Asia Universities Summit: Caltech's size a 'major advantage'

President Thomas Rosenbaum also defines his role as maintaining a culture ‘where people dream’

June 23, 2016
Thomas Rosenbaum, president of Caltech

The small size of the world's top-ranked university is a ”major advantage“ that allows it to foster groundbreaking interactions between researchers across disciplinary boundaries, a major higher education summit has heard.

Giving a keynote address at the inaugural Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit, hosted by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and featuring more than 30 university leaders from institutions across Asia, Europe and the US, Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum defined his role as maintaining ”a culture where people dream“ and are ”fearless“ in taking on big ideas.

Dr Rosenbaum – who leads an institution with about 300 faculty and 2,000 students that tops the THE World University Rankings 2015-16 – gave an insight into what makes Caltech so successful during his speech on 20 June.

After discussing the institution’s key role in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) – the large-scale physics project that detected gravitational waves – he told the audience: “When people ask me what my job is as president of Caltech, I say it’s to maintain a culture where people dream; that they want to come to Caltech; that they believe it’s the place where they can realise their dreams; and we have the resources – physical, financial, intellectual – to make those dreams come true.”

Dr Rosenbaum added that the institution takes “an enormous amount of time and scrutiny choosing the people who come to Caltech. We then create an environment of fearlessness; we’re trying to find people who are unafraid of big ideas and unafraid to change what they do in the pursuit of those big ideas.”

The argument that being a large institution and having critical mass is crucial to research performance is often made in higher education.

But speaking to THE after his speech, Dr Rosenbaum said that he could not envisage Caltech growing beyond a 10 per cent margin of its current size.

Watch: interview with Thomas Rosenbaum

“We can do things because of our small size that other places can’t…the major advantage [we have is] the interactions between people,” he said. “We have a culture that emphasises people asking big questions, talking to each other about it, being unintimidated by disciplinary boundaries.”

Asked if the Caltech model can be replicated elsewhere in the world or is unique to the US or California, he replied: “It can be replicated at some level. But the cultural aspects take a long time to build.”

So could there be an Asian Caltech in the future given the ongoing rise of universities from the East?

“I think, potentially, of course,” answered Dr Rosenbaum, although he added that Caltech was “embedded in a bigger higher education ecosystem” alongside the University of California, which teaches large numbers of students.

“It depends, to some extent as well in Asia, as to what the expectations are of [the] role in society that a university will have.”

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