Research environments big and small

By Joern Fischer

The Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana has been an exciting place – a dozen or so new professors were hired over the last few years, and the Faculty landed a number of sizeable grants. In a way, we’ve successfully taken the first few steps from “nothing” to becoming an increasingly interesting institution. But what’s next?

This question is not unique to Leuphana. Many places go through phases of growth, and such phases are typically quite exciting – you can do stuff in a growing institution and help to actively shape it. But once the institution gets increasingly big, the challenges change.

Once institutions get bigger, talk tends to increase about becoming part of this network or that one; and of raising this mega-grant or that one. Initiatives are created and branded – but increasingly, there’s nothing behind it but size. Think of some of the really successful labs you know of: when was a good time to be part of that lab? Mostly, the exciting times happen on the way to being “big”. Once a place is big, it’s kind of unsinkable, but it also lacks the excitement of a growing institution.

To me, this has important implications for institutions such as Leuphana. Our aim, I think, should not be to grow big, but rather, to stay innovative. If that is successful, a bigger size may come as a by-product, but growing for the sake of growing is going to be counter-productive from an innovation perspective.

And hence, when it comes to “key” networks and “important” mega-grants, I remain skeptical. As you enter the big networks, and go for the mega-grants, politics takes over from innovation. You find yourself in meetings about strategizing how to raise which money, rather than in meetings about cool ideas. Being aware of such patterns, and steering against them, seems to be essential to keep institutions interesting and innovative for more than the first few years of growth.

2 thoughts on “Research environments big and small

  1. Hi Joern, I am very envious of the environment you describe at Leuphana.

    I’m curious though, was it a strategic decision of the university to hire a team of new academics and cultivate this new exciting academic culture? Or was there some other factor that forced this outcome (e.g. the retirement of a whole cohort of professors)?

    I ask because I am one year into my appointment at a small South African university. Like you, I think our Uni should focus on doing innovative research within a strategic niche, rather than growing big for the sake of growth. We will never be a Harvard or Oxford, but we can still do creative and important work.

    I do, unfortunately, get the feeling that the status quo here is holding us back. People in general – and academics in particular – aren’t too keen on change. They prefer to carry on doing what they have always done.

    Long story short: what do you think imitated the upward trend at Leuphana? Was it university-driven, or did it come for you, the new recruits?

    • Hi Falko, in short I agree with you. Leuphana went through a complete collapse at the university level, in (I think) 2006. The town of Lueneburg had two not very good universities, and there was a perceived need to merge them. As part of this merger, a new president was hired. This new president, at the time, was the youngest president in Germany, and he was very keen on innovation. He closed down a bunch of sections of the university, and then proceeded to reform and re-grown a very small number of areas identified as potentially good niches, where there were beginnings of expertise already. Sustainability was one of these. It’s because of this unique opportunity that we were able to hire a lot of good people within a short period of time. — So! I agree with you, that unless you renew the actual people, just re-arranging arrows on organisational flowcharts does very little or nothing. In short, we were lucky …! Cheers, — Joern

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