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Advanced Study Institutes: The Top of the Top
November 18, 2010 - 11:15pm


A few of the world’s research universities have established Institutes of Advanced Study—small, usually interdisciplinary, centers that bring together scholars and researchers from different fields, sponsor fellowships, invite top academics from other universities to campus, and in general provide intellectual ferment to the sponsoring university.

A recent conference convened by the Freiburg University’s Institute of Advanced Study gathered more than 50 leaders of these institutes to southern Germany to discuss common concerns and share ideas. The first meeting of university-based institute of advanced study illustrated the variations among them.

None of the participants seemed to acknowledge what is likely one of the reasons for establishing these institutes—enhancing the image and burnishing the reputation of the sponsoring university. Brand building is part of contemporary higher education and the development of advanced study institutes signals that a university is attuned to the interdisciplinarity of the 21st century and is positioned to compete for the best scholars worldwide. All of the institutes represented at the conference are located at top research universities in their home country and tend to see themselves as elite pinnacles of inquiry in elite institutions. This type of institute indicates that a university has “arrived” in the top echelons worldwide

But beyond brand building, institutes of advanced study contribute to internationalization by bringing top-level international scholars to campus and featuring them in collaborative research, lecturing, and other outreach activities.

Most institutes are funded by the host university, a few receive direct government support and several enjoy private endowments. Most are located at public universities, although a few, mainly in the United States and Japan, are located within private institutions. Almost all offer a variety of fellowship programs, often bringing distinguished scholars to the university from elsewhere. Additionally these institutes may provide support for members of their own faculties (often on a competitive basis) and offer fellowships that permit periods of research on the home campus.

Institutes of advanced study typically focus on the humanities and social sciences and only occasionally the “hard” sciences. Indeed, there was much talk at the conferences about the “crisis of the humanities” and the need to maintain a full range of disciplines so that universities to not become exclusively science oriented. In many cases, the institute of advanced study is seen as a way to strenthen the humanities and provide these fields a higher campus profile.

A common focus expressed by conference participants is linking academic communities—bringing together scholars from different fields to share insights, and to engage in conversation and dialogue on a regular basis. Fellows are appointed for periods of a few months to a year or more. Most are residential arrangements, although a few have non-residential programs. Some institutes sponsor interdisciplinary teaching and research programs. Many of the institutes sponsor working groups, lunch meetings for the scholars, and other efforts to build this community.

University-based institutes are not the only model—indeed, one of the oldest and probably best known is the Institute of Advanced Study, located at Princeton University, but not part of the university. Established by Albert Einstein, this institute mainly provides permanent research positions to a small number of distinguished researchers in all fields and a number of temporary fellowships as well.

The institute heads at Freiburg did not doubt the usefulness of their agencies to the university. Yet many questions remain unexplored. Could funds be spent more productively in other ways? Are the institutes tied closely enough to the university’s departments and programs or do they draw talent away from them?

The effectiveness of the programs needs to be evaluated in the light of the mission and needs of the sponsoring university. Certainly, the goal of helping the humanities and social sciences at a time when these fields are under appreciated everywhere is a worthy purpose. The conference in Freiburg began a useful discussion about the different approaches of these institutes. The delegates agreed to continue the discussion and to include more institutes in the future.





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