Free radical thinking

January 1, 1990

Koç University campus

Umran Inan on the secret to global success: recruit the best scholars and get out of the way.

Society is experiencing an explosion in the production of knowledge, and university education is in the midst of a fundamental transformation. Teaching can no longer merely involve the transfer of knowledge, and research can no longer be carried out behind disciplinary walls. Tertiary pedagogy must now be viewed as a rendezvous between generations, with time in the classroom largely based on dialogue between students and scholars learning from one another.

In common with all people, students and academics produce the best and the most when they are freest. Thus, the university must hire the best faculty it can, create an environment that attracts the best students, and then get out of the way. To do so is not easy as it means creating a truly free environment and protecting it at all costs, even at the expense of relinquishing control.

The most sacred place in the university must be the classroom: once that door closes, the discourse between staff and students must occur as they see fit, with no interference from departmental chairs, deans or anyone else.

Any attempt to enforce established norms and procedures runs the risk of inhibiting individual creativity and innovation. As Oscar Wilde warned: “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” It is best to let scholars and students be, so that they can achieve excellence, and to evaluate each case on its own merits and criteria, lest the desire to enforce consistency allow mediocrity to flourish.

Herein lies an opportunity for young institutions such as Koç University. We can mitigate the effects of established norms and departmental boundaries by not forming them in the first place. There are no departmental chairs at Koç: the dean of engineering, for example, is singularly responsible for faculty and other matters across all five departments (electrical, mechanical, industrial, computer and chemical/biological engineering), and can encourage and promote interdisciplinary interaction among them.

Another advantage of young institutions such as Koç is their agility and ability to take decisive and effective action to capture opportunities without unnecessary bureaucracy (flexibility most readily seen at private not-for-profit institutions). As a “Foundation” university, Koç can and does promote a culture of delegation of responsibility so that all academic and administrative units can excel in ways that best suit them.

The foremost requirement for encouraging interaction between colleges and schools is to make sure that all of their attainment meets a standard of excellence. Here the criteria used for academic recruitment, evaluation and promotion are of vital importance.

At Koç, faculty are appointed and promoted according to criteria based solely on external recommendations from international peers. With no tenure system, scholarly productivity is evaluated every five years. The result is an unusually strong academic workforce in receipt of the most young faculty awards from the Turkish Academy of Sciences and the second highest number of science awards from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (Tübitak). Ninety per cent of the university’s academics have PhDs from the US, and every faculty opening receives 60 to 70 applications from around the world. Ultimately, what drives applicants is the desire to rub shoulders with high-quality peers.

Top academics generate a high rate of reputable publications and citations – two areas measured by the Times Higher Education rankings criteria in which Koç excels, matching the record of institutions among the top 100 in the world. Scholarly productivity also means success in securing sponsored research grants and contracts: with only 250 professors, Koç receives Turkey’s second-largest number of European Union grants.

Interdisciplinary culture at the undergraduate level is already promoted by the liberal arts curriculum at Koç across all schools, including law and medicine. At the postgraduate level, industry and governments are encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, such as the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, so that such thinking increasingly is a matter of survival.

Arguably, the applications and developments with the most important societal impacts over the next decade or so will involve the overlaps between medicine, sciences, engineering, humanities, administrative sciences and law. Once again, what the university can do is to appoint the best academics across the board so that all schools are excellent and make it easy for them to interact, for example via joint research seminars and seed support for collaborations. Creating a free environment in which faculty can thrive is much more important than defining a strategic niche.

At the undergraduate level, recruitment is not a problem for us: 85 per cent of Koç’s student intake hail from the top 2 per cent in the country. But the most important challenge facing a 20-year-old university in the global marketplace is recruiting PhD students.

Our unusually high number of research projects require that we rapidly expand our doctoral programmes. However, established schools and big name brands attract Turkey’s best PhD candidates, despite the high quality of our faculty. Our strategy over the past year has been to double our doctoral intake, with aggressive recruitment from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran. This year we are stepping up recruitment in China, India, South America and Europe.

We believe that creating the freest environment, hiring the best scholars and promoting interdisciplinary thinking is all that a university can do to compete and excel in the global academic marketplace.

Umran Inan is president of Koç University.

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