Head of the University of Applied Sciences, Düsseldorf
From the office of the president: Brigitte Grass discusses her drive in academia.
“I’ve got a healthy sense of curiosity, I’m interested in change, and I am goal oriented.” That’s Brigitte Grass (1982-1985), describing the drive that has shaped both her career and personal life.
It was the drive she brought to Boston Consulting Group in 1982 (as Brigitte Oertel) when she became the first woman to work in the firm’s newly-opened Düsseldorf office.
It was the drive she brought to the sport of fencing when she represented West Germany at two Olympic Games (1972 and 1976) and several World Championships (1970-1977).
And it’s the drive she brings today in her role as president of the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf which—with around 7,500 students and 200 professors—is one of the biggest universities of Applied Sciences in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Since 2009, Brigitte has been head of the school’s five-member presiding committee, with responsibility, among other things, for creating new study programs, increasing research income, and managing budgets.
“My role is comparable to that of the CEO of a large company, but with one significant difference,” she explained. “In a university setting, I have to take into account the democratic structure of the institution.” In addition to the presiding committee, Brigitte must work with and run decisions by the university council, a school senate, and various additional faculty councils and advisory boards.
“If, for instance, I want to create a new bylaw for the school, or if say, I want to create an operating budget, all interests must be taken into consideration,” she added. “I need input from the council and the senate every step of the way.”
It’s a far cry from her days at BCG Düsseldorf. There were just eight people working in that office. However, her list of colleagues from back then reads like a BCG Who’s Who. Among others, there were Hans-Paul Bürkner (current BCG chairman), Dieter Heuskel (current senior partner and managing director of BCG's Düsseldorf office), and Tom Lewis (current senior advisor to BCG’s Social Impact practice).
“My BCG colleagues were tough, they were strategic, and they got things done. And, I must add, they were a joy to work with.”
After leaving consulting, Brigitte taught business administration at the University of Applied Sciences at Cologne from 1986 until 1995. During that time, East and West Germany were reunited and Berlin was chosen as the new capital. As a result, many government offices were moved from Bonn to Berlin. The Bonn-Rhine-Sieg University of Applied Sciences was founded in 1995 as part of an agreement to compensate Bonn for its loss in status.
Brigitte was invited to build and lead this new school’s Department of Business Administration. “This really was quite an honor,” she said. “Such appointments are made traditionally on a rotation basis. But, as this was a brand new department at a brand new university, I was invited to become Dean.”
She explains further that German Universities of Applied Science are set up in such a way that all professors are required to have both a PhD and practical experience.
For her part, Brigitte called on what she’d learned at BCG to introduce “consulting” and other subjects into what she describes as an internationally-oriented department. She did this in large part through the formation of a student-led company she called Blue Point Consulting.
Under Brigitte’s oversight, a group of 20 students worked to create the structure of this company, design its web site, develop a marketing concept, and to generate a business plan. When it was up and running Blue Point Consulting took on work from small- and mid-sized businesses. “By working on a Blue Point Consulting project team, students earn money, gain practical experience, and supplement their business administration studies,” Brigitte explained.
The project has also helped attract an increased number of students to the school at a time when enrollment, nationwide, is down.
Today, in her third year as president at the University of Applied Sciences at Düsseldorf (she will hold the post until 2015) Brigitte’s responsibilities have broadened far beyond the teaching of business studies.
The school has seven distinct departments: Architecture; Design; Electrical Engineering; Mechanical Engineering; Media; Social Sciences and Cultural Studies; and Business Studies. These seven departments are dispersed between the two campus buildings on opposite ends of Düsseldorf—one on the north side of the city and one on the south. Students and professors have to flit constantly from one end of town to the other.
Plans are underway to consolidate the school into one campus, smack in the center of the city. The new location will consist of seven buildings, with a footprint of around 40,000 square meters.
Brigitte is under no illusions as to the amount of work in front of her. She points, as just one example, to the challenge of weighing the opinions of the seven departments that have a say in the design. “The architecture department, naturally, has high expectations about what it wants to see built. Other departments also have opinions about how they want their buildings to look. I didn’t study architecture, but I know we don’t want seven dissimilar facades. Further, this is real life and we must work within a real budget.”
Brigitte has a deadline of 2013 for the completion of the project. If that seems like a difficult goal, remember, this is a woman who knows a thing or two about focusing on targets. “As a fencer, I was focused enough to retain my place on the national team for ten years,” she said. “I was privileged to compete on the world stage. I narrowly missed out on a medal at the Montreal Olympics—when our team took fourth place because of just one touch—and we placed second in the World Championships in Buenos Aires in 1977.”
Competition fencing, she says, forged in her a positive attitude toward everything she has done since. And, although she hung up her swords years ago, her competitive edge has hardly diminished. Having taken up golf as a “pastime,” she currently plays on a senior club team ranked among the best six teams in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
However, her proudest achievement by far, says Brigitte, is her family. Her husband, Hans-Georg, is a certified public accountant; daughter, Alexandra, 23, is studying for her Master of Finance degree and is currently spending a semester at MIT; and son, Christopher, 20, is getting ready to begin his college career, studying business administration…of course.
“That’s right, we’re an entire family of business people,” laughed Brigitte. “It leads to some interesting discussion around our dinner table. We never struggle to find something to chat about.”