Meet the Hertie School Leadership: Christine Reh

The Dean of Graduate Programmes reflects on new teaching formats, new programmes and new perspectives post-pandemic.

Sitting in the Claus Offe Library on a June morning, Christine Reh has a smile and a greeting for everyone who happens by – students, faculty, maintenance staff working on the adjacent rooftop terrace. ­­Her interest in those who create the Hertie School community is palpable.

The three years since Reh came to the Hertie School to take up the roles Dean of Graduate Programmes and Professor of European Politics have yielded many challenges – not least COVID-19. “My first year and a half were busy, but I still could carve out time for research,” she says. “But the last 18 months or so have been very intense.”

The School has come together in many ways unimaginable before the pandemic, she says. “In graduate programmes, I think we've really learned to trust each other and to work together in all sorts of different formats.” She is most proud of the way the School has grown and developed: “I think it's the dynamism of the place, which is targeted towards positive change. If you have an idea, if you can convince people of what to do and where to go, you can do it,” she says. “That's an amazing feature of an institution that is still fairly young. It has found its place, but it is also still looking to position itself and remains very creative.”

During the early days of the pandemic, Reh worked closely with the School’s new Digital Learning Team to rapidly move classes online, to meet students’ needs as they quarantined at home and to address faculty’s challenges as they taught online, often for the first time. Recently, she’s been taking a step back to reflect on that experience.

“Even after completely returning to onsite teaching, using digital technology, we can incorporate flexibility into everyday life at the School, across all levels and activities,” she says. “With our Director of Digital Learning, Annika Zorn, and across the different School constituencies, we’re going to start a systematic thought process towards a digital learning strategy.” Among the many gains she sees is the ease of engaging with guest speakers. This could greatly expand the diversity of perspectives in classes, but also benefit wider audiences attending School events. It will also help disseminate knowledge and research more effectively, she says.

During the year, Reh also had her own experiences with online education, teaching the project course, “Influencing Brussels: The European Green Deal in Real Time”, together with Jesse Scott, International Programme director at the Berlin climate and energy think tank Agora Energiewende. The course introduced students to the theory and practice of influencing public policy, with a focus on the EU’s recent proposal to link the energy infrastructure of EU countries. Project courses are a key part of the Hertie School’s curriculum and allow students in the Master of Public Policy (MPP) programme to delve into the real-world practice of policymaking – in this case, lobbying and advocacy.

“Jesse and I teamed up for a sort of theory meets practice look at climate legislation,” says Reh. “In each session, we offered a mix of how Brussels works, looking at the academic literature, and also taking a practical perspective, which Jesse provided: What would be the most effective way to achieve something, who would you target at different stages of law-making, how would you organise your communications?” In small groups, the students devised and presented campaigns on a variety of Green Deal issues, targeting policymakers, politicians or NGOs, for example.

Beyond the classroom, one of Reh’s main recent contributions to the strategic vision for the Hertie School’s curriculum has been reforming the Master of International Affairs (MIA) to introduce three new concentrations: International Security, European Governance, and Human Rights and Global Governance, which align closely with the School’s Centres of Competence. She has also helped create the new Master of Data Science for Public Policy, which started in September 2021, in close cooperation with the Data Science Lab, and further developed the focus of the School’s most established programme, the MPP.

Research on the EU’s politicisation

Hailing originally from Mainz, Reh grew up in Brussels and in the Rhine Valley. She joined the Hertie School after 20 years abroad ­– in Bruges, Florence and London. After receiving her PhD from the European University Institute in Florence (Italy) in 2007, Reh worked at University College London until 2018.

She still collaborates closely in her research, which focuses on European Union politics, with colleagues from her time at the EUI and in London – first and foremost, with Christel Koop from King's College London, and Edoardo Bressanelli from the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa.

“The project I brought from London is about politicisation in the European Union,” she says. “How do institutions react when Europe is contested at home? What repertoire of strategic responses can they draw from? We focused in particular on the European Commission. What drives the Commission when it puts forward its annual legislative programme and priorities? And likewise, what drives the Commission to take laws off the table? Does the Commission prioritise or withdraw legislation to signal – for example, restraint to a eurosceptic public?”

Reh, Koop and Bressanelli have written a number of articles on the topic, the most recent of which, “Agenda-setting under pressure: Does domestic politics influence the European Commission?”, appeared in the February 2021 European Journal of Political Research. They also edited a 2020 special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy focusing on different EU institutions “under pressure”, like the Court of Justice of the European Union, the EU’s Council and the European Central Bank.

The researchers are interested in how different EU institutions respond to politicisation, arguing that political pressure doesn't necessarily constrain, but can also enable actors, Reh explains. “Politicisation is not the only response”, she says. “In fact, de-politicisation can also be a reaction to pressure. For instance, we saw in our research that the European Commission often responds to euroscepticism by withdrawing proposals from its agenda.”

In both her research and teaching, Reh is interested in bringing together quantitative analysis with more traditional qualitative research – the kind of analysis and interpretation involved in going through archives and speaking directly to decision-makers. 

“I'm a great believer in mixed methods research,” she says. “It’s hard to design your research effectively if you don't know what's happening on the ground. For example, when we worked on the Commission’s priority-setting, the process was simply cryptic, and we quickly realised that we needed to understand the process first. So we went to Brussels and interviewed officials in the European Commission who could explain the process, its evolution and its change to us. Only with that background knowledge could we develop a systematic argument and conduct systematic quantitative analysis.”

Reh also teaches a related class: “The European Union, Globalisation and the State” will be a core course for MIA students on the new European Governance stream. In class, the students explore how states change under international pressure and when they become members of the European Union ­– in terms of political institutions, interest representation, perceptions of citizenship, and questions of legitimacy.

“We systematically compare countries across EU member states and try to understand this pressure together. This is almost the reverse of my research on politicisation,” says Reh. “Take, for example, a country that doesn't have a strong tradition of judicial review ­– and then the European Court of Justice enters the equation. Does it change the relationship between law and politics at the national level?”

The course also explores mechanisms that create domestic change: “Who pushes for it, who tries to hold it back. Under what conditions does it change?” she says. By focusing on research design, systematic comparison, and the measurement of change, Reh hopes that the course can also help the students prepare for their master’s thesis – independent projects in the second year, a requirement for students to graduate.

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