From our archive: The school of lost morals

It’s summer and time for a short trip… one that takes you back in time to the Hertie School’s earlier days. Find out what the school was like at the beginning of the decade in this most-read Hertie School classic by author Moritz Rinke with cameo appearances by President Helmut K. Anheier, Professors Klaus Hurrelmann and Jobst Fiedler, as well as now-alumni Peter Drahn, Marcia Toldeo, Fortune Agbele and Juliane Sarnes. The article was first published by Der Tagesspiegel on 24 January 2010.

If we could wish for something in this year of global crisis, it would be for a manager – especially a banker – with a moral compass. But that would probably be wishful thinking. Perhaps we should cast around for a moral manager who doesn’t run a bank. That would be hard enough.

Since 2005, a university in Berlin has offered public administrators and executives a master’s in public policy. It’s not cheap, but seems to be worth it - a hundred new students enroll in one of two study programmes every year. That means some two hundred young people walk down Friedrichstrasse every day to enter a building across the street from Galeries Lafayette where they learn to how to be managers. “More managers?” we might ask. Does the world really need more managers?

The school is called the Hertie School, a name that evokes both a defunct, low-price German department store from the eighties – “Hertie” – and the august world of global policy-making – “governance”. It takes its name from the Hertie Foundation, a non-profit that has invested 35 million euros from an endowment created after the sale of the Hertie department stores to German rival Karstadt nearly two decades ago.

One could imagine worse names for a university that trains managers: Zumwinkel School, Hartz Academy, or Wiedeking Institute, to name three German executives who resigned over alleged misconduct. But what can the school teach in the era after the global financial crisis, after all those legal and unregulated scams and bonus scandals? What can it teach managers when the institutions they are one day meant to help run are under such strain?

So as not to stand out like a sore thumb among this next generation of leaders, I don a yellow tie, the colour of Germany’s economically liberal Free Democrat Party. I ease open the huge gilded doors that mark Friedrichstrasse 180, so heavy that the students are already subjected to assertiveness training upon entry. But maybe the doors just belong to another time and another tenant. The building previously housed Communist East Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Trade.

I'm off to my first seminar as a guest student. My peers all sit in front of laptops and type while the professor speaks; no one looks up. Now and then they utter an English sentence in a very American manner, but keep typing with immense focus. The scene is more like a NASA control room in deepest America than a university seminar in Germany. I teach in Leipzig, my students like to have chocolate, Chekhov dramas or their knitting gear spread before them. Unlike at the Hertie School, there is a lot of knitting at German universities.

I had imagined the professors at the Hertie School would be stylish and dynamic in a slightly off-putting way. But Professor Klaus Hurrelmann wears a T-shirt and has a most pleasant, cautious and modest way of choosing his words. He is a leading expert on social, educational and health issues and is the brains behind Germany’s famous Shell Youth Study, which appears every four to five years.

Prof. Hurrelmann’s seminar carries the title "Welfare States and Education Policy” and looks at which education systems produce the best performing students. The participants have one hour to collate data on traditional, liberal and left-leaning education systems from the OECD’s “Pisa” educational comparison. In the end, they discover that Scandinavian countries with their comprehensive schools provide the best possible education.

There are no long discussions. The systemic differences are presented, and at the end of the class, Germany’s carefully constructed school system is shown to be nothing but obsolete, useless and in need of restructuring. Some social science seminars would probably discuss the problem for years, but the Hertie students are done in an hour. They save the remedy - "comprehensive schools" – in their laptops and proceed to the next seminar - "tax law."

This seminar also comes to the conclusion that the German system is the most complicated and trickiest to administer. The tax collection systems in some federal states lag hopelessly behind the legislative changes they are meant to enact. And some tax authorities, for example those in Lower Saxony, call taxpayers to advise them to file objections to their tax assessments, just in case the public administration has failed to follow the letter of the law.

Peter Drahn is 26 and in the second year of the MPP programme. He designed a new, simplified tax system for Germany in one of his seminars. On the corridor between classes I ask whether he could sketch it for me on a beer coaster, like Friedrich Merz, the tax-reform cheerleader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party. But the young man has no time, he has to go to the Chancellery, where he did a year’s work experience in the Chancellor’s Europe department – but best not to talk about that. He also apologizes for the suit he’s wearing – access to the heart of the Merkel government is not possible without one.

A group of Hertie School students get to know each other during the orientation week for the academic year 2009/2010.

I approach another student walking down the corridor. Marcia Toledo has a brisk walk, black eyes and comes from the Peruvian rainforest. Wouldn’t it be funny for her to sit in on a seminar about the German tax system? "Yes," she says, "Especially as I’m a biologist!"

A biologist? I ask. I thought the place was only for law and business students. "No, we even have theologians and theatre scholars! That’s the aim of the curriculum – to give students deep insights in many different fields,” she says. “I’ve heard a thing or two about German tax law and I can tell you that whoever thinks up such a system probably doesn’t have any other problems to deal with. Maybe the Germans like creating problems for themselves because they don’t have any real ones? But that's definitely only my Peruvian take on things!"

Marcia Toledo is pulling me down the corridor to hurry me along. The Hertie School has three floors and Toledo has to get to the topmost one for the "Copenhagen Seminar", a review of last year’s world climate summit. Her father is a ranger in the rainforest. She moved to Lima at 18, went to university, and worked in environmental administration. "In Latin America, there is no structural thinking, every department works for itself,” she says. “I want to bring together different decision-makers and stakeholders." And she’s now being taught this? "Yes, it's like being given the right tools,” she says. “After a week of studying European education systems, tax law, EU law, administrative law, human rights, financial crisis, globalisation, Berluscon-isation, Putin-isation, it sometimes also feels like too many tools.”

As I finish noting down what she just said, Marcia Toledo is already gone. I catch a glimpse of her through the window of the Copenhagen seminar. She has already opened up her laptop.

Some 45 of the Hertie School’s annual intake of 100 students come from Germany, the other 65 from abroad - the USA, Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa. As one academic year costs around 10,000 euros, most of them have scholarships or wealthy parents. The two-year course "Master of Public Policy" is aimed at graduate students who, according to the school’s profile, "want to work at the interface of politics, business and civil society.”

From a seminar room across the corridor comes Jobst Fiedler. Fiedler is the Hertie School’s expert in administrative management. He was municipal director of the city of Hanover, on the staff of the OECD and the EU, and a member of the Hartz Commission that proposed Germany’s radical labour-market reforms. He now teaches the discipline that gives the school its name: "Governance demonstrates that many of the changes society needs can no longer be achieved by national governments alone. The quality of interaction between state actors. Non-governmental organisations and companies are decisive at national and international levels. That's why we call ourselves a ‘School of Governance’, not a ‘School of Government’."

Still in the corridor, I ask him whether education at “the interface of politics and business” is also meant to create lobbyists. It is, after all, the sort of “interface” that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder would recognise in his current work for energy giant Gazprom, or former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in his work for power giant RWE, or former Interior Minister Otto Schily in his work for the security company Safe ID Solutions.

“Of course we can’t control what the students will do with the versatile tools we give them,” says Fielder. “But if you look at where the graduates end up working, you’ll find only around 20 percent end up in the private sector. Most of our students go into government administration, international organisations, and the non-profit sector. "

As we walk, Professor Fiedler comes across a student from Ghana, in Berlin on a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Fortune Agbele hands him a paper on human rights. I ask if she wants to return to Ghana after her studies. "Yes," she says, "What else? I'm here because I want to learn how to help people in Accra out of poverty."

Professor Fiedler says hello to Juliane Sarnes, a 28-year-old sociologist from Berlin, who spent a year studying at the London School of Economics. She is carrying a large package she won at a Hertie celebration and is making a beeline for the Copenhagen seminar. "We spent the last semester studying energy, environmental economics, and climate change - this is my favorite seminar." She holds open the door to the seminar room for an Iranian and a Lebanese classmate, only for a Brazilian to scuttle in, as well.

I’m a bit dizzy from this blur of activity, and turn to Professor Fielder to say as much. When Friedrichstrasse 180 was the East German Ministry of Foreign Trade, the most exciting thing that ever happened was probably the time Bavarian politician Franz Josef Strauss came to negotiate a billion-Deutschmark-loan in the last years of the East German state.

"Our university is a new beginning," says Fiedler. "The students are international, our approach interdisciplinary and focused on practical applicability in different areas. Education in Germany traditionally involved particular disciplines – law, economics or sociology – and civil servants would never leave their field, their silo, their entire career.”

So we're being ruled by bureaucrats who are – figuratively – sitting in silos, in hermetic enclosures in which they ferment in their unchanging ideas and practices?

"Yes and the disadvantages of careers in such silos have recently become obvious – there is too little understanding of the thinking in other disciplines, and generally not enough insight about market dynamics and international networks and competition. But you just have to walk through this school to see what a melting pot it is. It cannot be more global. "

That's true. The school really looks like last December’s Copenhagen summit, except that there are so many women. The public administrators of tomorrow are women – Merkelisation!

Professor Helmut K. Anheier is the new Dean and it feels like he moved into his office about five minutes ago. He's just putting his books in the bookshelves. I lend him a hand with these heavy tomes – "The Cultural Economy" and "Conflicts and Tensions" easily weigh seven kilos each. They describe the global crisis of values, from America via Europe to Asia. Anheier is a professor of sociology, with a focus on civil society studies and philanthropy.

Indeed, he looks like a philanthropist, a bit like Pic, the good-hearted clown from Germany’s famous Roncalli Circus. "We don’t want to train politicians, but lateral thinkers. When our students move on into business, we hope they will take their social responsibility with them. When we teach students political administration, we hope they will become the circumspect and judicious intelligence behind politicians. The party system offers no school of politics other than gaining and maintaining power. That's why we need new schools. "

It’s statements like that which make you want to hug Professor Anheier, but then he’s off take the train to Heidelberg, where he is head of the Center for Social Investment and Innovation. What wonderful institutes this country has of which you know nothing!

I walk back to the third floor, past the students in the Copenhagen seminar and again bump into Professor Fiedler: I still have no idea what "governance" is, I admit. But the school somehow seems surprisingly useful, and I should finally ditch the yellow, neoliberal tie.

This story originally appeared in the Tagesspiegel on 24 January 2010.