Portrait: "Building up the student union in Thuringia was my life's work".

After more than 30 years as managing director of the Studierendenwerk Thüringen, Dr. Ralf Schmidt-Röh is retiring at the end of the year. In the interview on his farewell, he talks about personal retrospectives, insights and outlooks.

Studierendenwerk Thüringen
The managing director of the Studierendenwerk Thüringen, Dr. Ralf Schmidt-Röh, is retiring after 30 years of service.

If you compare your studies with studies today, what are the differences?

In terms of content, the same laws, rules and logical connections certainly apply in mathematics and physics today. In order to arrive at estimable results, we used blackboards, collections of formulas and at least calculators. A missed lecture was made up with a transcript by inserting blue paper into the writing pad. Document and exam papers were typed, on Ormig paper if duplications were necessary, and formulas were entered into the text by hand. And even down-to-earth maths studies were politically interspersed, Marxist-Leninist studies were compulsory - but so was participation in student sports, which was probably more of an advantage. The accommodation on six square meters in a four-bed room in the dormitory for 10 marks user fee per month will remain unforgotten. I ate lunch in the refectory, as I do today, but for 60 pfennigs. And there would be much more to tell. But computers, tablets, mobile phones, online lectures, campus management systems, student services and student unions were unknown foreign words in the early 1980s.

Why should one make use of the services offered by the Studierendenwerk today?

The services offered by the Studierendenwerk are oriented towards the needs of the students and are also financed with the solidary participation of all students. The Studierendenwerk is run in the tradition of student self-administration, with equal participation of students in the administrative board. These services as well as the possible self-involvement promote student success.

How did you become the managing director of the Studierendenwerk?

At the time of reunification, I was already responsible for the refectories and social facilities at the University of Jena. Due to the partnerships with the universities of Erlangen, Göttingen and Tübingen that already existed at that time, I soon had the opportunity to get to know the student unions there and their managing directors as well, which gave me a motivating orientation for my further professional development. The desire that arose at that time to also establish such an institution in Jena and Thuringia eventually became my life's work.

What were your personal highlights during your professional career?

I can name a few: The doctorate as the highlight of my scientific activity. The appointment to the circle of ten people who were to organize the establishment of student unions in East Germany. My first participation in a general meeting of the German Student Union DSW was an unforgettable experience of democracy. The first completion of a refectory renovation in 1994, the completion of the first new dormitory building in 1995, a first award ceremony, the Thuringian Wood Construction Prize in 2001, were countable results of the commitment in the Studierendenwerk. And international exchange programs with visits to social institutions for students in France, Russia, Bulgaria and Japan, among others, or participation in international conferences on student affairs in the USA, China, Austria and Portugal repeatedly provided a broadening of horizons and new ideas.

You promoted with a number theory topic. Is it possible to summarize your work as a managing director in a few figures?

Over the past 30 years, revenues of 700 million euros have been generated at low prices and investments of around 300 million euros have been made. Likewise, during this time, over 100,000 students have lived in the residential complexes, almost 80 million portions of food have been sold and, on the basis of the BAföG, around 340,000 applications have been processed and around 1.6 billion euros have been paid out to students. Behind these figures, however, are first and foremost motivated and committed employees who have achieved these accomplishments and deserve appropriate recognition.

What has been your favourite activity in your long career?

Working for and with students is fun in all facets. I also include the work in national and regional committees, for example in the German Student Union. But of course it's particularly motivating when successful work also becomes visible - as in the implementation of building projects or the development of menu lines.

You have met many different people during your career. What were your most interesting encounters?

The focus of my involvement was always on meetings with students from all over the world, many of whom later went on to have equally interesting careers - members of the Bundestag and state parliaments, mayors, entrepreneurs, journalists, colleagues in student unions and other social institutions, and much more. But also meetings with the Federal Chancellors Dr. Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder as well as those with all the Minister Presidents and the Ministers of Science of the Free State of Thuringia remain fond memories, even if they were already part of everyday professional life. The opportunity that arose in East Germany with the fall of the Berlin Wall to get to know Senator James W. Fulbright and Prof. Erich Markel, two American personalities who have sought the best possible relations with Germany, has been a great motivation for me in my work.

You are a big football fan. With which football club can your career be most closely compared?

Oh yes, achieving the best possible results in the Bundesliga with a low budget and a relatively small squad, but also good youth work and many years of continuous management - SC Freiburg is a good example of that. And 1. FC Union Berlin is also well on the way to achieving this.

What do you wish the staff and the Studierendenwerk for the next few years?

At the present time, the most important thing is of course good health, which is more than ever the prerequisite for a high level of motivation. With this, it is important to flexibly align the services offered to the changing needs of the students, so that the Studierendenwerk always remains a reliable partner for them. To achieve this, it will be necessary for the Studierendenwerk to be supported by many partners for the benefit of the students. I wish my successor Torsten Schubert every success in the management of our Studierendenwerk.

What prevails: Joy or melancholy about the upcoming retirement?

Of course, I still have some ideas for projects and plans that I can now only "pass on". But more than that, I look back with joy on what I have achieved in more than 30 years and turn to my new phase of life, which will probably be somewhat different.

What will you do first in your retirement?

Since not only the entire creative period, but also the last two years in particular have been very exhausting and challenging, I will allow myself a little more rest and relaxation. My family and friends deserve a little more time too. And in doing so, I'm sure many things will come to mind that I've always wanted to do.

Will you be able to stand not calling your successor Torsten Schubert every day?

I think so, I myself didn't want to be kept from work all the time either. But if I can still support the Studierendenwerk and my very committed successor a little, I'll be happy to help.

Interview: Rebecca Heuschkel