Prof. Dr. Werner Müller-Esterl: Autonomous and ahead – Frankfurt’s Goethe University

In 1914 more than 70 members of Frank­­furt’s civil society gathered 20 million gold marks and founded something quite unique – Germany’s first university funded by endowment. Thus, from the midst of the city’s society, a university came into being that directed its interest in knowledge to societal challenges in the city where, 50 years before, the first democratic national assembly in Ger­­many had been constituted. The univer­­sity’s close ties to its citizens became its hallmark. From the outset, it had independent faculties for economics, so­­cial and natural sciences and it was in these modern disciplines, in particular, that it soon took on a pioneering role. Scholars and intellectuals such as Paul Ehrlich, Franz Oppenheimer, Theodor W. Adorno and Ludwig Erhard gained world­­­wide re­­nown on taking up new positions here, one example being the “Frankfurt School” and its “Critical Theory”.

Over the last 100 years, 19 Nobel laureates and 15 winners of the Leibniz Prize have studied, conducted research or taught at the Goethe University. Some of them, such as Professor Hartmut Michel, a holder of the Nobel Prize for chemistry, are still actively involved in teaching, research, and promoting new talent. With 16 faculties spread over three campuses – the humanities and social sciences centre at Westend, Science City at Riedberg and the Department of Clinical Medicine located at Niederrad – Goethe University Frankfurt is a classical universitas which, with its full range of academic disciplines, creates ideal conditions for providing answers to the complex global issues of society. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – a child of this city and after whom the university was named – is also associated with trans-dis­­ciplinary and innovative ideas and actions beyond the conventional approaches.

Universities and the world around them have changed during the last 100 years, but today, the principles behind the found­­ing of Frankfurt’s Goethe Uni­­ver­­sity are more topical than ever. In this connection, the conversion from a university run by the federal state to an autonomous, endowment-funded univer­­sity was completed in 2008 using successful international examples as models. Since then, the Goethe University has been autonomous, a status unique in Germany and one which allows it to act in a forward-looking and strategic manner. This new legal status provides more latitude, ranging from appointing its own professors through independently selecting its students to establishing and ter­­­minating courses. At the same time, the university is also making efforts to be­­come independent of public sources of funding. Successful professional fundraising and constant efforts by alumni have thus already succeeded in building up a capital stock of more than 160 million euros in only a few years.

This autonomy is not an end in itself. With its 45,000 students, 600 professors and 5,000 other academic and non-academic staff, GU today is not only the third-largest higher education institution in Germany; it is also one of this country’s universities where the most research is conducted. This is reflected in performance measures such as the Shanghai Ranking, in which the university is among the world’s 150 best and one of the six best of its kind in Ger­­many. This is also evident from the amount of research grants obtained through competition, which account for more than one third of the university’s total budget. As a consequence, ten major research centres have been successfully established in Frankfurt since 2006, including two national health cen­­tres for cardio-vascular and cancer re­­search, five major projects in the state Excellence Initiative LOEWE and the three clusters “Dynamic Molecular Com­­plexes”, “The Cardio-Pulmonary System” and “The Formation of Normative Orders” acquired in the combined national Excellence Initiative.

The ten major research centres show that top-level research has established itself on a broad front at the Goethe University. Moreover, its academics have also remained true to the original guiding principle of finding solutions to the burning questions of the day. All ten centres work on these issues with partners out­­side the university. Alongside Munich and Berlin, the Rhine-Main region is indeed a major science location with its six Max Planck centres, three Leibniz centres and a Helmholtz centres. The Goethe Uni­­versity plans to work even more closely with these partners simply to improve quality and become more visible internationally. Today, it is also considered a top address by researchers and students outside Germany. In 2013 alone, some 40 per cent of newly appointed professors were from abroad, while 24 per cent of students had a migrant background.


Over the next few years, the Goethe University plans to expand on a regional, national and international scale. This will involve reinforcing the network with its seven strategic foreign partners, including leading universities such as Toronto, Birmingham and Tel Aviv. In the area of research in particular, joint major projects can only be completed on a multi-lateral basis. However, this internationalisation of the university is also intended to benefit teaching, with research-based, English-language courses and scholarships making it even more attractive for excellent students. Although the current focus on education is on bachelors’ degrees due to the large in­­crease in student numbers, the medium-term aim for this research-based university is to concentrate more intensively on masters’ degrees.

The fact that in teaching the Goethe University is already regarded as a “place of innovation” is demonstrated by a series of key initiatives. These include the “Starker Start ins Studium” programme, which is subsidised by the German government, creating 40 addi­­tional professorships and providing more space for teaching staff and students by constructing a new seminar building. Generally, teaching and research take place in modern buildings in which the Hessian state government has in­­vested a great deal during the last few years.

Today, the Westend campus has the reputation of being one of the most attractive in Europe; the extensive grounds with their award-winning new buildings spread out behind the former IG Farben head office. The university is also deliberately opening up to the citizens of Frankfurt by organising a large number of events. After all, having been founded by its citizens for its citizens, the Goethe University takes its general educational mandate seriously. Incidentally, the Body of Knowledge statue stands in the central campus square as an enduring symbol of open dialogue, free of preju­dice. Eight metres high, it is made up of characters from a wide variety of the world’s languages, thus expressing the complexity of knowledge in a global society.

Portrait-Präsident-Müller-Esterl-KopieThe author has been President of Goethe University Frankfurt since 2009. He stud­ied chemistry and medicine in Bonn and Munich, completed his habilitation thesis in biochem­istry in 1985 and was ap­­poin­ted Professor in Munich 1987. He moved to the University of Mainz in 1989. 1999 he accep­ted a chair in Frankfurt. 2006-2009 he headed the Cluster of Excellence “Macromolecular Com­­plexes” and 2006 he became Vice President of Goethe-University.