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Comment: What can we learn from Berkeley?

Back from a recent visit to Berkeley, Prorector Thomas Bjørnholm argues in this featured comment for a change at the University of Copenhagen

How many students does it take to change a light bulb at the University of California, Berkeley? 76. One to change the bulb. 50 to demonstrate for the bulb’s right not to be changed. And 25 to organize a counter-demonstration.

This rebellious spirit is not completely foreign to the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

There are other similarities between Berkeley and UCPH. Berkeley is also a public university – even though the contribution from the state of California has declined during the crisis and they retrieve the lost funds by raising student tuition.

We have approximately the same budget, number of employees and students. And they are also academically comprehensive: from Biophysics to Buddhist Studies. One difference, however, is that they have engineers while we have doctors.

In others words, a comparison between the two universities is not completely off.

But if you cast a glance at the ranking lists, there is a world of difference between the two. Rankings never tell the entire story. But one is tempted to ask the question: When we fundamentally are quite similar, how come Berkeley is placed so far above us?

Took the ideas home

With that question in mind, I went to Berkeley in January – with (among others) University Director Jørgen Honoré. We met up with a number of university managers and researchers. And their concurrent response to our question was: We have the best researchers and students in the world.

Granted, it is easy for them to say so as long as Berkeley recruits researchers and students from an entire ocean of talent, while UCPH has been dominated by our smaller domestic waters. In addition, Berkeley is favoured by the fact that English is the world language of our time.

Nonetheless, we were able to take home several useful ideas. Let me mention three:

Idea no. 1: Hire the best researchers.

This is where the tenure track system comes in. The researchers do not get permanent positions to begin with. But they enter a track where they are regularly evaluated by their peers.

After a number of years, they are offered tenure if their peers decide they have met the academic expectations.

An obvious advantage of this system is that it is known all over the world. If we introduced tenure track at UCPH, it would be easier for a foreign researcher to understand what kind of package we offer.

And as such, we could compete directly with Berkeley and a lot of other universities when it comes to recruiting talent.

Idea no. 2: Strengthen good teaching.

You do not have to read many newspapers and reports to learn that good (and enough) teaching is an important attraction for a university. Therefore it is rather thought-provoking that a researcher’s teaching merits are as significant as her research merits in obtaining tenure at Berkeley.

Perhaps there is also a cultural difference. At Berkeley, researchers take pride in being good at communication. They even have Nobel Laureates teach freshman students. And in a survey from 2010, contact with a skilled student body was the single most important factor in the researchers’ job satisfaction. Here, UCPH could learn.

Idea number 3: Break out of the ivory tower.

Rebellion is not Berkeley’s only characteristic. There is also a sense of community. Researchers and students are often dedicated to solving societal challenges – whether it comes to energy supply or security policies.

In this mindset, there is no contradiction between basic research and applied research.

There is only excellent research which often produces direct value to companies and society.

I believe that at UCPH we can further develop a holistic approach to producing knowledge and use it for the benefit of both society and business.

That is, without compromising the academic tradition. Berkeley leads the way.

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