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Chair Work, Engineering & Organizational PsychologyObituary

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Bernhard Wilpert was one of the most influential researchers in the field of applied social science in Europe, although he would have been most reluctant to acknowledge this. However, his research achievements and publications, his reputation as a favorite lecturer and conference speaker, and the recognition that he received as a reviewer and editor leave little room for disagreement with this assessment. Bernhard contributed substantially to the growth and recognition of the social and organizational sciences, and his influence will be apparent for many years to come.
Bernhard was born in 1936 in Breslau, Silesia, but immediately after World War II his family moved to Western Germany, where he grew up in the difficult postwar
years. In 1956, he began studying psychology and sociology at the University of Tübingen, where he received his diploma in psychology in 1961 and his doctorate under the supervision of Günter Mühle and Ralf Dahrendorf in 1965.
His studies in Germany were interrupted when a Fulbright grant allowed him to study at the University of Oregon for a year. Between 1965 and 1967, he worked as a staff member at the German Volunteer Service (similar to the Peace Corps) in Washington, DC, and Bonn, Germany.
During the late 1960s, with the Cold War at its height, Berlin created a number of interdisciplinary social science institutes to conduct research on subjects of practical political relevance. Accordingly, the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (Science Center Berlin) was founded in 1968 as a holding organization of international research institutes, among which was the International Institute of Management (IIM). Bernhard worked in this stimulating environment from 1969 until 1978. Furthermore, his idealistic vision of a just and peaceful world was here translated into a variety of research questions and an extensive investigatory program.
A first step in this direction was his joint work with Frank Heller at the Tavistock Institute in London and their eight-country comparative study of managerial participative decision making, which resulted in their well-known book Competence and Power in Managerial Decision Making (Wiley, 1981). The IIM was also the cradle of two major international comparative research projects: Industrial
Democracy in Europe (IDE) and Meaning of Working, in which Bernhard played a vital role.
The first project addressed the question of how the national industrial democracy systems work in the different European countries. Some 134 organizations were selected from 12 European countries, and close to 8,000 randomly selected employees and 1,000 key respondents participated in the study. The IDE study represents probably the largest international comparative organizational study ever conducted.
The second project, initiated with visiting scholar George W. England, involved eight industrialized countries, including the United States and Japan. The project
assessed the meaning that people attach to working by using both national representative samples of the workforce and specifically chosen target groups in each country. In total, almost 15,000 individuals provided work data.
In the 1990s, Bernhard began to research managerial and organizational factors of safety in high-hazard organizations. He soon became a highly respected expert on system safety, promoting a holistic socio-technical approach. Bernhard’s expertise
was clearly acknowledged by his membership in the weighty German National Committee for Reactor Safety.
Bernhard Wilpert was an excellent speaker and teacher. He could express his thoughts clearly, succinctly, and fluently in German, English, and French. He was much sought after as a guest lecturer, keynote speaker, and symposium chair. His
didactic talent was further shaped by a long teaching career.
From 1975 to 1978, he lectured in industrial sociology, and he was appointed professor of psychology at the Berlin University of Technology in 1978, where he also served in various administrative roles, including director of the Institute of Psychology, associate dean, and vice rector. He held a variety of visiting
professorships, including ones at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and the Universite´ de Paris V, the University of California, the Inter-University Center in Dubrovnik, the University of Osaka, the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, and the University of Valencia. Among the many awards that he received were an honorary doctorate from the University of Ghent and foreign membership in the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Bernhard was a prolific contributor to a host of international scientific organizations, many of which he founded or coordinated, including the European Network of Professors of Work and Organizational Psychology, the European Association of
Work and Organizational Psychology, and New Technologies and Work (NeTWork). Closest to his heart, however, was the International Association of Applied Psychology, which he served as chair of the program committee, as editor in chief of its journal Applied Psychology: An International Review, and as president (1994–1998). In the last role, he was a good and responsible organizer, with vision, creativity, and drive, yet he was wise, sensitive, and a good listener. Above all, he had a genuine interest in other people’s opinions and motives.
Bernhard’s rather sudden death has left many who knew him stricken. His warm personality, his great sense of humor, his passionate idealism, as well as his enviable joie de vivre will be greatly missed. His friends and colleagues will hold him in loving memory.
Pieter J. D. Drenth, professor emeritus
Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam
February–March 2008 ● American Psychologist


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