Interview with Georg Krücken about his current research fellowship at Stanford University

“…academically profound and practically valuable insights…” - interview with Georg Krücken about his current research fellowship at Stanford University

Prof. Dr. Georg Krücken, Spokesperson of the Sexecutive Board of INCHER, currently at Stanford University, US

Prof. Dr. Georg Krücken, Spokesperson of the INCHER Executive Board, is spending the winter semester 2023/2024 as a research fellow at the renowned Stanford University in the US - thus returning to the institution he already visited in 1999 and 2001 as a DFG habilitation fellow and in 2011 as a visiting scholar. In the following short interview, he gives insight into his current impressions. Christiane Rittgerott asked the questions for the INCHER-e-update.

INCHER-update: Dear Professor Krücken, this is not your first academic stay at Stanford University for a longer time. What fascinates you about Stanford?

G.K.: Stanford University is an academically highly inspiring place, with excellent research in all disciplines and interdisciplinary fields, and a university open to broader societal trends, thriving on new trends. I have been here for longer and shorter periods, the first time for 18 months between 1999 and 2001. This stay was overwhelming as I was fully exposed to a highly innovative phase where intellectual prowess and openness towards new trends were perfectly combined. Here, I conducted research on university-industry relations at a time when new start-ups, such as Google, were being founded by Stanford graduates. I didn’t talk to the founders of Google, who invented Google as part of their Ph.D. research, but to their academic supervisor – a professor of computer science with wide ranging philosophical and sociological interests - or to the staff at Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing, who also played an important role in making this start-up possible. Right now, there are other things in the air that Stanford is addressing in an equally impressive way, particularly artificial intelligence and sustainability. Large interdisciplinary research centers have been created on both subjects, and I am very excited to get more academically profound and practically valuable insights into this during my stay.    

INCHER-update: What changes do you perceive compared to previous years?

G.K.: As you stroll around campus, you immediately see that the student body at Stanford has become much more diverse over the years. Again, this results from a deliberate combination of academic goals and societal changes. Stanford has changed its admission policies to no longer rely exclusively on standardized testing, reproducing social inequalities, as we know from higher education research. In addition, the university has a full-fledged scholarship program for admitted undergraduates in need of financial aid, covering up to 100 % of the very high tuition fee (currently 20,577 US Dollars per quarter, i.e., 82,308 US Dollars per year). From the perspective of organizational research, a further change can be seen in a certain tension between mainly disciplinary teaching carried out by the departments and the increasing importance of interdisciplinary research centers, where most of the research is conducted. Departments have certainly lost ground here over the last years. Although they are still the organizational backbone of teaching – even if, for example, sustainability teaching and research are both located in a newly founded school -they play an increasingly minor role in the organization of research. Personally, I find it somehow sad to see that the strong tradition in organizational research on campus, in particular in sociology, which attracted me as a young scholar in the late 1990s and early 2000s allowing for a study of phenomena like university-industry relations or the growth and impact of interdisciplinary research centers now, has become less important in Stanford sociology. Most organizational research is currently being conducted at Stanford’s Business School – again, a trend not limited to Stanford but to social science research in the US in general.       


INCHER-update: What issues dominate the discourse around the US universities?

G.K.: There are many issues in the current discourse, ranging from technological developments and the role universities play therein to all aspects of diversity and identity and their impact on campus and curricula. To highlight one issue, financial matters related to tuition fees play a very large role in the US. We have a multi-layered debate on the “return on investment” of college education. For a long time, it was ingrained in American thinking that a college education pays off economically. Certainly, this is still the case in universities like Stanford, where a degree still pays off, also economically, despite the high tuition fees mentioned before. But what about less prestigious and well-known universities in a society where university degrees are abundant and which charge perhaps half of what Stanford charges? In his 2020 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders gained a lot of support for his advocacy of tuition-free higher education. Interestingly, though highly debated in public, tuition fees are currently not an issue at the beginning of the 2024 presidential campaign. The topic of tuition fees and diminishing, at times inexistent, returns on investment is undoubtedly embedded in a broader debate on social inequalities in American higher education. Recently, Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor of economics, published a well-received analysis on such inequalities, using big data from varied sources. His two lectures on the topic across the Bay at UC Berkeley last month were very well attended, both in-person and online.   

INCHER-update: How does the current Middle East conflict manifest itself at US universities? Are protests as vehement and lines of conflict as unbridgeable as they sometimes appear in the German press with regard to US universities?

G.K.: The current conflict plays a huge role among the American public, particularly at US universities. What I see, unfortunately, is certainly not a political discourse in the sense of Jürgen Habermas, open-minded, understanding, and as a common search for truth, but rather as a clash of incompatible, presumably morally superior positions. Such positions are deliberately uncompromising, not open to adjustment, and not even geared towards engaging with and eventually persuading the other side. On Stanford campus, for example, over the last weeks, in an escalating dynamics, photos of killed children on both sides were posted all over the place, each side posting faces and names from ‘their side’ without any word on the shared grief of the loss of lives or a sense of solidarity with all victims and their families. This reflects, among other things, the dramatic demise of American political culture over the last years and can be observed in many fields of political ‘discussion.’ Such a lack of empathy and the will “to take the role of the other,” in terms of George H. Mead, is particularly problematic for universities. Among other tasks and functions, universities are also discursive institutions where critical communication processes of an increasingly culturally and socio-structurally heterogeneous society occur. In theory, this is exactly the right place for critically and even controversially debating present-day issues and desirable futures among those who will shape the future. In practice, I am much more skeptical, not only with regard to the Middle East conflict. However, some controversial issues, like the role of artificial intelligence in society, are discussed open-mindedly and in a very inspiring way. 

INCHER-update: One of your current research topics is competition in the higher education system - how do you see the international comparison between the USA and Germany in terms of actual practice?

G.K.: Competition comprehensively shapes US universities. The turn towards universities as organizational actors, which behave competitively towards other universities, began here much earlier than in Germany. This applies not only to the level of university presidents and the central administration. Deans of departments or schools, for example, also engage in both competitive and relatedly cooperative behavior concerning rival organizations, and they are explicitly hired for this purpose. When I refer to rival organizations, I do not only mean other universities. Here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, there is intensive competition for researchers in technology. This stiff competition is of serious concern for Stanford as large tech firms in its immediate environment have become vital players in basic research and attract young researchers with high industry salaries, excellent research facilities and, most recently and challenging, also research autonomy. Likewise, everywhere in the US, there is serious competition for students, who, among other things, are a primary source of income for private and public universities. Also, public universities like UC Berkeley receive much more financial resources from tuition fees than from basic funding by the state. In addition, the competition for money from donors is a pertinent feature of higher education in the US, which is currently also highly visible. I want to examine competition for students more intensively, partly because I expect this aspect of competition, which is currently hardly an issue in Germany, to become more important in the coming years as demographic change progresses. Last but not least, there is a heightened sense of competition among universities and the state regarding the international scenery. On a global scale, the United States has played a hegemonic role in higher education and science over the last decades, in practice and as a model to emulate. There is an increasing sense that the “American age” will dissolve, with the US still going strong but with new competitors arising. China is an important issue, and the question of balancing competition and cooperation and avoiding direct conflict is of major concern, also in the field of science and higher education.

The interview was conducted in December 2023 and was published in INCHER-(e)update 2/2023.