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

Collaboration among research universities: a model from the US Midwest

barb20081Editor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Barbara McFadden Allen. Ms. McFadden Allen has served as director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) since 1999. The CIC is a consortium of 12 research universities (University of Chicago; University of Illinois; Indiana University; University of Iowa; University of Michigan; Michigan State University; University of Minnesota; Northwestern University; Ohio State University; Pennsylvania State University; Purdue University; University of Wisconsin-Madison) located in the U.S. Midwest. Prior to that, she served as Director of the CIC Center for Library Initiatives. She is Vice President of the National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education (NCCI), a board member of the Association of Consortial Leadership, and a member of the Global Resources Committee of the Center for Research Libraries (US). She holds an MLS from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

This entry should be viewed in the context of debates about the role of consortia and associations in enabling universities to achieve their evolving development objectives (e.g., see Lily Kong’s entry ‘The rise, rhetoric, and reality of international university consortia‘).  Given the nature of GlobalHigherEd, we are also interested in highlighting how many associations and consortia are involved in the process of forging global relations on behalf of their members, engaging with new actors in the global higher education landscape (e.g., Google, or international consortia like the Worldwide Universities Network), and acting as collaborative spaces for the sharing of ‘best practices’. We’ve also noted that consortia and associations like the CIC serve as logical ‘entry points’ into the US for stakeholders in other countries, or international organizations, who are grappling with the complexity of the US higher education system (systems, really). Given these emerging functions, it is important to understand the origins, core mission, and nature of effective intra-national actors like the CIC.


Academic isolation has long been impractical; in today’s world, it is impossible. At a time when yesterday’s bright new fact becomes today’s doubt and tomorrow’s myth, no single institution has the resources in faculty or facilities to go it alone. A university must do more than just stand guard over the nation’s heritage, it must illuminate the present and help shape the future. This demands cooperation – not a diversity of weaknesses, but a union of strengths.

Herman B. Wells (1902-2000). President of Indiana University 1938-1962. Leader behind the establishment of the CIC.

Throughout its 50-year history, the consortium of prominent research universities in the American Midwest known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) has sought to create a “union of strengths” as envisioned by the Presidents of the member universities back in 1958. With the recent launch of several large-scale, high-profile initiatives (a shared fiber-optic network; an agreement with Google to digitize 10 million library volumes; and a shared digital repository called HathiTrust), the CIC has demonstrated its understanding that in today’s networked world, no university can expect to achieve greatness while standing alone. The experience of the CIC may also be instructive for those wishing to develop meaningful and productive partnerships across international boundaries. It could also be argued that the deep experience of CIC universities with collaboration gives them a competitive advantage as attractive and sophisticated partners in emerging international research collaborations.

A half century ago, CIC leaders began building this model of open, productive collaboration that has helped our member schools navigate such complex issues as how best to preserve and provide open digital content in a virtual environment, how universities can hone core competencies while sharing collective assets, and how they can foster outside partnerships to accomplish even the most complex and costly shared goals.

block_logocmykThe framework established for this collaboration has remained remarkably stable: The Provosts (chief academic officers) govern and fund the enterprise; top academic leaders on the campuses identify opportunities and engage their faculty and staff to implement the efforts; and a central staff enables the collaboration by providing administrative support that minimizes the ‘friction’ in collaborative efforts.

Along the way, we learned hard lessons about the challenges to inter-institutional collaboration. The independent nature of scholarship and the inherent competition across higher education exist as natural hurdles to sharing assets and accomplishments. We compete with one another for students, for researchers and teachers, for federal funds and private partners. When our interests do converge, we do not always share the same priorities, timelines, or strategic vision.

Within the CIC, each collaborative agreement is unique, and necessarily builds upon the trust established through earlier efforts. Through the steady development of this inter-connected web of increasingly more sophisticated arrangements, we can point to some factors for our success that might be relevant for other universities seeking to develop international partnerships:

  • The peer nature of our universities allows partners to come in with similar needs and expectations at the outset;]
  • The long-standing commitments to the partnership at the very highest levels of university administration;
  • A focus on projects that clearly leverage efforts, thereby creating more value through aggregation or coordination;
  • A flexible, lightweight framework with an equal commitment in the basic infrastructure and governance, but with varying levels of participation in any one activity;
  • Leadership for efforts arises from (or is nurtured in) the member universities, thereby ensuring that only the highest priority initiatives are launched & sustained.
  • A willingness to be patient and a tolerance for some failure.

The success of many CIC projects and programs (some dating back 40 years or more), illustrate how the persistent, patient approach of the CIC offers both hope and guidance. Few of the most consequential agreements were easily reached. Many were the result of years, even decades, of revisiting common issues, assessing new technologies, and respecting the basic factors that make change difficult within any organization – spectacularly so when working across institutions. But we have made steady progress.

Certainly other like-minded enterprises have made similar efforts to pool resources. But the CIC stands as one of the very few that have both stood the test of time and that continues to innovate in the pursuit of our core mission – that of leveraging and aggregating the vast resources of our member universities for the common good.

Virtually every research university in the world is striving to identify their place in the broader, global context. And here it might be argued that it is virtually impossible to engage globally without partnerships (be they with other institutions of higher learning, or with communities, or governmental agencies). Our work in the CIC suggests that it is not just possible – but desirable – to invest institutional energy in the establishment and continued development of partnerships. There is a better and more meaningful way to launch and sustain efforts rather than the traditional ‘memorandum of agreement’ with which we are all familiar (and which are too often signed and forgotten). This requires an initial investment in the selection of the right partners, the identification of clear objectives that map to strengths among the participating institutions; and multi-level support from administrators, faculty and scholars.

There are many attractive and compelling opportunities for collaborating internationally. From building shared digital repositories that aggregate scholarly works, to co-investments in very large scale scientific equipment or laboratories that can be shared, to the shared development of courses and scholarly resources among scholars across the globe. Our experience in the CIC suggests that it is possible to realize the golden opportunities before us. To harness the great scholarly resources that universities command worldwide will require thoughtful, engaged, and collaborative leadership, and a recognition of the need for sophisticated mechanisms to manage, measure and sustain such efforts.

Barbara McFadden Allen