was sometimes challenging to stay calm and maintain a positive and pragmatic attitude. Having to keep overcoming short-sighted silo thinking was also tiring at times. But I’m a tough workhorse. (laughs)

What is your favourite anecdote?
I sometimes overhear conversations between students. Once, I was amazed and enlightened when I heard a music student tell one of her peers that she felt too young to play a certain work by Schubert. Music, I realized, is not limited to technical perfection. Art begins only afterwards and has other rules. At the opening of the Toni-Areal, I heard a fine arts student say that she’d wanted a used Volvo and had received a Porsche. These chance encounters helped me understand what moves students and how single-minded the disciplines are.

What was particularly close to your heart?
I’ve always found it important that we don’t lose touch with students. Most of our faculty have secure positions, but our students are preparing to succeed in highly competitive professional fields. How can we stay alert to this? How do we fulfil our teaching and research responsibilities in this regard? These questions have preoccupied me throughout my tenure.

What art do you practice yourself?
I played electric bass in rock bands for a long time. I daren’t say whether that passes for art. I’ve only played incognito since working at an arts university. In the last few years, unfortunately, I haven’t had the time. We might start playing again one of these days. We were never virtuoso. That was frowned upon. So it shouldn’t be too difficult to get back into it. (laughs)

What are you completely untalented at?
Spatial awareness and small talk. I find both hard work.

As the president of an arts university, you’re always under pressure to justify yourself. Do you find that annoying?
No, I enjoy translating what we do for a wider public. I appreciate that we need to explain ourselves more than educational institutions that train nursing staff or teachers. But the arts are also relevant to society as a whole. To make that clear, we need to build bridges to those who aren’t necessarily close to us. Merely speaking from within our bubble doesn’t work. My first job was as a museum educator; outreach work has always been an important part of my self-image.

Be it the relocation of ZHdK from 39 sites to the Toni-Areal in 2014 or currently the new major-minor reform. You’ve implemented or initiated several major innovations.
Major innovations are not always what people want. But we’re responsible for ensuring that ZHdK continues to develop in the best interest of its students. The world is changing rapidly and we need to grow with it. For me, innovation has always meant that the institution, by changing its framework, enables what had too little space in the old structure to emerge. Examples include the Toni-Areal and the major-minor reform.

What major innovations still lie ahead for ZHdK?
In terms of education policy, it’s still relevant that as an arts university we aren’t optimally placed within the universities of applied sciences. We’re barely linked to vocational training, from which the universities of applied sciences have evolved. In addition, we lack the right to award doctorates, which our international partners usually have. This puts us at a great competitive disadvantage and hinders our development. Action is urgently needed if ZHdK wants to maintain its place as one of Europe’s leading higher arts institutions.

What challenges do you see coming for ZHdK?
The artist Olaf Breuning, whom we honoured as an honorary companion at the last University Day, thanked me afterwards and said: “Here in America, the focus is more on victims of life than critical observers.” This development has long since reached us. Diversity and equal opportunities are core values at ZHdK. At the same time, beliefs and convictions originating in the American context are also spreading here and are often adopted unthinkingly and even using American terminology. Focusing on the victims of history and society gives a voice to many who have so far remained unheard. We certainly need to embrace this development.

In its activist form, however, the corresponding commitment may lead to instrumentalizing art, to a reductionist understanding of what art is capable of achieving, to banning free speech and to censorship. It’s essential that the cultural sector, and the associated educational institutions, take a stand in this debate.

You’ll be stepping down as president in September 2022. And then?
I’ll continue four exciting foundation mandates. We’ll also get a dog and perhaps build a house in the south. That’s good enough for a start. (laughs)

From 1996 to 2003, Thomas D. Meier, who holds a PhD in history and English, served as director of the Museum of Communication in Bern. In 2003, he was appointed director of Bern University of the Arts. In December 2008, he was elected president of Zurich University of the Arts by the Council of Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and will remain in office until the end of September  2022.
Lea Ingber (lea.ingber@zhdk.ch) is a project manager at ZHdK University Communications.
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