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Interview with Prof. Söderbergh Widding, new President of the CIVIS alliance

29 abril 2020

Prof Astrid Söderbergh Widding, President of Stockholm University has been appointed CIVIS president on 1 April 2020 succeeding to Prof. Eugenio Gaudio, Rector of Sapienza University of Rome.

Discover what the CIVIS European University is about through her interview!

1. Could you please introduce yourself to our community?

My name is Astrid Söderbergh Widding. I am a Professor of Cinema Studies and since 2013 the President of Stockholm University. In our European University Alliance, all presidents or rectors form the Board of Rectors which is responsible for all major decisions. The board is led by one of the presidents and the presidency rotates every six months. I will be the President of the board from 1st April 2020 until 30th September 2020. 

2. Could you explain what CIVIS is?

CIVIS – a European Civic University is a university alliance formed in October 2019 of eight prominent universities in Europe: Aix-Marseille Université, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Universitatea din București, Université libre de Bruxelles, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Sapienza Università di Roma, Stockholm University and Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen. CIVIS is part of the European University Initiative, financed by the Erasmus+ programme, and is the largest of the 17 selected alliances. A second call for new European University Alliances has been launched this year and will probably result in some 24 new alliances.

3. Why a European CIVIC university?

As Higher Education Institutions we all contribute with education that forms competent, critical and creative citizens and research that brings new knowledge to society and supports new achievements. As autonomous, free universities we share fundamental academic values and we all promote human rights and European values such as human dignity, equality, liberty and solidarity. 

As the very name signals, the collaboration of the CIVIS Alliance centers around the important role of universities in our societies and how we can contribute to solve societal challenges. Our collaboration in education and research has a challenge-based approach which means that we work together thematically and multidisciplinary.

Six of out eight universities are situated in capital cities and all universities are important actors in their region. Collaborations with public authorities and institutions, community organizations, businesses and non-profit organizations are integral part of our alliance. Through Open labs and other forms of work we hope to nurture local and regional strategies for transformation and sustainable development.

4. What does CIVIS aim to become and why?

CIVIS is a new University Alliance and the first three years 2019-2022 should be seen as a “fabric phase” when we lay the foundation for our model, test and pilot the basic structures of our alliance. International collaboration is vital for all prominent universities and the member universities of CIVIS form a big and strong European alliance. 

As for all university alliances of the European university initiative, the vision of CIVIS is far-reaching. The long-term goal is that students should be able to get access to all programs and courses of our eight universities and feel that they are part of one big inter-university campus. In the beginning we will focus our educational collaboration on fields in which our universities do excellent research in our ambition to integrate teaching and research and to collaborate with external actors on the current societal challenges.

The visions of the European university initiative include seamless mobility, flexible curricula and work-based experience. All this challenges local and national structures and regulations. In this sense our CIVIS Alliance will be part of a probable long-term transformation of higher education in Europe. 

In light of the extraordinary COVID-19 situation we find our collaboration within CIVIS, as well as within other European University alliances, as more important than ever. When nations tend to withdraw and close their borders, it is vital that our universities keep in close contact and develop our collaboration. Research and higher education are by nature cross-border activities, and the collaboration between students and staff between our universities in CIVIS are inspiring and prospective.

5. What makes CIVIS unique?

The European Universities Initiative is unique and it is very interesting to be part of the first pilot. CIVIS is the largest alliance and brings together almost 400 000 students and 55 000 staff members. Also, all our member institutions are broad, traditional universities and our collaboration in the alliance is not confined to specific subject areas, as is the case in most other alliances. Our universities represent different geographical areas of Europe and we form a rich multicultural and multilingual unity.

6. How will CIVIS succeed in building a European University?

We are still in the early stages of our alliance and we are in the process of establishing the organization and planning our work. We have regular meetings in the governance bodies and the project leaders at each university closely collaborate. Also, we have formed a number of working groups for different purposes. At the same time, we want to initiate actions as early as possible since we have an ambitious plan for the coming three years. That means that we try to start collaborations on a small scale now that can be further developed later on.

For example, we have already signed institutional bilateral Erasmus agreements between all universities and initiated calls for short term mobilities.

Our five challenge-based priorities are: Health

  • Cities, territories and mobilities
  • Climate, environment, energy
  • Digital and technological transformations
  • Society, cultures and heritage

These themes will form the centre of our hubs for education and research and for the Open labs in co-operation with external partners. The first hub on Climate, environment and energy is being planned right now and will be launched in September. Also, we work together on different project proposals for external funding that can support the work in our alliance.

7. Why did Stockholm University decide to be part of this European University Alliance?

Stockholm University followed the early discussions on the European University Initiative with great interest. For Stockholm University the initiative gave possibilities for new European partnerships that could complement our partnerships with Nordic, Asian and American universities. 

We were contacted in 2018 by members of the future CIVIS Alliance who had initiated discussions on forming an alliance. We were very positive from the start since the alliance included other prominent universities, several of them in capital cities, and the alliance would enable us to deepen existing collaborations as well as make new ones possible.

8. What upcoming activities is CIVIS planning for 2020?

The COVID-19 crisis has radically changed the scene for us all the last weeks and months. The difficult situation in our different countries has had many negative consequences for all and, of course, also affected our universities. As we speak, the university buildings are closed and both students and staff work from home. Great efforts have been made to adapt to the new situation and to maintain business as usual to the fullest possible extent. A positive effect is that we have seen a far-reaching digital shift during the past few weeks that is inspiring and gives hope. These new habits of communicating will favour our collaboration in the CIVIS alliance and also be of great benefit for the climate in the long term. 

We have seen so many signs of solidarity, warm concern and friendship among us alliance colleagues during the last weeks. We have also seen many innovative examples of how our universities in the alliance take action to help society in the crisis. As I said earlier, the collaboration between universities is more important now than ever before. The last few weeks have shown that we stand united in the COVID-19 crisis!

As a result of COVID-19, all physical meetings and conferences within CIVIS have been cancelled or replaced by online meetings. At the moment, it is very difficult to plan ahead and to know when the situation will become more normal again. 

All initiatives that include physical mobility for students for this summer or the autumn semester are pending. At the moment, it is also difficult for teachers to plan for future collaborative activities when so much effort is needed right now to find solutions to all matters of everyday teaching.

On 28-29 September, we hope to be able to welcome all alliance members to Stockholm for the first Global CIVIS Days. However, due to the current situation, we have to come back with more information about this occasion later on.