President’s Dinner 2017: One of the awardees shares her impressions of the evening

President’s Dinner 2017: snap-shot out of the view of the guests / Photos: Peter Kolb

It was 2015 when a new event format called “President’s Dinner” was born to celebrate the awardees while providing a festive framework for the bestowal itself. As the name suggests the president of the University of Bayreuth is the one to invite all guests of honour to a set of award ceremonies accompanied by a three course meal, dinner music and table talks. Since 2017 there is also a dinner speech given by a member of university who is familiar to that special kind of setting. Apart from the formal ceremony, the President’s Dinner is an opportunity for university members to interact and exchange ideas. One of the awardees, Rose Nyakio Kimani, who was payed tribute for her achievements in research and in social life by being selected as laureate of the DAAD-award 2017, shares her impressions of the evening:

It is the President’s Dinner of 2017, taking place at Liebesbier, Bayreuth, for the second year running.  In this formal event, academic award recipients for the year are invited to dine with the University of Bayreuth President and administrators, as well as officials from other organisations and people from the city who have a position in the university senate, university council, board of trustees, and so on. About ten awards are granted on that evening, to both lecturers and students, for outstanding performance in one way or another.  Some awards are shared, such as the City of Bayreuth award which is this year shared by three people, one of them a colleague at my graduate school.  It is great to know at least one other person at this formal event, apart from my date for the evening.

The spotlight from the ceiling is shining directly into my eyes.  Perhaps fittingly so, since it is my turn up on the podium.  I step sideways into the shadow to be able to see what is going on in the room in front of me, and to be able to see better the person also in the spotlight – the professor on the podium who is reading something about the DAAD award that I am about to receive. It is a balancing act to try not to get blinded by the spotlight, yet position myself in enough light for my friend to take the photos that I will send later today to my family, and at the same time focus on what the speaker is saying. Perhaps there should be a coaching session for award-receiving-and-light-balancing prior to such events?

As the speaker goes on, I allow my eyes to wander around the room.  The room is cozy and has warm brown undertones thanks to the walls and the floor, similar to the rest of the rooms in the building.  Almost everyone looks formal, in a dress or suit and tie.  The silverware glitters against the white table cloths on each table, interspersed with sparkly glasses of white and red wine, as well as glasses with frothy brown beer.  And the touches that show attention to detail are apparent: perfect programme booklets at each person’s seating place, chocolates with the university logo inscribed on them, almost too lovely too eat, also at each person’s seating place, a list of who sits at which table.

Apart from awards for individual achievements, faculties are recognised for their efforts in promoting gender parity in the workplace, both in terms of doctoral student completion numbers and in terms of employment of females to academic positions.  This year, three faculties get the honour.  Over the years of my doctoral studies, the lack of gender parity in academia has been discussed, with various presentations showing how the number of women statistically drops the higher one goes in academia.  It is a trend which sometimes seems exaggerated because is not always visible in one’s day to day life in the university corridors as a student.  However, this occasion offers tangible evidence of these statistics: out of the 15 award winners who eventually take the podium, only four are female.  Is it because there are fewer females in academia? Fewer females whose work is award-worthy?  That is one of my thinking points for the evening.

On the podium, the speech goes quickly, and soon I am walking down the stairs to shake the President’s hand and pose for a photo with him and the professor who read my Laudatio, Prof. Dr. Thomas Scheibel.  Soon I am seated back at my table to continue enjoying the three-course meal as I converse with an 80-year-old Bayreuther businessman seated to my left, who shares his story about living in Japan as a young man.  It is hard to believe that he is all of 80 years old, looking at his agility and taking in his energy.  There is definitely something to the saying that “age is just a number”; the human spirit is ageless, and seems to grow richer with age and experience.

The main course is a hot meal, more filling than anticipated.  Considering that the ‘dinner speech’ will be delivered after the main course, I am hoping for the sake of the speaker that no one will fall asleep.  Somewhere after the main course, my date and I switch sitting places, and I get the opportunity to exchange with Prof. Scheibel and learn more about his work investigating biomaterials.  Soon we are engaged in a fascinating tête-à-tête about spider webs and their amazing properties.  At some point in that conversation, I wonder if it is safe to eat a spider web… apparently that is a possibility, but one that I am not too keen to pursue.  That discussion has me reflecting on what exactly draws me to science and research: the opportunity to discover new things, and, ideally, to do something meaningful with that knowledge.

Meanwhile, on the far end of the room, the talented band ‘Barfly’ strums out jazzy classic after classic, and I can imagine many people are transported back to previous times of enjoying some of the songs.

And then it is already time for the dinner speech.  The speaker, Professor Dr. Heinrich Wolff,  is engaging and humorous, comparing academic life to life in the wolf pack, and pointing out the differences.  Interestingly, he too notes that one of the distinctions between the two is that academia is male-dominated, unlike the opposite case in wolf packs, where females manage the life of the group. The speech moves fast, punctuated by laughter, and is soon over.  I would be surprised if anyone dozed off in those few minutes.

The awards and speeches done, dessert is served, and slowly the room starts emptying as the guests start leaving one by one. The mastermind behind the organisation of the event, Angela Danner from the university’s public relations department, seems to be in a million places at once: coordinating the band, the cleaning up team, the team setting down the university banners and other merchandise, and somehow finding me extra packing paper to carry home the flowers that I received together with the award.  If all goes well, she and her teams will be done with cleaning up in the next two hours.  As my date and I head out, I wish them well, and reflect on when next there will be an opportunity to attend such an exclusive gathering, and whether, that time round, there will be more females than males on the podium.

NB: Rose Nyakio Kimani, a Kenyan, is member of the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) and will be finishing her doctoral project in media studies entitled Kenyan Community Radio: Players, Production Processes and Participation in 2018.

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