A first report from the woman at the top

In spite of overcast skies and late fall gloom, a sunny mood and sense of optimism fill the halls. The new Dean of Bucerius Law School sits at the table. Three months ago, Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Katharina Boele-Woelki (59) took office. Time for a brief review and discussion of next steps, the Netherlands and music.

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Everything is no doubt still quite new for you. What was your first reaction in having been offered the position?

Katharina Boele-Woelki (with a chuckle): Do they mean me?! A headhunter had written an email and said she wanted to speak with me about the selection of a successor to the deanship of Bucerius Law School. I had wondered to myself, “Hm, whom should I suggest to her? Which person could I imagine for this position?” After a few minutes, it hit me: she was referring to me. I was delighted! Although I had been quite happy about what I was doing and where I was, I decided to take part in the selection process. After all, Bucerius Law School is one of the best legal faculties in Germany with a handpicked group of incredibly committed students. The offer was a great honor.

…and one that carries a lot of responsibility.

Oh, yes. Even though I come from a university that is ten times larger and enjoyed a lot of recognition and freedom in my last position, my responsibilities were different as I was not a part of the administration.

Could you speak a bit to your academic career? You relocated to the Netherlands directly after having finished your legal studies in Göttingen and Berlin in 1982, correct?

That’s correct. In 1982, I began as a researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Institute in The Hague, a center named after Dutch jurist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tobias Michel Karel Asser. In 1990, I joined the Law Faculty of Utrecht University as a lecturer and worked toward a professorship. I became a Professor of Private International Law, Comparative Law and Family Law in 1995, an assignment which allowed me to teach and conduct research in this area. In addition to my professorial duties, I oversaw several research programs, supervised numerous doctoral theses and headed the Department of Private Law three times from 1995-2012, each time for a term of two years.

Having written your doctoral thesis at Freie Universität Berlin on the effectiveness test of citizenship in Dutch international family law, you have rather dedicated yourself to the area of family law. Did this stem from some personal interest in the topic?

No, my work in the field was purely out of curiosity and because, at that time, there was a large gap in this area of legal scholarship. I myself am married, have three grown daughters and have always worked; in this respect, there’s been a practical motif surrounding my professional pursuits.

When I first started at the University of Utrecht, I spent a great deal of time working with and publishing in international contract law. So did my direct colleagues. I had been wondering where I could establish myself. In the late 90s, there was relatively little research being conducted in European family law with online searches yielding only a few hits.

After a number of detours, I returned to family law and began a comparative investigation, noting similarities and differences in areas such as same-sex relationships and alimony for separated spouses. This sort of comparative research had very practical consequences with regard to the harmonization of family law systems in Europe. In 2007, I founded the Utrecht Centre for European Research into Family Law (UCERF), prior to this, in 2001, the Commission on European Family Law (CEFL), which I chair. The Commission consists of 30 experts. Our work is documented in the red and yellow volumes behind me (pointing to two rows of shelves).

Up to this point, your professional life has consisted of research and teaching. How’s that looking at the moment?

I have retained an unpaid professorship in Utrecht and am still supervising a few doctoral candidates there, but, for now, am taking a break from teaching. I am continuing to lead the Commission on European Family Law; however, I am first and foremost Dean of Bucerius Law School and, as such, have several representative obligations.

My days are well filled with discussion groups, talks and events. Over the past three months, I have taken part in some 50 discussions. To gain an overview, I have spoken with all of the Law School’s professors, as well as with department heads, staff, trustees and the senate.

What’s the conclusion?

I’m in a good position to pick up where my predecessors left off. The image of Bucerius Law School is extremely positive and the message at its core is very, very good; a few internal concerns are present. Digitalization of instruction is a big issue.

Is this on your agenda?

Yes. Other universities have great ideas for addressing this topic. We compete with each other and need a plan. Beyond this, it’s my belief that there should be stronger international exchange in research and teaching, not only among professors, but also academic staff and doctoral candidates. I would like for our research to receive greater visibility. For example, all dissertations should contain a summary in English. This is important for external communication. Doctoral theses are a marquee.

Are there differences between German and Dutch scientific culture?

Yes and no. As an example involving digitalization: Lectures at the University of Utrecht are followed-up with video; a lecturer summarizes key points from a talk in a video that will be watched by some 850 or 900 students. Generally speaking, Germany takes a more formal approach than the Netherlands. Flat hierarchies are more common among the Dutch with most individuals using informal address in communication—students as well as professors. I never took to this; it wasn’t for me. (with a laugh) I’m from a different generation.

What do you appreciate most at Bucerius Law School?

The student union and alumni association are fantastic! The gears of the administration that interlink are well-crafted. Everything runs quickly and smoothly. And there are events that do a great job bringing together German and international students. The trimester concert held in November was an absolute delight. There were several foreign students in the choir, orchestra and as part of the Bucerius Big Band. I played the violin in Koblenz, where I grew up, and led the 60-strong youth orchestra there. My love of music has remained.

…and how about the city? You lived previously in Rotterdam. Have you settled into life in Hamburg?

My husband and I commute. He continues to live in our apartment on the water in Rotterdam. I’ll soon be moving to the HafenCity. I was already familiar with Hamburg because of the Max Planck Institute. Just like Rotterdam, Hamburg is a beautiful port town. I came here with complete conviction. There is still so much to discover and so much exciting work ahead of me!


Anja Reinbothe-Occhipinti, Translation: Balin Loftus