Focusing on the whole Person: Interview with Alanus Chancellor Ms Dziak-Mahler about what makes the University unique and the Factors of its successful Organisational Development

The educational concept of Alanus University, which the Software AG Foundation has supported for many years, both financially and ideologically, focuses on the whole person. In this spirit, SAGST’s homepage regularly highlights those who make up this educational institution – its teachers and students as well as university management representatives. This time, the spotlight is on Myrle Dziak-Mahler, Chancellor in Alfter and Commercial Director of the gGmbH (non-profit limited liability company) since the beginning of 2021. In this interview, she talks about her first months in office, the role of art, feedback and equal footing in organisational development, as well as what makes Alanus so unique now and in the future.

Ms Dziak-Mahler, you have been in office as the Chancellor of Alanus University for a good six months. What has been your experience of your new workplace in Alfter during this time?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: I have become familiar with Alanus University in a very unique context. When I started, we were in the middle of the peak phase of the pandemic, and it was virtually empty. Nevertheless, what makes Alfter so special for me and others was palpable. It has a unique atmosphere; you might say its very own culture, characterised by a strong sense of belonging. People here see themselves as part of a broad Alanus community. Not only does that apply to the 260 or so teachers and administrative staff, but also to our nearly 2,000 students and even the local residents, who are proud of their university.

Why is that?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: Campus I, our Johannishof on the mountain, certainly exudes a certain allure. Its stunning location is an ideal environment for artistic and creative work, and it has a special flair that I personally love. Moreover, the university owes its charisma, which extends to the entire Rhein-Sieg region, to the study conditions that have been created here and that strike a chord with the next generation.

In what way?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: Generation Z and those who are still at school, called Generation Alpha, want to move away from a standardised education for a specific job profile. These young people are looking for personal development, and that’s what they can find here in Alfter, alongside the examination of highly relevant social issues, such as sustainability or climate change.  

How exactly does Alanus University promote the personal development of its students?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: We – that pronoun shows how much I already identify with the university – focus on the individual, pick up where they are as a person and accompany them on their journey.

Of course, that is especially applicable to the training of young artists …
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: ... but also, for example, within the framework of our study programme for future Waldorf teachers. Their personal development as well as their relationship with their pupils demonstrably affect learning success. And yet, the teacher’s role is largely neglected in government studies. As a former teacher and someone who worked in teacher education for 16 years, it is nice to find something very different in Alfter and also to experience the diversity within the student body. Our part-time degree programmes, which cater to students’ individual life situations, attract not only high school graduates fresh from the classroom but also educators who are already in the workforce or people who want to change careers. Another example of how we foster our students’ personal development is our transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary concept: we have a strong extracurricular studies programme. Of course, many other universities also have such a programme. But only at a few locations can those who study architecture or economics take art modules – and art colleges with offers firmly anchored in sociology, philosophy or in the field of economics are also rather rare.

If you were finishing high school and were going to study in Alfter, which of the more than 20 degree programmes would choose?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: I have already been asked once in which degree programme I would enrol at Alanus University if I could not study teaching again. At that time, I had to think of something else, and I quickly said art therapy because I am so interested in the therapeutic approach and people as individuals. But to be honest, I would still want to become a teacher. I would very much enjoy studying at a small university like the one here in Alfter with a very good student-teacher ratio and becoming a teacher at a Waldorf school. As someone who is interested in art and culture, I would probably have felt very comfortable here even then.

Alanus University is currently undergoing a transformation process in order to become even more future-oriented and competitive in the market. What role does art play in this organisational development?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: Art can support development processes within organisations – not only here in Alfter. The experience of being artistically active can help people rethink their own feedback culture, for instance. Because even though external feedback is very important to all of us, such feedback is rather rarely properly conducted, i.e. institutionalised and also professionally as well as methodically supported, especially when it comes to peer feedback. In this regard, a lot can be learned from our Drama Department, for instance. Those who are trained there grow up with regular feedback from others. You perform something and get feedback – not only from the professors but also from fellow students, to whom you give feedback in turn. This kind of hierarchy-free feedback on equal footing is the supreme discipline for a learning organisation and part of a conception of people that is also found in my “Connect Four” model.

What is that all about?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: The “Connect Four” model came into being during my time as Managing Director at the Centre for Teacher Education at the University of Cologne. I developed it together with others from start to finish. In the course of doing so, and as a result of the continual contemplation of what an organisation actually needs, I realised how important it is to take each other seriously. The decisive building blocks for this are transparency, participation, equal footing and personal responsibility. Only then can we succeed in relating to each other as freely as possible from hierarchies and at the same time become smarter as an entire organisation. Because such an environment makes it possible for everyone to contribute their expertise, knowledge and skills.

Which of those four components is the most important, in your opinion?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: They all build on each other. For me as a leader, however, the aforementioned equal footing or trust is very decisive because I have to establish both quite consciously before I can expect it from others. A very banal example from everyday university life: I, as a 57-year-old chancellor and managing director, see a student. I can tell her: “Speak to me as an equal”. But that wouldn’t work. Due to my position and the existing informal power structures, I am the one who has to ensure that the necessary trust exists so we can address each other accordingly – and not the other way around.

Trust always has something to do with letting go of the past and having confidence in the future. What development opportunities do you see for Alanus University?
Myrle Dziak-Mahler: I am convinced that we will continue to be a unique university in the future. At the same time, however, we have the potential to become even more future-proof. One – albeit unwelcome – push along the way was the coronavirus. The state of emergency triggered many developments at our university, such as digital teaching, which can make Alfter an even more diverse place to study than before.

Myrle Dziak-Mahler is a certified coach and Scrum Master who studied management theory in St. Gallen. She is also a trained moderator. In addition to her work at Alanus University, she is in demand as a speaker, coach, consultant, moderator and author. She has received several awards for her special administrative achievements, most recently the University Prize from the University of Cologne.