5 questions for Prof. Dr. Beatrix Busse, EUniWell Chief Development Officer

03/08/2022 | by Eva Laurie | Cologne Gender Equality

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we ask Prof. Dr. Busse, Chief Development Officer of EUniWell, 5 questions about female leadership, how it relates to well-being and what needs to change at universities in Europe.

A portrait of Prof. Dr. Beatrix Busse.
Prof. Dr. Beatrix Busse.

Visionary, inspiring, motivating, empathetic, resilient. These are just some of the characteristics that distinguish excellent leaders. One group of leaders above all seems to exhibit these qualities with particular frequency: Women. This becomes apparent especially in crises, as different skills might be important in uncertain situations. Of course, men can be equally good leaders, but this is about the increasing importance of characteristics that women typically bring to the table. 

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we ask Prof. Dr. Busse, Chief Development Officer of EUniWell, about these qualities and want to know from her: What constitutes strong female leadership for you?

1. Women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions, not least at universities. What does it mean for you to hold several leadership roles in a university context?

I’m endlessly curious and a local-global activist for excellent education and science. I love universities because I love to work with wonderful, diverse and challenging generations of students, researchers and people to create excellent research, education and new findings and to operationalise together fit-for-purpose strategic plans and strategies for what we aspire to be. I love to generate impact and realise the best possible and equitable working and well-being conditions for all in their diversity and with their various talents, aspirations, backgrounds, aims or goals. My aim is that all, in their various roles, can best thrive, and contribute to - what I find - the most wonderful and pressing tasks we have. These are - among others - to generate education, science and new knowledge, to promote solutions to the grand societal challenges with and for society and in multi- and interdisciplinary and diverse teams, to dare and implement new forms of leadership. In universities, diversity and gender equality have to walk hand in hand. In this respect, I have always seen it as my responsibility to promote women, showcase them, offer opportunities for women and share my experience. Hence, I’m also an activist for female and diverse leadership in academia; it is both my passion and my mission. Like Virginia Woolf, I want all people to be able to walk the grass. 

It has been shown that diverse teams accelerate and enhance creativity. It has also been shown that the number of women in academic leadership positions have been increasing, but that there are still not enough women in top academic management positions. Additionally, female academics face not only the gender pay gap but also the authority gap, despite their excellence and although, for example, the digital transformation is also led by women and female leadership is particularly effective in times of crisis. 

Admittedly, the ways universities are still marked by antiquated and complexly interwoven patterns of governance, hierarchies, networks, financial structures etc. can at times be rather fascinating. However, these structures are outdated, not diverse enough and therefore in desperate need of transformation. My beautiful university of the future is excellent, diverse, global, sustainable, open, engaged, accountable, learning, and inclusive. Therefore, in my leadership positions, I want to lead and promote this transformation in all missions. We are at a tipping point. Universities have a crucial role to play as places of people-centred creativity, innovation, learning and well-being. They also have to advance human-centred digital transformations and actively and urgently contribute to how our planet will survive and blossom - to name but a few challenges. To be able to realise this Herculean task, diversity, equity and inclusion, and hence female leadership, are paramount. 

2. What are the particular strengths of female leadership?

My leadership values are courage and faith. Although I continuously fear, there is also always a little inch more hope and courage than fear, which allows me to move on fearlessly. My approach to leadership is dialogical, participatory, empathetic, science-based and networked. It cultivates curiosity as well as “power to and with” rather than “power over”. I love mastery, matter-of-factness, excellent skills, knowledge, and competence. I love going into medias res, taking the initiative, driving results and boldness so that each voice can be heard. I’m a listener and a learner. In turn, I think that leadership is messy and vulnerable. Kindness, honesty, integrity, and a culture which allows for failure and guarantees psychological safety for all are indispensable components of modern and female leadership. 

3. In your opinion, how are female leadership and well-being related?

If we practice what I outlined in answer to the previous question, then well-being is the outcome and the glass-ceilings won’t just be polished but broken. Consequently, we shall achieve a totally new level of creativity and well-being. In turn, well-being, that is, for example, excellent working conditions, multidimensional and diversified opportunities and career paths, is a prerequisite for diverse and female leadership.

4. What needs to change at universities in Europe and how can European University Alliances help facilitate that change?

We need a new approach to university’s role and mission. As mentioned, my beautiful university of the future is excellent, diverse, global, sustainable, open, engaged, accountable, and inclusive. It is a learning expert organisation and future-proof ecosystem. It strives to be able to find solutions to the societal challenges which we are currently facing. It finds a balance between the ultimate game of excellent education, research and innovation AND a modern system which allows to achieve this. 

European universities can help facilitate that change by sharing our expertise and bringing our strengths and various people and cultures together. We must work together because the challenges will otherwise be too complex. Also, the method of comparison has always been impactful when trying to trigger change. And this is what we currently do, we compare, we exchange ideas on all levels and we co-create new things and transformation. 

5. As Chief Development Officer of EUniWell, what do you consider to be the most relevant changes that can, and perhaps already have been initiated by the project?

Firstly, it is the theme of well-being. The European University for Well-being is not only a project, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a mission and an attitude. The theme of well-being which we address holistically and on all levels resonantes with students and staff alike. I think this is very important to trigger changes.

Secondly, it is through co-creation and cooperation on all levels and in all missions that we can make the most relevant changes. Although this is unbelievably complex and messy, it is the best I have ever done: Like in research, I don’t know the outcome. Something new and exciting is going to emerge - not for normal, but for better. In addition, outstandingly intelligent and interesting people are involved, cultures clash and productively disrupt, I find that fascinating. You can feel the transformational spirit, the joy, the respect, the focus on people and the firm determination of those involved to turn this mission into a real European university ecosystem. We feel the purpose, the need and our responsibility because the “heat is on” and we have been given code red in various areas. But through our firm belief in and practice of academic freedom and our values - be they university-guided, regional, national or European - we have also always shown our capacities, our resilience, and our potential for high-quality research and education, for peaceful and science-based transnational and international cooperation. 

The vision is currently tenderly realised in the following measures:

a) Student engagement:

Student engagement is a core part of EUniWell. We are proud that so many students want to shape the university of the future with commitment and enthusiasm, and indeed do so with great impact since the first hour. We want our student representation to be as diverse as possible and therefore promote and encourage students with different levels and backgrounds to get involved.

b) Micro-credentials:

In Europe, more and more people need to update their knowledge, skills and competences to bridge gaps between their formal education and the demands of a fast-changing society and labour market. EUniWell helps them do this by developing flexible, inclusive learning opportunities in the form of targeted micro-credentials

c) Arenas:

EUniWell addresses well-being across four research arenas, which represent a new form of dynamic, interdisciplinary collaboration in research, education and innovation. Aligned with the OECD, Council of the EU priority areas and UN SDGs, they are: well-being and health; individual and social well-being; environment, urbanity and well-being; and teacher education. Here, the strengths and synergies of our universities are strongest, and we can have the greatest impact. All four arenas are furthermore reinforced by two transversal SDGs : Gender Equality (SDG 5) and Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10).

d) Civic engagement:

The diversity of our profiles is also well reflected in our civic collaborations with a great variety of societal actors, including schools, and the private sector. The call for evidence to explore and understand the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on different groups of young people, launched by the EUniWell Policy Commission, which brings leading figures from the public, private and third sectors together with EUniWell academics, is only the latest example for the fruitful dynamic of collaborations with society at large.

e) Open education:

Within the EUniWell vision, our aim is to widen access and participation to everyone by removing barriers and making learning accessible, abundant, and customisable for all. We are therefore making active strides towards open education, offering multiple ways of teaching and learning, building and sharing knowledge. One way to experience this at present is within the framework of the EUniWell Open Lecture Series.

f) European integration:

In spite of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, our seven partner universities have not only come together for the benefit of achieving a shared vision - to create the European university of the future, dedicated to well-being - but are becoming increasingly permeable. Working together ever more closely, we have leveraged our ability to tackle the challenges we are faced with, fostering an inclusive community for the benefit of our students, staff and beyond.


5 Questions for…

In our new series “5 Questions for...” we will regularly introduce you to the minds behind EUniWell. Experienced leaders, skilled professionals and young talents will answer questions about their work and visions as they relate to well-being. We give EUniWell a face and a voice.


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