A Northwestern University response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: this entry was kindly developed by Daniel I. Linzer, Provost of Northwestern University in Evanston IL, United States. Daniel Linzer (pictured to the right) became Provost of Northwestern on September 1, 2007.  Linzer joined Northwestern in 1984 as an assistant professor, and is now professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology,  He has conducted pioneering research on the molecular basis of hormone action.  Following four years as Associate Dean, Linzer was appointed Dean of Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 2002. Prior to coming to Northwestern, Linzer received his Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University in 1976 and a Ph.D. in biochemical sciences from Princeton University in 1980.

Northwestern University “is a private institution founded in 1851 to serve the Northwest Territory, an area that now includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota“. The university has a national and global footprint now, and operates out of three campuses – two in the metropolitan Chicago region, and one in Doha, Qatar.

This entry is the fourth response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘. The first three were provided by Peter N. Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, Gregor McLennan, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Bristol, and David J. Skorton, President, Cornell University.

Our sincere thanks to Daniel Linzer for developing this informative response on behalf of Northwestern University.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson


Nigel Thrift asked the question if universities are organized in such a way as to enable the big problems of the day to be tackled effectively.  Responding for Northwestern University, our answer is an emphatic “yes.”

Take the issue of global warming as the example raised by Thrift.  This big problem, as with so many others today, lies at the intersections of fields that are in different schools and departments;  the study of global warming involves engineering and transportation, the natural sciences and social sciences, business and law, public policy and public health.  To mount a serious effort to understand, and have an impact on, these big problems also requires new resources, as universities cannot typically abandon other fields that are important for teaching and research to free up existing funds to focus on newer challenges.  And, universities cannot do it all by themselves.  These three points are key issues that a university would need to resolve.

At Northwestern, we have long emphasized and supported an interdisciplinary culture that encourages faculty and students to work across schools and departments.  The environmental science and the environmental engineering programs in two different schools were brought together several years ago to offer students an integrated curriculum; we have recruited faculty with appointments between departments and schools in these fields; and, more recently, we started and funded the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching.  ISEN also has been promoting discussion and student involvement outside of the classroom by taking the lead this year in our annual “One Book, One Northwestern” program.  The selection was Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and ISEN organized a series of University-wide events culminating in the talk by Jean-Michel Cousteau to a large audience on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.  (As an aside, Wikipedia cites the first event on a university campus leading up to the initial Earth Day as taking place at Northwestern on January 23, 1970.)

The availability of resources often comes down to incentives and control.  At those institutions that allow each academic unit to keep control of all the tuition and grant indirect costs that it generates, the incentive is often to attend to the local needs of that unit over the broader, institutional agenda.  As a result, ideas that would need buy-in from multiple units are harder to launch.  Our schools that serve undergraduate and graduate students are budgeted in a different manner in which tuition and indirect costs are collected centrally and then distributed to address needs and opportunities across the schools.  Thus, we preserve the flexibility of marshalling resources for compelling new ideas that do not fit within a single unit.

An important source of funds to mount a new enterprise is philanthropy, and that depends on the relationships that develop with alumni and other institutional supporters.  Institutions need to keep alumni informed and engaged so that they know their support can have a meaningful impact.  The effective involvement of alumni, especially those who have long been working outside of academia, in the planning of a university can be a challenge, but the big problems faced by the world today are concerns that we all share and can all debate.  We have certainly found that it is exciting to alumni and other supporters to be involved in enterprises such as ISEN.

Finally, the big problems require partnerships with industry, national laboratories, and other institutions.  Even if academics recognize the advantage of partnerships, a more collaborative approach to research often requires a cultural shift in a university’s willingness to share credit and control.  In the fields of sustainability and energy, Northwestern has developed a partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden to educate and train students in plant conservation and biodiversity; with the Argonne National Laboratory in solar energy research; and with major transportation companies to design stronger, lighter materials.

Investments to attack big problems are made with an understanding that solutions will take significant time, after all the problems would not be big if they were not also difficult to solve.  Great institutions, though, recognize that they are responsible for making these commitments even if we will not see a rapid impact on the environment.  We are excited that at Northwestern we are contributing to this effort, and we anticipate that we will be proud of the graduates and the research contributions that will emerge from Northwestern.

Daniel I Linzer