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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

A message from the executive director

In many parts of the world, people are increasingly turning away from foreignness of all kinds—from foreign persons to unfamiliar ideas.

Many consider foreignness to be synonymous with dangerous, repelling, or just plain uninteresting. Relatedly, trust in experts and the unfamiliar or complicated knowledge they possess is eroding.

What is the role of the university at such a cultural moment? Many of us hope that it can be a site of commitment to knowledge, to expertise, and to cosmopolitanism—that it can be a space where the
once taken-for-granted dream of a more rational, inclusive world remains alive.

And yet, is the university immune from the inwardlooking cultural trajectory? This is the image most
academics were trained with: a singular genius, working alone in an office to produce the next epoch-making idea, whatever the field. We all know that the days of idealizing this kind of lone genius
are largely over.

Contemporary problems are simply too complex and too interconnected across different fields —and
across jurisdictional and cultural boundaries—for any one person to be able to define them clearly,  let alone resolve them.

The new genius is a collaborative genius.

By definition, collaboration means working with someone different from oneself--someone in a different institution, someone with differing expertise from one’s own, or perhaps someone in another location, another market, or another culture altogether. In practice, however, there are significant barriers to doing this.

Collaboration does not “just happen.” It is frustrating, difficult, and necessarily outside of everyone’s comfort zone. It is extremely logistically complex. It requires a methodology, and extensive institutional support. And it requires the risk of vulnerability to create new obligations and new relations.

Collaboration produces prospective knowledge.

Yet there is tremendous intellectual value in collaboration! It produces insights that no one can produce alone. In particular, it produces prospective knowledge, not just retrospective knowledge: the ability to crystallize problems before they become cultural givens, thus allowing us to begin to address them.

Collaboration requires a serious commitment to personal and institutional empathy: to listening, not just speaking. A curiosity about the world, tethered to a hope that there are new ideas out there you haven’t thought of yet.

Like cultural humility, collaboration is a skill-set to be learned. It requires opportunities for practice, and for stumbling or even failure. Most of all, the reciprocity at the heart of collaboration requires taking a risk, and risk-taking is possible only in conditions that encourage it—in atmospheres of serious intellectual play.

Most of all, the reciprocity at the heart of collaboration requires taking a risk.

Northwestern Buffett is committed to creating that atmosphere of interdisciplinary, collaborative, and purposeful intellectual play: an atmosphere in which we can come together across the distances and barriers that make us feel “foreign” to one another, to catalyze new ideas that will solve the world’s most pressing problems. You can learn more about how we are doing this in the stories that follow.

As always, I am grateful for your ideas and feedback. Please email me at

Learn about Northwestern Buffett’s pedagogy for collaboration in “Research Trajectory: Ideas to Impact”