On 1 October, Johannes Marian was once again chosen to chair the University Senate (until 30 Sept. 2025) by this body’s members. Furthermore, the election of Studies Centre head Petra Weissberg as deputy chair represents the first time that the Senate’s sole member chosen from the large group of general University personnel has been elected to this post. Together with mdw Magazine, Marian looks back upon the past three years, comments on how important the freedom of art, research, and education is, and explains why he’s going into his new term with a positive outlook.You’ve chaired the mdw Senate since October 2019—just before all of us and the University itself got pitted against the special challenges of a pandemic. How was the Senate’s work affected?
Johannes Marian (JM): For a governing body like the Senate, which consists of 18 members from all segments of the University community (teachers/researchers, students, and administrators), the pandemic—especially its initial phase—was an immense challenge. Back then, the mdw’s procedural rules didn’t yet allow for virtual meetings—and the federal government decided to transfer central Senate competencies to the university rectorates as part of its emergency response. At the mdw, we found ourselves in the fortunate situation that the Rectorate, working together with its legal advisers, was very quick to find ways to fully restore the Senate’s and its various commissions’ ability to act. I still remember all too well just what a challenge our first Senate meeting via Zoom was for all of us—but we didn’t allow ourselves to become discouraged. Instead, we all learned quickly and managed not only to fill all of our legally defined responsibilities but also to develop new ideas, establish new parameters, and make our opinions heard with quite some force when necessary.
What overall conclusion do you draw from these past three years? And what were especially important points for the Senate during this period?
JM: The biggest challenge was that in the midst of the pandemic, where every bit of energy was needed to deal with the massive disruptions that affected teaching, research, and administration, the federal government proposed an amendment to the Universities Act that not only sought to shift numerous Senate competencies to other administrative bodies but also would’ve hit students with numerous changes for the worse. It was crucial to protest forcefully and, even more importantly, to argue against these changes, and we did so with all our strength. Also, the Senate had held a large closed session before the pandemic broke out that included all of its alternate members; at that point, it became very clear that more transparency and participation were needed in putting together our commissions, above all studies commissions (StuKos). So we then set about developing an entirely new procedure—and in preparation for the term of office that’s beginning now, we wrote to all of the University’s teaching and research staff with a request to tell us whether they’d be interested in participating in a StuKo. The result is that the Senate now has the ability to call upon specialised experts who are already familiar with how things work as well as to involve new people whose willingness to participate we otherwise wouldn’t have known about.
We’re currently doing the same thing in order to put together the new Working Group on Equal Opportunities (AKG), whose term has now been altered to match that of the Senate. And since many of these changes and new ideas also have to be codified in the mdw Statutes, some of the rules concerning procedures and elections as well as certain legal aspects of studies were given crucial changes in collaboration with the Rectorate and our in-house legal experts. So looking back, we’ve been through three extremely intense years where numerous things were realised, and we also initiated lots of other things that will now be put to the test during our upcoming term. In addition to all this, we shouldn’t forget the big, all-encompassing area of curricula and curriculum development. Our StuKos are numerous and very active—and before their decisions can be submitted to the Senate for approval, the Senate’s members have to familiarise themselves with the underlying content. Anyone who assumes that this process was hampered by the pandemic would be surprised. Because in actual fact, the Centre of Competence for Curriculum Development—with which we enjoy a fantastic cooperative relationship—will confirm that initiatives for new programmes of study and curricular changes have flourished at the mdw and continue to do so, which is how things should and indeed must be. And last but not least, an important decision by the Senate was to once again endorse the appointment of our current rector Ulrike Sych for a new term of office and approve the team of vice rectors that she’d nominated.
About the amendment to the Universities Act that you mentioned, where the Senate took a position because its competencies would’ve been limited in favour of the University Council and the Rectorate: What’s your take on that today?
JM: The battle against the 2021 UG amendment’s disempowerment of the Senate, which we fought together with the senates of all other Austrian universities (and also, incidentally, with support from some of the rectorates, prominent among them that of the mdw), definitely did pay off. For one thing, we succeeded in killing or defanging several particularly dangerous provisions, and our protests also gave rise to far greater awareness of the situation’s explosiveness and to very strong solidarity within the Senatsvorsitzendenkonferenz (SVK – Conference of Senate Chairs). But this battle certainly hasn’t yet been won, and we need to remain extremely vigilant regarding every new parliamentary bill. It would actually be urgently essential to expand the competencies of the Senate in the interest of protecting and reinforcing the freedom of art, research, and education; but instead, the Senate has had to spend years battling against its further disempowerment.
What’s the significance of the Senate’s working groups?
JM: Our working groups play the great role for the entire institution that they do because participation in them is open to every member of the University community. Unlike in the Senate and the decision-making bodies that it forms, like studies commissions and appointments committees, there are no legal requirements concerning how working groups are put together, no limits on how many participants they can have, no distinctions between regular and alternate members, and no universally applicable procedural rules. The working groups are networked throughout our institution, far beyond just the Senate’s members, and they often go on to establish platforms together with other mdw organisational units.
Let’s take a look into the future: What expectations, desires, and plans are you taking with you into your new term?
JM: In principle, it’s quite an easy thing to take the momentum of the past three years along with us into our new term. We’ve got a very good mixture of experienced and new Senate members, so we have to neither reinvent ourselves nor do without new impulses and views. And since the topics we have to deal with don’t conform to our body’s three-year terms, we’ll be picking up right where we left off. We will, of course, be fulfilling all of our legally mandated responsibilities, but we’ll also be keeping a watchful eye on social and political developments and raising our voices anytime and anywhere we see the freedom of art, research, and education threatened or university autonomy being further reduced. All in all, I’m headed into this new term in a very positive mood: if the pandemic should once again necessitate massive restrictions, we’ll be well prepared. And there’s absolutely no shortage of innovative ideas at the mdw in the realms of art, teaching, research, and also administration—which is where the energy comes from that moves and motivates the Senate.
What do you think will be important for the mdw Senate’s ability to work smoothly and fulfil its duties in the future, as well?
JM: The most important ingredient that the Senate needs in order to work successfully is the constant willingness of its regular members, its many alternate members, and the members of its commissions and working groups to enter into dialogue with each other and uphold that dialogue. The Senate’s work lives from those highly diverse (and occasionally time-consuming) participative processes that lead to well-reasoned outcomes and hence to sound decisions. And the new Senate team, I can already say with confidence after our first few meetings, will fulfil its responsibilities in precisely this spirit and thus also make an important contribution to university autonomy.