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Ulrike Landfester is vice-president of the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, ranked number one in the Financial Times Masters in Management ranking 2012. She has held this role since February 2011, specialising in regional and international relations.

Professor Landfester worked at several universities before joining St Gallen in 2003 as a tenured professor of German language and literature – the first woman in this department of the school. She has a PhD from Munich University and in her spare time, she enjoys theatre, opera, reading, cooking and collecting contemporary art.

1. Who are your business influences?

Prof Gerhard Neumann, who awakened my passion for scholarship in literature and Prof Dieter Imboden, currently the president of the research council of the Swiss National Science Foundation, who taught me to channel this passion into science politics to further the interdisciplinary productivity of the humanities.

2. What do you enjoy most about your job?

My students are not future literary students themselves, their core subjects are economics, management and law respectively. Teaching German literature in this particular framework is a huge challenge as I constantly need to evaluate, select and present fields of knowledge through which the humanities can meaningfully contribute to my students’ development – meeting this challenge has become an enormously inspiring experience for me.

3. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

There are several pieces in fact, which I collected over the years: Talk to your public, not over their heads; gauge their reactions and adjust your input accordingly. The most scholarly sounding disquisitions are worthless if they bore the audience to tears, so strive to be entertaining. Always remember that you are constantly looking for both new knowledge and angles of perception, so allow even the most preposterous questions without arrogance – you never know where inspiration may bloom.

4. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

Never take yourself too seriously, even if you have attained the scholarly and social status of a professor – after all, however supposedly lofty one’s position, one is always a fallible human being.

5. What is the strangest thing you have ever done when teaching?

When I taught a course on the cultural poetics of food and eating, I sent [the students] out to eat in different restaurants and then hand in a report on their experiences, based on the theoretical framework of our course. That was a bit strange for them at first but they quickly got into the spirit of the thing and we had a lot of fun.

6. What advice would you give to women in business?

Do not look for woman-haters, male or female, at every corner because by presuming you will find them, you antagonise even those who have as yet been undecided about responding to your gender. Be stubbornly friendly to everybody over the first weeks and use this time to evaluate whether any anti-female reactions you encounter are deeply rooted in prejudice, or whether they are simply opportunistic and/or habitualised. Your determined stance of co-operational friendliness will bolster your professional credibility.

7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

When I first came to St Gallen, I was asked how I felt to be the first female professor appointed to my department. I could not give a really interesting answer as that particular angle of my appointment had not occurred to me before. I make no difference between my male and my female colleagues either in daily business or conceptually, nor have I ever seen a reason to do so. In hindsight, my appointment might certainly have been a shift of paradigm in terms of gender balance, but there was and is nothing programmatic about this; I take the male part of the academic population as serious as the female part and this is reciprocal.

8. What is the worst job you have ever had?

Working as general dogsbody at the kitchen of an insurance company’s cafeteria in Munich when I was a student, desperate to earn some money for warm winter boots. The full time personnel there had a lot of fun tormenting what they termed ‘one of those student intellectuals,’ having me scrub pots until my fingers bled and that’s not a figure of speech.

9. What is your favourite business book?

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, especially the second part as it tells a story of the invention of money through the spirit of poetry which becomes ever more plausible the longer one thinks about it. One tends to forget that Goethe, besides being a poet, was also the minister of justice and economics at the Weimar court and thus really knew what he was talking about.

10. What is your plan B?

When I was working on my thesis and the job market for literary scholars looked fairly dire, I seriously considered going into gastronomy – opening a high-class pub. Today, however, I’d go into writing mysteries, preferably the kind of university mysteries introduced by Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, because any academic career, if nothing else, offers a whole lot of subject matter for that kind of writing.

Compiled by Charlotte Clarke

Photo credit: University of St Gallen - Hannes Thalmann

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