Big ideas only at big universities?

By Joern Fischer

To answer my own question: I hope not!

In 2011, I moved from The Australian National University (ANU) to Leuphana University Lueneburg in Germany (Leuphana). According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, the ANU ranked 43rd in the world among all universities. Leuphana, by contrast doesn’t really feature in international rankings, so far anyway.

I don’t intend to compare the two institutions in great detail, but some features of such a comparison are quite interesting.

At the ANU, I was at the Fenner School of Environment and Society. This is a really nice, interdisciplinary research school. What makes it nice, to my mind is two things. One, people are really friendly and the social atmosphere is pleasant, with few unnecessary rivalries and so on. Two, it’s quite easy to bump into other people just down the corridor who work on something very different (e.g. an ecologist might bump into an economist, or an anthropologist) – but nevertheless these people might have something to say to each other. The school grew over many years, and a level of trust and a certain sense for the common good have become the norm; meaning that overall, it’s a very open-minded and supportive environment.

Now here at Leuphana, things are actually quite similar in many ways. This might come as a surprise given that Leuphana is so small, and the ANU is (relatively) large. At Leuphana, I’m in the new faculty of sustainability, whose goals of inter- and transdisciplinary work are quite similar to those of the Fenner School. The faculty is about the same size, too, as the Fenner School, for example when it comes to the number of academics and PhD students (I haven’t done an exact count…).

But not everything is the same. Leuphana is a very small university, and sustainability is one of its core focal areas. That is very different from the ANU where environmental things never seemed to rank quite equally to good old, established disciplines like physics. When it comes to the internal politics, at Leuphana I feel the faculty of sustainability is seen as important; whereas at the ANU, it often felt like the Fenner School was just one of many departments. Small size, contrary to what one might expect, thus gives us (here at Leuphana) a major advantage: the actual number of people working on sustainability is quite similar to other places, but as a proportion, we account for a lot more people within the university. Just an example: one semester on global change and sustainability is compulsory for all first year students! That kind of initiative sends a bold signal that larger universities around the world might easily shy away from.

The other big differences are cultural – and here I feel that my original home (Germany) can still learn something from the home I adopted later on in life (Australia). In Australia, there were plenty of opportunities for informal exchange, and this, I think, is the key to successful interdisciplinary collaboration. Only through informal exchange can we create the trust that is needed to bridge disciplinary divides. But I have plenty of faith that Leuphana is moving in the right direction on this front, too.

Small institutions might not rank as highly as the big ones because they produce ‘less stuff’ in total: but we must be careful not to confuse quantity of stuff with quality, either of the work produced or the working atmosphere. Let’s see what the future holds for Leuphana!

2 thoughts on “Big ideas only at big universities?

  1. Dear Joern

    I fully agree! I experience the same. ‘Smaller Universities’ are increasingly attracting top-scientists due to the more pleasant working environment and less rigid organizational structures (that are often contra-productive for intellectual progress). This holds especially for inter- and transdisciplinairy scientific fields, like sustainability science, that are more than average hindered by conservative scientific modus operandi.


    Pim Martens

  2. Maybe I exagerate and simplify and binarize but what I think is something like ‘not the university make the good people and the big ideas but good and wonderful people make the good university’.

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