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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

An Interview with Professor Klaus Weber, Deputy Director of Buffett Institute

Klaus WeberNorthwestern Buffett was pleased to announce the addition of Klaus Weber, Professor of Management & Organizations at the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, as Deputy Director of the institute in October. Although he is an organizational scholar by title, Prof. Weber brings nearly 20 years’ worth of international and interdisciplinary research interests to Buffett’s ranks. He has published papers co-authored with professors from around the world; studied broad topics as well as in-depth topics particular to Germany, Kenya, and China; and been a visiting professor in European and Asian universities.

 We sat down with Prof. Weber to explore his research interests and how they align with Northwestern Buffett’s goals and aspirations:


Northwestern Buffett is building out a research trajectory for turning ideas into impactful research. When you are teaching an MBA or PhD class you have the ability to be super granular about Organizational Theory, Sustainability, or the other topics that you have explored in the past 20 years; how can these topics be taken into interdisciplinary conversations? 

One of the things that attracted me to the job of Deputy Director was the opportunity to reach outside of the traditional boundaries of organizational research and seek the super-specialists in different disciplinary fields that may not always be visible. I have done research on topics such as financial globalization, social movements in civil societies, and technology discovery in healthcare. Although I can run high-end regressions and do quantitative modeling, I can also do field research and qualitative analysis that, to many people in my field, would look like it belongs in the Humanities department. In my years of research, it has become clear to me that if you want to build a more global university, you have to engage as many stakeholders as possible, especially in a campus as diverse as Northwestern. People find connections in conversations, and it has to be a grounds-up process.


Northwestern is an organization, and a unique one at that as a university. Universities are more complex organizations, and to enhance the global engagement you have to work through that organization; the engagement of different groups to meet goals like this are both things that I’ve studied and advocated for as an organizational scholar.


You have published a substantial amount of research that was co-authored with professors from different fields of research and different countries. How can institutions avoid falling prey to “ivory tower syndrome” and work collaboratively with each other rather than having one-way conversations on what is right or wrong? 

Let me use one of my research areas – Sustainability – as an example, because I think it serves as a microcosm with very similar dynamics. One of the things that has been proven ineffective when it comes to promoting sustainability is elite institutions and actors telling everyone what to do. You cannot impose your view of what to do about climate change on a developing nation, for example. That is not an issue of communication, it is an issue of self-understanding and having a commitment to collaborating as equals. The only way to do that is through multilateral efforts.


You see the same thing happen on the scientific side of sustainability. There are scientists who claim to know what to do yet question why nobody listens to them, but in a global system you cannot simply assert expertise and authority into contexts where that authority is baseless. Again, the issue is not with communication. There has to be substantive engagement, you have to listen just as much as you communicate.


One of the peculiarities of being in a business school is that other academics do not often think of you as an academic. They think you are just some business-type person out of the corporate world. When I engage with peers from disciplines from computer science to sociology one of the first things I hear is “Oh, I didn’t know they had PhDs in Business.” Sometimes business academics are the same way. The way to fix that is not to get angry write those people off as ignorant, but hearing what people have to say and not assuming that you can simply assert your supremacy over a subject. That is what I think effective collaboration looks like, and although there is a lot of expertise and energy within Buffett for building that kind of collaboration, it needs the support of the whole university if it is to get any traction.


Going back to the topic of climate change, you’ve said that companies have to move beyond seeing climate change as an external relations issue and innovate at the core of their business rather than limit themselves to quick fixes and actions at the margins. How do you think this kind of philosophy can be transferred to students who are graduating prepared to eventually be running those companies?

It is the same argument that can be used with how organizations should be addressing globalization. It is not enough for companies to invest a little into international relations for the sake of appeasing shareholders and ignore the fact that 40% of their sales come from overseas. You cannot afford to remain ignorant of what is going on in those countries. If we look at the Chinese trade war, you see that you can very quickly have the rug pulled out from under your feet if you do not keep a global perspective on your organization.


With climate change, what was once seen as a “nice thing to do” by businesses, something that made you a responsible citizen, is actually something that is both fundamentally threatening to their business and a huge opportunity to develop new products and services that make money because they address climate change. I predict that students graduating and going into businesses will be expected to be able to think of climate change in a business context and think about how a business can make money off of addressing climate change.


It used to be difficult to keep students at Kellogg engaged with topics in sustainability because they also didn’t see it as a core part of their education. Now that more and more companies are demanding that kind of knowledge out of their employees, there is a lot more demand for sustainability education. That, in turn, creates a mandate for universities like Northwestern to make sure they have faculty to teach those subjects in the right context. The students at Kellogg need to think about sustainability in a different professional context than the ones at McCormick [School of Engineering] do.


You teach a lot of international students in the Kellogg MBA and PhD programs; as we see countries around the world attempting to be more insular, what role do you see institutions such as Buffett playing in making international education apolitical? 

The very name “university” suggests that they are universal. Universities were founded with the idea of being a place where people from all walks of life could come to pursue knowledge through learning or research. At the same time, universities are funded by national governments and embedded in local communities. If you take that to the international stage, I do not think you can make it “apolitical,” especially in the current day where you end up making a political statement just by trying to be apolitical. I think the issue is more about being consciously aware about how universities position themselves, and I feel quite strongly that universities need to take a multilateral and globally conscious stance on their values.


If you look at what an engineer learns in Germany, China, or here – it is not that different. Which means we have a universal platform of bringing people together called academic knowledge. Even if you are studying something culturally contextual like art or history, there is a sense of understanding and cultural respect throughout the academic community. That is something very precious and very important in this world, and it is because we have that platform that we can continue to build upon existing academic knowledge. If universities do not do it, who would? I think of it as a moral imperative to play that role.


Of course, there are political issues to navigate. If visa regulations get tighter, it gets more difficult to bring in international students. As a university, you can throw your hands up and say “oh well, doesn’t work,” or you can try to find different ways of doing it. You can be responsive of these issues as long as you do not lose sight of what makes universities unique institutions.


I study a lot of private companies, and they are often the biggest advocates for international connections, not only in terms of free trade for the sake of economic advantage but also because they increasingly see a benefit from operating in a global environment with an international talent pool. They are able to capitalize on these benefits at an elite level, and I think universities could serve to learn not just from the global professional elites but also from stratifications within societies. They need to ask “what can we do to bring those who are currently excluded from the global sphere and bring them into the fold?” This would hopefully prevent what I see as a very dangerous trend towards nationalism and a very narrow focus on self-interest. I come from Germany, and although the memory is fading, I think people in Europe still recall the two world wars that laid waste to the entire continent. Nationalism and self-interest can get out of hand very quickly, and often the result is disaster. My personal view is that it is easier to correct the excess of free market that might cause issues of inequality and exclusion in the global sphere rather than counter nationalism, which creates the same inequality within a society but adds the factor of international conflict. Universities have a role to play in bringing people together, doing research, and showing the benefits of international collaboration. More than anything, however, is the role universities play in bringing people together to have a conversation at a highly engaged level.


Bringing that high level of engagement is sometimes easier said than done. Graduate students, for instance, can often be buried in their schoolwork and will not engage with international learning opportunities if it is not directly relevant to their research or degree. What is missing from the dialogue about what a “graduate experience” is supposed to be that can get Master’s and PhD candidates engaged with international opportunities in the way you just described?

 There are two problems that have to be addressed. The first is the notion that international experiences “take more effort and cost more money” on behalf of the student. The straightforward answer to that is more resources; travel funding should not be the reason why you cannot engage an international opportunity. Resources are finite, of course, but even if that issue is addressed the second problem arises:


Say you are in a Chemistry PhD program and there is an opportunity to do lab research with an international partner. Do you really want to spend time away from your advisor, your lab, the people who will be helping you prepare for your dissertation and your job afterwards? Some disciplines are naturally international and the ability to integrate international learning opportunities into the graduate curriculum is quite seamless.


Like you said earlier, it does not matter if you are in Germany, China, or the U.S. – engineering is engineering.

Correct. In terms of what you can learn, it does not matter if you are in Zürich or Evanston. For our hypothetical Chemistry student, however, the funding of their PhD is based on the grant their advisor received to help with that advisor’s lab’s research. For those areas, I think the solution is to foster collaborations at the faculty level so that you can work in an international research group almost as if it were part of your home research group.


I mentioned that the fundamentals of engineering are mostly country-agnostic, but I think there is a difference among different disciplines in terms of what you would do in other countries if you got the chance to study there. Obviously if you are doing a PhD in African Studies you should go to Africa, but if you were doing a PhD in sociology, you could go to France, Germany, or China, but the method of study is going to be a little different. You could end up going down a research path you are not happy with, and that is not something that throwing more resources at the problem will fix. The better option is to encourage students who want to do international research to do something they are already interested in and put resources (not necessarily monetary, but connections and advice) into the students before they are signed up to fly off somewhere. Each student in each discipline will have different needs, so there has to be a way of addressing those needs early to ensure that they are getting a desirable outcome for their research. ¨