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Interview with the Deputy Rector

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Institutional Communication Service

30 May 2022

Prof. Lorenzo Cantoni stepped up to the academic leadership of our university last Dies academicus, with his appointment as Deputy Rector: he faces this challenge in a spirit of mutual listening and transparency towards all of USI's members (students, academics, collaborators), the world of politics and the public. The end of the semester offers an opportunity to take stock of the changes and to wish the university community well.

Professor Lorenzo Cantoni, your appointment is probably also due to your extensive acquaintance with USI. When was your first encounter with our university?

I became familiar with USI in 1997, within a year of its birth (and 30 years of mine), and since then, fulfilling different roles, I have witnessed its tremendous growth. I even like to think that I have, in a small way, even contributed to its development.... 
It is an institution that I have come to know and love, and it is a privilege - and a great responsibility - for me to carry out this task.

At this year's Dies academicus, you received the Rector's Chain, and at the end of the ceremony, you proposed a symbolic interpretation.

Yes, I think the new Rector's Chain may suggest that we look at the stages of USI's development like the rings on the chain.

The first stage, led by President Marco Baggiolini (until a few years ago, the roles of President and Rector were held by the same person), was the founding one. To create a University in Southern Switzerland: to attract a community of students and faculty who come together because they are passionate about knowledge. The first fundamental relationship developed in this community is that of learning/teaching. 

The second stage, led by President Piero Martinoli, delved into another fundamental aspect of the university, in addition to that of education: research. The knowledge that is shared with the new generations is the knowledge that must be constantly broadened and explored in the ways proper to scientific research.

The third stage, led by Rector Boas Erez, placed the first two rings in balance and added attention to the "third mandate," that of service to the communities that support the university - city, cantonal, national, international... Erez also contributed to the different components of USI ringing into a harmonious whole: faculties, institutes, campus...

And after that, what is the next step?

I think that the next Rector will, first of all, have the job of consolidating what has been achieved so far. In just 25 years, USI has become, according to the prestigious QS Rankings, 240th worldwide and fourth among all Italian-speaking universities, a rank that is anything but negligible! Then, as it was for EPFL at the same stage of development, the opportunity for a further leap ... towards what goals, of course, is not for me to determine.

At the Dies academicus, you described yourself as the "weak link" in the chain. What will your role be?

I think we are experiencing a very delicate period and, at the same time, an opportunity to rethink our mission as a university.
First and foremost, I would like to ensure that we maintain a climate of mutual listening and collaboration among all parts of the university, promoting information and communication both internally and externally. It is, therefore, a matter of fostering harmonious cooperation among all elements of USI - people who learn, teach and do research, and people who support all related processes - and among all its organs and levels: the University Council, Rectorate, Academic Senate, The Management Committee, Transition Committee, Faculties, Institutes...
Secondly, I will ensure the day-to-day administration so that the life of the university can unfold as best as possible.

If you think about operations, do you wish to bring any changes?

I think there is room for improvement as far as operational methods: it is a matter of overcoming an approach that, in my opinion, is excessively reactive, focused on problems (which are not lacking) rather than on objectives, in favour of a more relaxed planning and more regular rhythms.

Regarding the opportunity to rethink the mission of a university, you presented, in an interview with the Corriere del Ticino's Universo, a reflection on the various types of students...

Yes, reading a book that recently appeared in the prestigious MIT Press helped me explore this. It underscores how universities need to focus more and more on their mission: in doing so, they will also help students and undergraduates grasp its best. 
To this end, the book proposes identifying four categories of students: inertial, transactional, exploratory and transformational. 
The former go to college because they don't know what else to do: we need to help them figure out their path as soon as possible. 
The latter want to secure a promising career (and consequent salaries). The surveys who regularly conduct our Careers and Alumni service show excellent results in this area, in line with other Swiss universities. 
But it is not enough: one can also make a career through non-academic training. A university student also needs other incentives....

Hence the third category: those who attend university to get to know other people, cultures, and worldviews. Again, USI is a rich microcosm for this exploratory dimension, with almost a hundred nationalities represented. 

Then there are the transformational students who wish to devote their time and energy to the search for truth - to know how things are... It is research - better yet: the search - that requires intellectual commitment and, at the same time, passion. The authentic meaning of the Latin studēre, from which the term "student" is derived.
To be ready to change ourselves and thus to change the world a little as well: this is what I wish for each of us, for all colleagues, and all students.