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Former German president visits campus this week

| Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Former President of Germany Horst Koehler will deliver a lecture entitled “Citizenship in a Global Age: Personal Reflections on a Political Conundrum” at the Mendoza College of Business on Wednesday. The lecture is part of a four-day visit from Monday to Thursday by the former head of state and his wife, Eva Luise Koehler, to Notre Dame. Over the course of the visit — sponsored primarily by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study — Koehler will also speak with faculty and students about various topics as wells as visit the Harper Cancer Research Center.

Koehler has enjoyed a long career in public service. In addition to serving as the president of Germany from 2004 to 2010, he also served as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2000 to 2004, and he will soon start a new job as the United Nations’ (UN) personal envoy for Western Sahara. He has also served in numerous roles in the German Federal government. He has negotiated several international agreements on Germany’s behalf, including the German monetary union with the former East Germany, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the former East Germany and the Maastricht Treaty on European Monetary Union.

“The fact that he is seven years removed from the presidency and is still an incredibly active civil servant speaks to his tireless commitment,” Grant Osborn, communications program manager at the Institute for Advanced Study, said. “His vision as a leader seems to align with the mission of Notre Dame. Fr. Sorin wanted the university to be a powerful force for good. President Koehler espouses this idea.”

Koehler and his wife paid a highly successful visit to Notre Dame in 2011 and wanted to return to the University, associate director of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, Donald Stelluto — a key figure in arranging both the 2011 visit and this year’s visit — said.

“The principle talk he delivered was called ‘The Whole is at Stake,’ in which he addressed the financial crisis in the context of moral and political systems,” Stelluto said. “The Carey Auditorium was packed with students, guests and faculty. They were just spellbound because they had someone who was talking about the complexity of politics and economics along with something they are really familiar with at Notre Dame: the moral context.”

Koehler’s original visit was also hosted through the Nanovic Institute and the Institute for Advanced Study. The visit was arranged through professor Vittorio Hösle, who was director of the Institute for Advanced Study at the time and is a friend of Koehler.

“I have known President Koehler personally for many years,” Hösle said. “I have a great admiration for him and think students can benefit from his integrity.”

Stelluto explained that Koehler enjoyed engaging with students here and that when the possibility of a second visit was raised, Koehler said that he and his wife would “very much” like to come back.

“It was just like the many other people who have come to Notre Dame and fallen in love with it,” he said. “When he came the first time it was because of a connection to Vittorio Hösle. When he came the second time, it was through a connection not only to him, but the whole University.”

The original plan was for a multi-week visit this semester in which Koehler would teach a mini-course entitled “The Interdependent World.” However, the former president’s schedule changed after the UN asked him to take on the role of personal envoy for Western Sahara, Stelluto said.

“He was very disappointed and asked if he could come for a few days on his way to New York. On Thursday, he is going to New York. He didn’t want to go without spending a few days at Notre Dame,” he said.

While he is on campus, Koehler will have a busy schedule. By the time he has left Thursday, he will have held discussions on contemporary German society with students studying German language and literature, bridging the gap between economic theory and practice with department of Economics students and faculty, contemporary problems in Africa with faculty whose work focuses on that continent and career development with new graduate students at the Keough School of Global Affairs. In addition, he visited the Harper Cancer Research Center with his wife on Tuesday, as the couple are proponents of research into rare and neglected diseases. Thursday evening, his daughter Ulrike Koehler, a scholar of English literature, will deliver a lecture about national stereotypes in English Romanticism.

“We’ll be keeping him busy,” Stelluto said.

His Wednesday lecture will focus on the “potential for and limitations of national politics in meeting global challenges and the role of the individual in current global crises”, according to the Institute for Advanced Study’s website.

“I imagine it’s going to be quite broad,” Osborn said referring to the lecture. “Whenever you’re speaking about global crises, there are financial, refugees, populists, concepts of nationalism, etc. There are so many things he will be able to address. It will be fascinating to see where he ventures over the course of the talk.”

It will be especially interesting given the former president’s background, Osborn said — Koehler spent much of his early life as a refugee, experiences Osborn said have shaped Koehler’s public service career.

“Those formative experiences shaped his understanding and brought humanity to the fore,” Osborn said. “When he was head of the IMF, one of the things he worked on was forgiving the debt of small countries. It’s quite incredible that he was thinking about the well-being of the individual.”

Stelluto explained that he thinks Koehler’s ability and willingness to engage with complicated issues is a key part of his appeal.

“He is willing to deal with complexity,” Stelluto said. “The human experience is not easily bifurcated. I think that’s what made him so popular in 2011: He spoke with conviction and authority but also with nuance.”

Stelluto also emphasized how lucky the community is to have such a high-profile guest.

“Students have an exceptional opportunity to be with someone who has been on the world stage in a number of ways,” Stelluto said. “You’re not always going to find folks on the political stage like President Koehler who will hit all of the notes.”

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