To be open to the world without forgetting your own roots – that is what matters to Erik Bettermann. The former director of ‘Deutsche Welle’ has visited 170 countries over the course of his career. Today, the 72-year-old uses his diverse contacts to improve the educational opportunities of young people across the globe in many different ways – such as being a member of the Board of Governors of Jacobs University.
Erik Bettermann went weak at the knees as he ascended the pulpit of the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg. It has been three years now since he delivered a sermon at the place where Martin Luther once so powerfully and eloquently promulgated the Reformation. It was a special moment for Bettermann, a staunch Protestant, as he climbed the steps of the pulpit. It still moves him to speak about it. Beginning with the Biblical words, “Judge not, that ye be not judged”, Bettermann traced a wide arc from the Reformation, to the Enlightenment, to freedom of the press. His lecture was a plea for tolerance and an unrelenting campaign for freedom of speech. “We can build bridges,” he said. “It remains our daily hope that people will cross them.”
Erik Bettermann remained a builder of bridges even after leaving Deutsche Welle more than two years ago – in both a social and an intellectual sense. He loves to create links of thought between history and the present. Luther’s criticism of the Church’s abuses of power, his theology, and his translation of the Bible are to him precursors of the Enlightenment. He sees the Reformation as a starting point for greater educational opportunities in society. “But almost 500 years after the Reformation, we are still far from equal opportunities,” he says, which brings him to one of his greatest concerns as chairman of the board of trustees of Welthungerhilfe. “There are considerably fewer starving people in the world in recent decades, yet many people still cannot find a way out of social situations marked by poverty, violence, terror, and oppression. That is because social advancement needs opportunities for education. Facilitating such opportunities is one of the great responsibilities of development aid.”
Educational opportunities are also his concern as a member of the Board of Governors at Jacobs University. “It’s good that the university maintains a selection process that depends not on parents’ purses, but on talent, performance, and commitment.” The differentiated scholarship system at Jacobs University ensures that students from poorer families and countries can have access to a private university of international renown. He also believes that it is right that Jacobs University concentrates on its three focus areas of Health, Mobility, and Diversity without neglecting transdisciplinary research and learning. “A top university has to know its own strengths while remaining open to big, overarching issues. This is the balancing act which Jacobs University performs so successfully.”
People from more than 100 countries live, research, learn, and teach together at Jacobs University, which conforms very much to his vision of a cosmopolitan society. He sees it as encouraging that such a place exists in a country like Germany, referring to the Nazi era. “There have been wars everywhere, but no other country organized killing quite so industrially as Germany in the Holocaust.” He believes this has given the nation a special responsibility up to this day to commit to peaceful coexistence. “We as subsequent generations may not share the blame for the atrocities of the Nazis, but it is important that we do not forget, dismiss, or play down this abhorrent chapter in the history of our nation.”
Erik Bettermann was born in Lindenthal near Leipzig a year before the end of the war and he spent much of his childhood and youth in Mannheim, Berlin, and Cologne, where he later studied philosophy, education, and social pedagogy. He worked firstly as a journalist for newspapers. Later his work included international youth exchanges in press and public relations, until he eventually became the manager-in-chief of the German Federal Youth Council. Then, in 1982, he made a move to Bonn and went into politics: aide at the German Federal Ministry for Families, office manager for the Vice President of the Bundestag, departmental manager of the SPD Party Executive, and finally Deputy Executive Manager of the SPD, the Social Democratic Party of Germany.
In 1992, he found himself called to the city of Bremen. Erik Bettermann became Bremen’s State Councillor and later its delegate to German Federal Government. It was during that time that today’s Jacobs University was founded, known then as the International University Bremen. “I was excited from the outset about plans to create an international university in Bremen,” he recalls.
Today, Erik Bettermann lives in Berlin. But he thinks back fondly on his time in Bremen. He lived in the ‘Amtsfischerhaus’ in the quaint medieval Schnoor quarter of the old town. His outgoing disposition – typically Rhineland – responded well to the cosmopolitan Hanseatic city with its international trade relations. Sociability and open-mindedness – truly the makings of a bridge-builder.