Evaluating the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2005)

The Commission appointed by Rector Dieter Grimm to evaluate the work of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin convened in mid-November 2005 in Berlin. It consisted of Dieter Lenzen, president of the Freie Universität Berlin; Gertrude Lübbe-Wolff, a judge on the German constitutional court; Günter Stock, president of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften; Björn Wittrock, director of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences; and Gerhard Casper, president emeritus of Stanford University, who served as chairman.

The Evaluation Commission owes a deep debt of gratitude to the rector, Dieter Grimm, the former rector, Wolf Lepenies, the secretary, Joachim Nettelbeck, the Permanent Fellows and the Kolleg's staff for their support. It was especially impressed by the intensity and openness of the discussions with its members.

The Wissenschaftskolleg was founded in 1980 to give renowned scholars and young academics the opportunity to concentrate on self-chosen projects for the period of one academic year. The roughly forty Fellows who are invited each year form a temporary community that is characterized by disciplinary diversity, international composition and intercultural interaction. Please see the Wissenschaftskolleg's website to learn more about its objectives, work and structure.

The Wissenschaftskolleg aims to promote outstanding research and to contribute to broadening the horizons of both the academic community and society as a whole. It seeks to achieve this goal by facilitating scholarly work under conditions especially conducive for its productivity. It provides Fellows with the opportunity to concentrate fully on their respective research topics, largely free of other obligations, in an environment with a maximum degree of interdisciplinary and other stimulation. 

This function of the Wissenschaftskolleg is of great and growing importance, since the above-mentioned conditions are becoming ever harder to find in regular academic life. This is due to several factors: the increasing specialization of all disciplines, the universities' expanded tasks, and the new competitive and financial conditions they are confronting.

The Wissenschaftskolleg is one of the intellectual centers of Berlin and Germany. In addition to (or more accurately: as part of) fulfilling the above-mentioned primary functions, it should be expected to strengthen the publicly perceived significance of Berlin and Germany as places of scholarship and culture. 

Evaluation criteria can be derived from these general observations. The quality of the Wissenschaftskolleg can be seen, among other things, in the quality of its Fellows, the quality of their stay in Berlin, the quantity and quality of related publications and the PR work carried out by the institute. The Evaluation Commission had comprehensive data on nearly all these matters. In what follows, we will comment on the selection of Fellows, the composition of the cohorts, the quality of the Fellows' year at the institute, and the quality of the Wissenschaftskolleg.

1. Selection of the Fellows and Composition of the Cohorts

The Permanent Fellows are proposed by the rector after consultations with the Board of Trustees and the Academic Advisory Board. They are then appointed by the Members' Assembly. The Permanent Fellows support the rector and contribute to shaping scholarly life at the Wissenschaftskolleg. As such, they provide innovation and stimulation for the institute itself and for the Fellows who come each year. There are currently three Permanent Fellows living in Berlin and five non-resident Permanent Fellows (the latter mainly conducting research at their home universities).

The Evaluation Commission shares the view of many at the institute that the number of non-resident Permanent Fellows should once again be limited to three. As far as the Berlin-based Permanent Fellows go, the best-suited scholars should be selected. Good relations with all three Berlin universities are obviously in the interest of the Wissenschaftskolleg. It would be desirable to carefully calibrate the length of the contracts with the Permanent Fellows in the interest of academic renewal.

Invitations to spend a year at the institute are based on proposals by the institute (including the Permanent Fellows). They can also come from members of the Academic Advisory Board, former Fellows, other individuals, or be based on unsolicited applications. Proposals by the institute account for about 30 percent of all invitations, followed by proposals by former Fellows, other proposals, unsolicited applications, and proposals by members of the Academic Advisory Board. The international members of the Advisory Board assist the rector in making selections. Many invitations are issued several years in advance.

In 2004, about half the invitations went to Western Europe (and half of these to Germans). Of the remaining invitations, a large portion went to the USA, and the remainder to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East and India. Central and Eastern Europe had a strong presence in years past. It lies in the very nature of this process that the percentage of foreign nationals varies widely from year to year.

The Wissenschaftskolleg cannot, as a matter of principle, pursue the goal of replicating the entire world. The selection of Fellows must be based on the quality of their work, regardless of where they come from. However, measures should be taken to ensure that the search takes all possible regions into account. The Commission believes it is preferable to focus more strongly on Asia and Latin America.

Between 1997 and 2000, 20 percent of all Fellows were women, in 2004, 36 percent. To quote a former Fellow (a woman who was able to compare the cohorts from 1989/90 and 2004/5): "Women no longer need to feel like exotic creatures at the Wissenschaftskolleg,  and that does them a world of good" (and not only women, one might add). The Commission hopes that by expanding the recruitment pool and taking other measures, the institute can intensify these efforts. In comparison to universities, particularly those in Germany, the Wissenschaftskolleg has accomplished a great deal in this field.

As regards age distribution, in 2004, 20 percent of invitations went to Fellows in the age group "40 or younger," 41 percent to "41 to 50," 29 percent to "51 to 60," and 10 percent to "over 60." The average age was fifty. The Commission believes that, in order to ensure a lively debate that addresses new scholarly developments, the Wissenschaftskolleg should continue to rejuvenate its ranks, bringing down the average age to 45. The recruitment pool should also be expanded to achieve this goal.

Today the disciplinary breakdown includes a large number of natural scientists (27 percent, primarily theoretical biologists). Work methods in the experimental sciences are usually an obstacle to attracting natural scientists to the Wissenschaftskolleg, and 80 percent of the natural scientists queried turn down invitations. Since the Wissenschaftskolleg must insist on having the Fellows present to achieve its intellectual objectives, collaboration with Berlin's universities is not a real solution in this regard. Moreover, it is unlikely that scientists will accept an invitation to pursue the same research in Berlin laboratories that they can conduct at home. Given these conditions, the large percentage of natural scientists that the institute has managed to attract must be seen as a remarkable success. The Commission also applauds the partially successful attempt to win over medical scientists.

As for biology, building thematic research groups under a convener has proved a relatively successful approach. However, this approach poses the risk that the groups will distance themselves from the rest of the Fellows. This contravenes the institute's goal of promoting intellectual cross-pollination and dialogue with the social sciences and humanities.

The Commission has extensively studied the topic of "thematic focuses" in all disciplines. Today, many centers of advanced study support the establishment of such thematic groups. In terms of public relations, this concentration on important themes (such as Islam) appears highly legitimate, and Wissenschaftskolleg issues about 40 percent of its invitations based on thematic considerations.

However, the planned collaboration, which does not always evolve naturally, often founders on different priorities and on conflicts of personality. The Commission was often told that the best groups were those that came together spontaneously.

Due to the high transaction costs associated with planned groups, the Wissenschaftskolleg should perhaps place less emphasis on this manner of work and focus instead on its strength as a stimulating interdisciplinary forum for the academics it invites. 

In the liberal arts and the social science, in particular, the Wissenschaftskolleg should make limited use of thematic groups. There should be no blanket attempt to dictate themes or focuses. This procedure goes against the basic principle of the Wissenschaftskolleg.

Top-down planning, which is based on what others consider important and desirable to research, is generally less likely to provide optimal motivation for the researchers who must do the actual work. It also carries the high risk that the projects will become "infected" by the planner's own desire to enhance the value of certain topics. Moreover, among the academics who are expected to work together, it can undermine the most important benefit that a year at the Wissenschaftskolleg can bring-the chance to concentrate on one's own work, not directed by others.

2. The Quality of the Stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg

The Evaluation Commission was given the report on the survey of Fellows from the academic years 1996/97 to 2000/2001, and it also analyzed the annual reports concerning those same years. Both these written sources confirmed the impression the Commission had gained from personal interaction with current and former Fellows-namely, that the Wissenschaftskolleg optimally fulfills its goals for each group of Fellows present. 

With just a few exceptions, the Fellows had positive things to say about their stay. In a notably large number of cases, they emphasized the importance of being liberated from their other duties, the peace and quiet, the chance to concentrate on their work, the high level of intellectual stimulation, the productive examination of their projects, the professional, cultural and personal enrichment that came from talks with colleagues, as well as the support provided by the Wissenschaftskolleg's staff in all matters relating to their scholarly work and personal lives (from introductory language courses and the oft-praised library facility to administrative support and the translation service, including the "polishing up" of texts not written in their mother tongues).  Foreign fellows frequently stressed the significance of Berlin as a source of inspiration. A number of Fellows were even motivated to write works on the culture and history of the city.

In their statements, many Fellows mention the productivity released by the favorable conditions described above. It is impossible to simply quantify effects such as these, or the additional, less tangible effects that many Fellows mention as originating from their stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg (expanding their own field of work or topics under study, other new orientations).

The comments by the Fellows also show that the Wissenschaftskolleg's staff was highly successful in creating an atmosphere where the guests felt welcome and at home. Individual comments by foreign guests-even those with historically conditioned reservations about Germany-make clear that their stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg led to a positive change in their perceptions of Germany.

3. The Quality of the Wissenschaftskolleg

The list of former Fellows is a veritable Who's Who of international social scientists and humanities scholars (though less so for the natural scientists); and the list of books and essays that the Fellows describe as resulting from their stay-perhaps over generously-is indeed impressive. In their evaluations, the Fellows also repeatedly emphasize how the cohort to which they belonged influenced their scholarly priorities and viewpoints.

Although these factors are an extremely strong indication of the quality of the Wissenschaftskolleg, it would be advisable to engage in a systematic analysis of the Fellows' further careers and accomplishments in view of the importance that the selection of Fellows has for the institute's success. For instance, efforts could be made to document more precisely the results of projects undertaken at the Wissenschaftskolleg. The institute should also be able to draw public attention to especially notable projects. After young Fellows have left the Wissenschaftskolleg, the institute could try to document further developments in their careers (awards, publications, etc.) once or twice every five years. Such indicators could provide additional information on the quality of selections.

Moreover, it is worth considering whether the institute might ask a number of former Fellows to engage in a brainstorming session, perhaps after a period of three to five years. They could reflect on and describe their experiences, develop new concepts and themes for the institute, and help recruit new Fellows.

The Wissenschaftskolleg should also determine the regional and national effects of the work done by the Fellows at the institute. If the results were effectively publicized, they might increase the public visibility and perception of the Wissenschaftskolleg and also enhance its appeal and importance for regional and national academic developments.

Finally, to the extent that it is compatible with the professed goal of focused, self-determined work, the Wissenschaftskolleg should try to give the Fellows a much broader local role. This might involve presenting the Fellows' experiences at public events after they have spent a defined period of time at the institute-above all their experiences with and views of the regional and national academic system, to the extent that they are able to judge.

The German Science Council last evaluated the Wissenschaftskolleg in 2000. At that time it described the institute as "a singular institution in the German academic community." It also wrote that "as a place of  encounter for academics from different disciplines and nationalities, it performs a crucial function." Five years ago, the German Science Council made a series of recommendations that have largely been implemented. It concluded its report with the following explanation: 

"The Science Council regards the Wissenschaftskolleg as an important tool for optimizing  the quality of research in Germany and integrating it into the context of international discourse. The institute excellently fulfills these duties, making a major contribution to promoting Germany as an center of scholarship and science."

The Evaluation Commission fully supports this judgment. Together with its peers abroad, the Wissenschaftskolleg "is one of those-shrinking-islands of the non-commercial" (Dieter Grimm) that have a formative influence on the vitality of the academic landscape.

Gerhard Casper
On behalf of the Evaluation Commission

December 14,  2005