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If you could build a new university on a “greenfield” – or a snowy, white field, as the case might be – what would it look like? The founders of Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), a graduate-only university founded in 2011 outside Moscow, are collaborating with faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create a university that embodies many of the principles hottest in higher education today: interdisciplinarity, problem-based learning, research for innovation and entrepreneurship, and internationalization.

As an anchor of a planned high-tech hub and special economic zone, Skolkovo Innovation Center – an aspiring “Silicon Valley” that to date has attracted commitments to build research and development centers from such multinational companies as Cisco, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft – Skoltech enjoys tremendous support, financial and otherwise, from the highest levels of Russian government. As the new university on the block, it is more ambitious internationally than many Russian institutions, committed to the development of research collaborations with scientists at leading universities and companies around the world and the integration of research, education and innovation to an uncommon degree. It joins a handful of other infant institutions -- including Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology -- which aim to go from start-up to world-class in accelerated fashion.

“We’re intended to be a new breed of university,” said Kristina Edström, the director of educational development at Skoltech and an associate professor of engineering education development at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, where she spends a quarter of her time. “It’s a university designed to have impact on society. The research of this university is going to have a consideration for use.”

Skoltech, an English-medium institution, plans to offer master’s and Ph.D. programs in five areas: biomedical science and technology, energy science and technology, information science and technology, nuclear science and technology, and space science and technology. The goal is to have 1,200 students, 200 professors and 300 postdoctoral researchers by 2018. The first 20 students, master’s students in the energy and information science programs, have already been accepted and are spending the current academic year as “ambassadors” at overseas universities – at MIT, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Imperial College London, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich – before they commence their two-year programs at Skoltech.

The university's leadership has articulated a set of high-level learning outcomes for Skoltech students, divided into four main categories: disciplinary knowledge and reasoning; personal attributes – thinking, beliefs and values; relating to others – communication and collaboration; and leading the innovation process. (A full list of the outcomes can be found here.) “What we need to do both in research and education is to make disciplinary boundaries less important and approach education from the perspective of real problems,” Edström said. “Innovation is about solving real problems, so that the solution can make a profit or have societal impact in another sense.”

Research-wise, Skoltech has announced the creation of the first three of 15 planned Centers for Research, Education, and Innovation (CREIs), interdisciplinary, international research collaborations.  Each CREI must include research partners from a Russian university and a non-Russian university, and will receive up to $12 million each year for five years. The first three CREIs will be in infectious disease and RNA therapeutics, proposed by partners at Lomonosov Moscow State University and MIT, with participation by researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern; electrochemical energy storage, also proposed by partners at Moscow State and MIT; and stem cell research, proposed by partners at the University Medical Centre Groningen, in the Netherlands, and Vavilov Institute of General Genetics, in Russia.

Proposals for the second round of five to seven CREIs are currently under evaluation; an international panel of reviewers will recommend top proposals to Skoltech's Board of Trustees for its approval. Researchers from 381 universities in 37 countries -- including 12 Nobel Laureates -- submitted proposals in the second round.

“The idea is that you can accelerate the development of the university at an international level: you have these high-level research collaborations going on even as the university is being built from scratch,” said Ed Seidel, the senior vice president of research and innovation at Skoltech and formerly the assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation.

“As the CREIs are awarded and we develop additional international partners, you can imagine that we’re at the hub and there are spokes going out all over the place – [the spokes representing] strong research connections with universities with an interest and even a responsibility to help us build up our capacity here,” Seidel said.

The Skolkovo Foundation, a federal agency that runs the Skolkovo Innovation Center, is initially subsidizing all of the university’s costs, including the cost of the CREIs. However the university has begun to build its own endowment – still a rarity in Russian higher education. Alexei Sitnikov, Skoltech's vice president of institutional and resource development, declined to disclose the current size of the endowment but said the unabashedly ambitious goal is to reach $1 billion by the end of 2014 and $2 billion by the end of 2019. This would, if reached, make Skoltech’s larger than all but about 30 U.S. university endowments

The foundation is also footing the bill for the collaboration between Skoltech and MIT. Duane Boning, the faculty lead for the MIT Skoltech Initiative and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, estimates that about 70 to 75 MIT faculty members are deeply engaged in at least one element of Skoltech’s planning: they might sit on a faculty search or curriculum development committee, for example. An office of about 30 full-time staff in Cambridge also supports the collaboration. MIT is collaborating in virtually every aspect of the university’s creation, with teams dedicated to campus design and planning, education, entrepreneurship and innovation, faculty development, faculty hiring, human resources and administration, postdoctoral programs, research, and student affairs. “In some ways the MIT faculty are serving as surrogates for the Skoltech faculty until more Skoltech faculty exist,” explains Brian Anthony, who co-leads education development for the MIT Skoltech Initiative and directs MIT’s master of engineering in manufacturing program. 

Skoltech’s leaders say that the university will be unique within Russia in a number of ways. The entire concept of combining research and education in Russia is growing but still relatively undeveloped, as research has traditionally been concentrated in the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the explicit focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, they say, is wholly new. “We are seen in Russia as a gateway to new best practices,” said Sitnikov.

Skoltech stands as an exceptional case, but in general there has been a movement in Russia toward a more hierarchical university system, characterized by the designation of select institutions as high-status “national research universities” and the establishment of new “federal universities,” created in many cases through mergers of smaller, regional institutions. The country’s leaders hope to dramatically improve the performance of Russian universities in global rankings, in which they’re ill-represented. Just two institutions, Moscow State and Saint Petersburg State Universities, crack the Shanghai Jiao Tong University top 500 list, for example.

Jamil Salmi, the former tertiary education coordinator at the World Bank and co-editor with Philip Altbach of The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities, said that their research has shown that “by and large it’s easier – it’s not easy – but it’s slightly easier to start [a world-class university] from scratch if you have the right ingredients than to try to upgrade an existing institution or promote mergers.” He cited the development of the Higher School of Economics, in Moscow, as another example of a young institution (established in 1992) that has attained international stature in a short time.  “By contrast, the traditional, old universities, like Moscow State University, have been more difficult to transform,” he said.

Some view the influx of funds into Skoltech with trepidation, however. Ivan Kurilla, a historian who has written about reforms in Russian higher education, characterized Skoltech as an “island.”

“It’s always good from my point of view when the state decides to pour money into education. On the other hand, there are many existing centers for technology and higher education that are now in a very poor position,” said Kurilla, head of the Department of International Relations and Area Studies at Volgograd State University and a visiting fellow at George Washington University’s Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. “In Russia, they want to create the best without supporting the base.”

“It’s utopian to think that it is enough to create a perfect model by order from the top without natural conditions,” said Tatiana Jean, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), in Paris, and the author of the forthcoming book, Universités russes, sont-elles competitives? (Russian Universities, Are They Competitive?) “In the best case, it will be a ‘shop window.’ In reality, the contrast is deepening between leader universities and the others, and even in the leader universities, the majority of teachers are really poorly paid.” 

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