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Making the university fit for the future: Interview with Prof. Dr. Matthias Vieth

We have no record of how often a member of the University Executive Board has driven up to the University Tower on a motorbike. But one thing is clear: Matthias Vieth (59) is serious about speed. Vieth has been Professor of Business Administration at the Darmstadt Business School since 2016 and was most recently Director of Studies for the Bachelor’s degree programme in business administration. On 1 October he became Vice President for Teaching, Learning and Collegiate Affairs. During his three-year term in office, he wishes to tackle digitisation projects such as the “Student Compass“ and a digital system for teaching staff to clock their working hours, and to boost bilingual teaching, make studying more flexible, and introduce systematic project management. In an interview with the University Communication (HKOM) he reveals what he is passionate about – and what he doesn’t care for at all.

Interview: Martin Wünderlich & Christina Janssen on 11 October 2023

HKOM: Today you’re wearing sneakers. Do you need them for high-speed work on the University Executive Board, or do you wear them all the time?

Professor Mattias Vieth: I have a motorbike and sometimes I also ride it to the university. I’m generally fairly fast and I also try to grasp new things quickly. Speed is important to me in many situations, including the speed at which my projects on the University Executive Board can be implemented. I’d like to push things along that create added value, and to have everyone on board.

HKOM: Are you looking forward to your new tasks?

Vieth: I think it’s cool doing new things. I’m looking forward to the challenge, but I also take it seriously, that’s clear. On the University Executive Board we see ourselves as a team and specifically discuss things that are not going well. I think that’s good. And this was one of the reasons why I said, “Make sense!”

HKOM: So where do you see the main topics and challenges for your term in office?

Vieth: One important topic is the digital clocking of hours worked by teaching staff. Today the hours worked are recorded in the traditional way, on paper, but tomorrow it will be done electronically. I’ve already launched this project and it will be completed by the end of the year. It also demonstrates my style of working: I try to create practical examples which anyone can look at and arrive at their own judgement. I have to practice what I preach. As an economist, I have a huge advantage because I teach things required in large organisations – like project management, for example. We need systematic project management in order to advance our projects in a targeted manner. That is a key point which is very, very important to me.

HKOM: What are your top priorities?

Vieth: The topic of internationalisation and EUt+. EUt+ is currently entering its second phase, one of implementation. Now we have to realise what we have planned. For the teaching staff, this means more bilingual classes, for instance. At the Darmstadt Business School I’ve already developed a concept for implementing that efficiently – always in alternation: each of my classes is offered in one semester in English, and in the next semester in German. But of course you can’t do that on autopilot – it takes a lot of work, and I know what I’m talking about.

HKOM: Interestingly, our university finds itself caught between its strong regional roots on the one hand, and processes of internationalisation on the other. How do you unite these two poles?

Vieth: There’s no contradiction here because in the region we have companies that are already globally active – Merck, Döhler, Akasol, Software AG and Alnatura. And there are other smaller international firms here, too. Our region has an orientation which at the end of the day generates new jobs from international relations. “Think globally, act locally”: our students will study here, but later on many of them will have international jobs.

HKOM: All the same, it’s not easy to get everyone on board the large projects such as EUt+. How will you achieve that?

Vieth: First of all, through people who are willing. I would always start with those who are already familiar with the topic, who are interested and motivated, and perhaps have ideas of their own, and develop joint pilot projects with them which can then be rolled out. However, we also have to consider the interests of other groups who have a major influence in society, for example industry and politicians, and to set up cooperative projects with them. We can also bring related topics and ideas into the university.

HKOM: That sounds rather abstract…

Vieth: I’ll give you an example. I recently attended the congress of the VDMA [German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association], which was organised by the Darmstadt company AEP Solutions in the “Technologie- und Gründerzentrum Hub 31”. I spoke about sustainability. That’s another central topic for us as a university. On the one hand, we wish to become a more sustainable organisation. On the other, we’re educating future members of the workforce who’ll be in a position to back up such topics in industry. I want to shift that very clearly to centre stage. To do so, I use forums like the VDMA congress, and I received very positive feedback there.

HKOM: Have you already discussed your plans with the departments in your remit?

Vieth: Yes, we all spent a day together discussing the tasks facing us: where are the challenges, what is going well, why is it going well? What is going badly, why is it going badly, and what do we have to do to make it work better? Those are the typical questions I ask. In addition, I’ve sent the departments a questionnaire for them to provide a systematic description of all projects including their objectives, duration and budget. In the future we’ll do this systematically for all the projects. The next step will be to create a roadmap for the coming three years, to make our objectives transparent to everybody. That will provide orientation for me, too, because then I’ll be able to decide that we can complete certain projects during my three years in office, but maybe not others. For me it’s important that while I’m in this post topics are implemented in a way that makes the university fit for the future.

HKOM: Do you discuss those topics with the faculties as well?

Vieth: The faculties have a very important function at the university. Alongside research, they constitute 70 to 80 per cent of our business model and deserve appropriate attention from the Executive Board. I’ve therefore made appointments to speak with the Dean’s Offices of all twelve faculties by the end of October to discover what the faculties require from us, and what we might need to do differently.

HKOM: That means you start by asking a lot of questions and collecting information. What projects of your own are you bringing along?

Vieth: I’ve already mentioned the electronic recording of hours worked. Another project I’d like to realise is the Innovator’s Space for business start-ups. The aim is to create a platform where we can post ideas for start-ups, as a university, students and teaching staff. We want to present these ideas not only in person, but also virtually.

HKOM: How do you plan to tackle the decline in student numbers?

Vieth: One thing I want to do is develop a “Student Compass” for schoolchildren and for our students – it’ll work in both directions. The Student Compass will be a platform for all questions concerning degree programmes. It should inform young people which parts of the degree curriculum are genuinely important for their careers later on. If you want to become a design engineer at Porsche, what expertise from your degree course is absolutely essential? If you want to become an accountant, what skills do you need? Furthermore, the Student Compass should generate contacts with industry resulting from us asking about employers’ requirements and feeding them into the Compass. And there’s more: we want to make our courses more flexible by adding ways of obtaining certificates and attestations, so that people who are in work will say, “I’d like to further my development – what do I need for that?” That target group could also participate via a platform like this. Then we could establish and offer the appropriate courses. It should work like a hub. I saw this in operation at IAB-Futuromat, and it’s a very good model.

HKOM: What else are you planning when you talk about making courses more flexible?

Vieth: I mean more flexibility on all dimensions: quantity, quality, time and location. “Location” means I don’t have to be in a certain place in order to study.

HKOM: So more hybrid classes?

Vieth: Exactly, but “hybrid” classes can also be either synchronous or asynchronous. That means if I don’t have time, I don’t go to the lecture, and instead I watch a video of it. I’ve recorded all my classes from the very beginning, because I’ve always asked myself what I can do to help students work independently. I have many students in my classes who do everything online and pass their exams just as well as the others.

HKOM: Isn’t it a bit sad if at some stage you only have five people attending a lecture?

Vieth: Yes, but that’s tolerance, which is necessary when forging new paths.

HKOM: And that brings us full circle, back to internationalisation and EUt+.

Vieth: Right, that’s already been considered, and that’s why we focus on bilingualism. We need classes in English and German – slides, videos, Moodle courses and practice tasks. And the students can choose the language for their examinations.

HKOM: But not everyone can do that so easily.

Vieth: Not everyone can do it, and it takes effort. So you have to consider how much time should be set for the activities. We can encourage staff to be involved by adjusting their number of hours per week.

HKOM: So, that’s flexibilisation of the location and the language. What else is coming?

Vieth: The scope. In the field of professional development for example, external people who want to gain additional qualifications can take courses that we offer, selected from existing degree programmes or other formats, to obtain a certificate. For instance, someone wishes to work in supply chain management. He comes from industry, has a degree in engineering, and is now being deployed in his company as a supply chain manager. We would enable him to obtain a relevant certificate by taking a learning module, like Harvard and MIT do. This person can then attend the course either online or face-to-face. This way we can acquire a new target group.

HKOM: The qualifications – or to put it another way, new students’ lack of skills – regularly hits the headlines. How do you handle that?

Vieth: The university is already doing a great deal in this area, for example with the “Studium Angepasster Geschwindigkeit” [“Speed-adjusted study”] and courses such as “Mathe fit”. In addition we have our sights on a new idea, the “Business4School” programme from Lower Saxony. We want to reach schoolchildren and to talk to them specifically about economic topics, in years 10 to 13. Four thematic blocks, each lasting half a school year: the economy in private life, the economy and companies, business and internationalisation, business and digitisation. These contents are relatively simple. For instance, we will explain why it makes sense to take out personal liability insurance, how to open a bank account and so on. We want to teach these thematic blocks here at the university. That means we get the schoolchildren onto the campus so they can gain an impression. I could also imagine something similar, say, for scientific topics.

HKOM: Or for digitisation, which doesn’t get sufficient attention in schools.

Vieth: That would be logical. We have the infrastructure for it. However, we also need willingness on the part of teaching staff to do it. Then of course we would discuss working hours again. I don’t expect a lecturer to say, “Fine, I’ll do that in my free time.”

HKOM: So you could kill two birds with one stone – attract students to h_da and simultaneously improve their skills.

Vieth: We have to work out how to put this idea into practice. We’re already working on “Business4School” and I’m holding talks with the project partner. Now we must find a format for inviting school representatives and launching the project together.

HKOM: This winter semester will definitely see the start of the first courses in our three new Study Areas – Mobility, Sustainability and Digitisation (see Newsletter 7 / 2023). How will that change teaching and learning at our university?

Vieth: The Study Areas aim to promote the interdisciplinarity that is in demand both in industry and in society, where social-science, technical, and digital content must be combined to enable us to tackle problems together. Here I have to check very carefully whether the Study Areas are the format we really need. Furthermore, the question of where we locate the Study Areas within our organisation has yet to be answered – in faculties that naturally always view them through the faculty lens, or separate from such structures? We must also identify some way of compensating teaching staff when they are willing to work in these Study Areas and develop them.

HKOM: That’s a large number of major projects – there are bound to be some conflicts.

Vieth: I’ll only put resources into a project if there’s commitment and a willingness to change – at least a commitment to constructive dialogue. I expect that much. If it gets political or destructive, I’m not the right person to approach. I can state that quite clearly. I don’t like being instrumentalised, and everybody should know that. My guiding principle is: what is the problem, what is the situation? What action can we take to change the situation, and what impact do we expect that to have? If we then say we’ll change something, we do it consistently. After one year we’ll get together and ask ourselves critically, did it work, yes or no? And if it didn’t work, we’ll just have to change something else. We’re working in a real-life laboratory, and we have to deal with the circumstances as they are.

HKOM: Will you continue teaching during your term as Vice President?

Vieth: Yes, that’s important to me personally because I don’t want to lose touch with teaching. Many people have advised me not to do that. I say, “I have to work out how to find time for my other obligations as well.”


Professor Vieth

Matthias Vieth has been Professor of Business Administration at the Darmstadt Business School since 2016 and most recently was Director of Studies for the Bachelor’s degree programme in business administration. On 1 October 2023 he became Vice President for Teaching, Learning and Collegiate Affairs at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. He succeeds Professor Manfred Loch, who retired just over a year ago. In the intervening period the post was filled by Dr Tanja Münch, who now takes over the University Management.

Before Matthias Vieth became a professor at h_da, he spent more than ten years in national and international management positions at Siemens AG. He started in strategic purchasing and subsequently moved to controlling, quality management, project management, process management and risk management, and also worked in occupational safety and environmental conservation management. From 2008 onwards, he was a freelance corporate consultant involved in optimising change, project, process and risk management for industrial customers. At the University, alongside numerous classes in business informatics, human resource management, process and project management, procurement, logistics and entrepreneurship, and the multi-university project management certificate HZPM, he has initiated three digitisation projects: the Student Compass as a platform for students to optimise their choice of degree courses, the human resource planning tool “PERPLAN light” for teaching and administration, and the real and virtual “Innovator’s Space” for developing and presenting students’ start-up projects.