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Politics

     
           
 

Politics. The ETH in the socio-political context

On February 7. 1854, the National Council approved a bill for the setting up in Zurich of a "federal polytechnical school in association with a school for advanced studies in exact and political sciences and humanities".

The decision to establish a federal polytechnic had been preceded by time-consuming and costly evaluations. In establishing the school, "the special conditions and needs of our people" were to be borne in mind. Foreign role models and cantonal guidelines, academic demands and both industrial and commercial interests were to be united in an "institution for the fatherland" with a specifically "federal" flavour.
Following ETH's political career from a national technical school to an internationally acclaimed centre of research one recognizes a complex set of interdependent relations between science and society.
Embedded in a classical Swiss landscape: aerial view of the ETH Hönggerberg. Early 1970s.
Embedded in a classical Swiss landscape: aerial view of the ETH Hönggerberg. Early 1970s.
   
  !!! This document is stored in the ETH Web archive and is no longer maintained !!!    
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Politics

     
           
 

The Polytechnic as a specifically federal creation

In the spring of 1854, when the members of the federal council were debating the issue, the “spectre” of a national university was more of a talking point than the planned Polytechnic. French-speaking Switzerland in particular dreaded the idea of higher education becoming “Germanised”. The establishment of the federal polytechnic, once it was finally decided upon, was a less alarming prospect. The new institute of education was first and foremost expected to help in giving a more definite shape to the federal state’s still rather abstract form of constitution. A school of engineering geared specifically to Swiss requirements would speed up the development of technical infrastructures and improve the career opportunities of a national elite. What was innovative was the range of subjects on offer, based on both foreign role models and specifically national requirements.
Professional elite of the future: Engineering school of the Polytechnic, around 1907.
Professional elite of the future: Engineering school of the Polytechnic, around 1907.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Politics

     
           
 

Official duties and appointments policy

The relationship between the academic world and the nation is a complex one. On the one hand, the academic world strives for international understanding and universal acceptance, and on the other, the creation of modern education and research institutions is closely associated with the process of nation-building. As the first federal institute of higher education, the Polytechnic was burdened with official duties. It was not just in the debates of the early years, when the actual location and the language were major issues, that political symbolism played an important role. The professorial appointments policy was also shaped by national and socio-political forces. In the first decades, the Polytechnic recruited several of the teaching staff from abroad, but the sharp growth in national pride in the period between the wars led to a marked increase in the number of Swiss being appointed.
The Zurich Polytechnic set against classical features of the national mythology: a 1906 postcard.
The Zurich Polytechnic set against classical features of the national mythology: a 1906 postcard.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Politics

     
           
 

National defense and “Männerbünde“

The federal Polytechnic and the Swiss officer corps were said to be very closely linked from the point of view of both personnel and institutions. In 1878 a Chair was established in Military Sciences, but more of a factor were the student fraternities set up in the late 19th century, which increasingly took on the form of male preserves rather than simply being social institutions. The elitist attitudes they adopted was regarded by Prussian-trained military instructors as an ideal basis for the spirit of leadership.

In the Switzerland of the 20th century, national defence was not confined to the military. The federal appeal to the notion of “intellectual national defence” was intended to reinforce “the feeling and the duty of the federal civic spirit”. With its very tangible presence at the 1939 National Exhibition, and the introduction of the “Friday lectures”, the ETH placed itself at the service of the state concept of propaganda.

Military and German studies under one hat: Karl Schmid, 1957-59, Rector of the ETH.
Military and German studies under one hat: Karl Schmid, 1957-59, Rector of the ETH.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Politics

     
           
 

The agenda for educational policy

In Switzerland, education and universities were traditionally a cantonal matter. On the national level, the ETH was for a long time the only instrument for promoting research. Yet initially, this opportunity to influence science policy was hardly made use of. In the years between the wars, the Federal Council made an effort for the first time to boost the national economy by the specific use of research funds. In the early 1940s, the first attempt to set up a “Swiss National Science Foundation” failed because of resistance from the universities.
The post-war period saw the first mention of the phrase “crisis in education” and the observation that Switzerland was lagging sadly behind. The national initiatives launched since the 1960s to promote education had an effect on the monopoly role of the ETH. At the same time, the federal institutes of technology (there were now two) continued to profit from their special status as research institutions directly answerable to the federal government.
Founding ceremony of the Swiss National Science Foundation in Berne, August 1, 1952.
Founding ceremony of the Swiss National Science Foundation in Berne, August 1, 1952.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Politics

     
           
 

Contested Science: Science under the pressure of self-justification

In 1964, the man who was to become the president of the Swiss Science and Technology Council, Max Imboden, diagnosed Switzerland as being in the throes of what he referred to as a “Helvetic Malaise”: He argued that political questions were all too frequently represented as technological constraints, that the social elite lacked the will to play an active role and that the country was drastically in need of reform. A few years later, things started to happen. The political system was shaken by a new wave of opposition from non-parliamentary quarters. As part of the increasing general criticism of institutions, there were demands for the democratization of the world of science. Even though the fight for more student participation played less of a central role, the critical public of the 1970s remained a constant challenge to science. With the rise of protests against nuclear technology, researchers have seen their authority clearly weakened, and there has been a need for new and better strategies with regard to justification and communication.
"For a University in the Service of the People!" One of the aims of the student-protests of the late 1960s was, to change the relationship between economy, politics and science.
"For a University in the Service of the People!" One of the aims of the student-protests of the late 1960s was, to change the relationship between economy, politics and science.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
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Politics

     
           
 

The Global Player in the Champions’ League

Today the ETH sees itself as a global player, as a sophisticated teaching and research centre. This international orientation means that the importance of location has faded somewhat. Yet national frontiers are still a factor: brain drain or brain gain? Gain in excellence or loss of investment?
Institutions rich in tradition, such as the Nobel Prize, or information systems shaped by the market, such as the university rankings, show that the two concepts
of science and nation are still paradoxically interwoven. The international communications area of the scientific communities is still a forum for national competitiveness. The claim of science to objective and universal validity is as anchored in time-specific structures as it ever was.
"The ETH Zurich can only compete with the world's best by establishing international links, by recruiting its academic and research staff worldwide, and by remaining attractive to students from abroad." From the Mission Statement of the ETH.
"The ETH Zurich can only compete with the world's best by establishing international links, by recruiting its academic and research staff worldwide, and by remaining attractive to students from abroad." From the Mission Statement of the ETH.