Open ivory tower windows for fresh air

2011-07-12 : 17:47

Michael Czinkota
By Michael Czinkota and Andreas Pinkwart

Universities are among the most successful institutions that mankind has created in the last millennium. But what role do universities need to play in the knowledge society of tomorrow to continue their success story?

This question grows more pressing for the Western welfare states, as their dominance in research and innovation is being challenged by globalization and the dynamics of the emerging economies.

The example of the United States, which like no other nation has been able to benefit from universities as drivers of growth, makes this abundantly clear. For a long time America has combined cutting-edge research not only with strong science and engineering but also with entrepreneurially oriented business schools. With this approach the country has promoted groundbreaking innovations.

Yet, since the bursting of the Internet bubble, there are increasing doubts as to whether the previous innovation concepts still fit the new and future challenges and research priorities.

The advancement of biotechnology and social sciences absorbs almost half the research funds of U.S. universities. Add the expansion of national security and military research, and universities have lost important drivers for the industrial use of new scientific insights.

Instead, the ivory towers, which were believed to be abandoned, have returned. Like the hanging sword of Damocles the gigantic budget deficit will also require new structures and processes in research and teaching at universities.

Germany may currently look better with its broad mix of industrial and service-related innovations and its strong and flexible small and medium-size businesses.

However, this should not obscure obvious weaknesses. What has been achieved with the excellence- and high-tech initiatives and more autonomy for universities in recent years is threatened to be lost again with ideologically-motivated campaigns against an alleged commoditization of higher education.

Germany and the United States are facing similar problems. So far the American and the German university system have learned from each other in a time delayed fashion. Now, due to mounting competitive and financial pressures, universities need to learn simultaneously from each other.

The transatlantic exchange of ideas at a conference in Washington a few days ago made it very clear: University success is not about tearing down the ivory towers, but to open their windows as far as possible to other disciplines and to new markets.

While the freedom of teaching and research have to be defended, at the same time strong bridges for mutual transfers have to be built.

In the 19th century, Alexander von Humboldt revamped the Western education system by insisting on the scientific approach to research. We now need a set of Humboldt kind of ideas for the 21st century.

The university of the future is only viable if best research and best teaching go hand in hand with best knowledge transfers. To achieve these goals, universities need reliable funding and high productivity. Interdisciplinary linkages, a close integration with the ecosystem as well as research excellence and relevance are also necessary.

All this calls for major cultural change on both sides of the Atlantic. For a faster industrial use of new scientific knowledge both in universities and in businesses one has to rethink current approaches. We need more risk capital, new business models, and efficient intermediary organizations in order to build a sturdy bridge over the wide valley of death between basic research and innovation.

The efforts are worthwhile. Key is not just wealth and employment; it is all about the development opportunities of each individual and the defense of our freedoms. These provide the ideas and energy for the design of the next stage of our universities and our societies.

Michael Czinkota teaches international business and trade in the Graduate School of Business at Georgetown University in the U.S. as well as international marketing at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Andreas Pinkwart is senior visiting fellow, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. as well as dean of HHL ― Leipzig Graduate School of Management in Germany. He served as vice chair of the Free Democratic Party in Germany.