what the Berkman Center got right

Of late, I’ve been reading my friend Dave’s regular Berkman Lunch transcripts with a certain wistfulness. Ironically, his last lunch post was about a Columbia law prof.1 I’ve always cited the lunches as the best part of Berkman, but the further I get from it, the more I realize that the lunches were just one exemplary facet of what made Berkman a great place.

First, a note on what Berkman didn’t succeed at. When a well-meaning Columbia prof asked me (early in my second year here) what Berkman did well, my answer focused on the negative- what Berkman didn’t do. In particular, I focused on the difficulty of translating great ideas into practice at Berkman. This is, I imagine, still a difficult problem, and there are a lot of reasons for it. Certainly while I was there I was part of the problem; I didn’t have quite the right skill sets and my short tenure created problems. In addition, the reality is that all faculty are not by nature product oriented people- they tend to think in terms of ‘what theory are we implementing’ rather than ‘what problem are we solving for real users’, which not surprisingly leads to lame products sometimes.2

I think in the past few weeks I’ve finally been able to snap out of a focus on that negative aspect and come to a better understanding of what really makes Berkman so great.

First is critical mass. There isn’t just one faculty member, there are a throng. So they are always talking and throwing out ideas. And as a result of money from the Berkman family, and their physical concentration in one place, they can act on those ideas. And that snowballs. Lunch exemplifies this  because the food is free and the conference room large. I doubt speakers are given honoraria, but I guess some are flown in. These things are all obvious, though- smart people + money + a building usually = fun. What else is there? What can you do if you don’t have space?

The second thing is the faculty’s focus on Berkman as an institution. For a variety of idiosyncratic reasons, the Berkman faculty are very committed to Berkman-as-Berkman. For perfectly understandable reasons (mostly tenure), most faculty are committed to their own publications first, the law school second, and then whatever else a distant third. For the current Berkman faculty, these three things tend to be on roughly the same priority level, and are also always intertwined- if you publish, you think about how publication will turn into a Berkman project; if you think about the law school, you think about how to help it by getting students more involved in Berkman; etc. As a result, Berkman always has things going on- projects, events, stimulation of some sort. Outside commitments occasionally block individual events or projects, but those commitments never systematically prevent or reduce involvement in Berkman events. That is invaluable- it is faculty commitment that makes anything on a university campus go, and Berkman has that commitment in spades. (Tie to lunch? Faculty actually show up, pretty much every week.)

The third thing is Berkman’s openness. Contrary to Harvard’s reputation that the only smart people on earth live in 02138, Berkman deeply believes that there are lots of smart people out there that aren’t at Berkman, and the instinctive response is to invite them to swing by. Hence Dave’s lunch summary. There is always someone interesting, on a weekly basis, being invited to join the discussion. (And they are discussions, not lectures, as you can see from the extensive Q&A that accompanies every lunch transcript.) And the discussions are open to everyone- you can literally walk in off the street if you want; lots of the participants are students or fellows (who often aren’t academics, but come from other walks of life.) As a result of this openness Berkman is always getting new ideas, and being challenged to think about the old ones- it isn’t just the handful of ideas of the faculty that are getting recycled.

The last thing is the commitment to real world impact. As already mentioned, this commitment has limits that stem from the structure of the place (Harvard is the ivoriest of ivory towers, after all), but the constant commitment to trying new things- despite the daunting odds of failure- is really admirable. The core theory goes like this- a faculty member writes a paper; then they write a book for the popular press based on the paper; and in tandem with those, they start thinking about projects that will bring the core ideas of book and paper to the world in some tangible sense. H2O was an outgrowth of Zittrain‘s ideas about pedagogy, Stopbadware an outgrowth of his ideas about generativity and the ‘net, the music project I worked on an outgrowth of Terry Fisher’s ideas on the future of music licensing, and I presume much of John Palfrey‘s work as law school Dean of Libraries will be an outgrowth of his book Born Digital. (Berkman likes to take credit for Creative Commons as one of these ideas->books->real world projects as well, though that is more tenuous ;) Are any of these projects world-shakers yet? Not really, and many won’t be because a law school is a difficult place to make product focused, as I already said. But the attempt is noble.

So all in all… yeah, I’m a little nostalgic. All things considered, I’m pretty happy at Columbia, but Berkman is a unique place that other institutions would do well to consider and emulate.

  1. According to my email archives, Heller has spoken on campus only once since I’ve been here, and that at a series of faculty lectures with ‘limited seats available for students.’ []
  2. This experience colors my interpretation of the Obama nominating process; I’m utterly thrilled that he’s generally picking hard-nosed operators who know how to get things done rather than ideologues, even when I agree with the policy positions of the ideologues. []

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