Decadal Review

The Institute for Advanced Study was founded for the purpose of fostering curiosity-driven research into fundamental questions by leading scholars from around the world.  Its first Director, Abraham Flexner, emphasized the importance of reflecting periodically on that mission, and the institutional characteristics that should exist to support it, “so that we will not be drawn or drift out of our course.”  This process of “recapitulation,” as Flexner termed it, has been accomplished through a series of extensive studies conducted by the Board of Trustees at roughly ten-year intervals since the mid-1950s.

In the most recent iteration of this process, the 2007–2009 Decadal Review sought to examine the Institute’s current work, reflect on the appropriateness of its activities, and recommend changes that should be considered for the future.  Over this two-year period, information was gathered from Faculty, Members, Trustees, Staff, and external experts and consultants, about all aspects of life and work at the Institute.  Separate constituent reports were produced on each of the Schools, on governance, on computing and information technology, on consultation with the Institute’s Staff, on the Institute’s facilities, and on development and public affairs activities.  Surveys of current and former Members were conducted to gauge the quality of their experiences, and an extensive file of operational data was compiled.

The resulting conclusions and recommendations reflect a general finding that the Institute overall is strong and healthy, and that its mission remains highly relevant.  Several broad areas of improvement were suggested, including many specific action items resulting from the various constituent reports, to help the Institute better position itself for continued success over the long term.  The Trustees recognize that implementation of recommendations that may entail significant cost must be tempered in the short term by the recent global recession and its lingering effects.  However, the Decadal Review looks toward a ten year horizon and therefore considers what should be done when resources again permit.

The Review strongly reaffirms the central importance of the permanent Faculty in providing direction and continuity for the Institute’s academic life.  The Institute’s small number of permanent professors heightens the importance of a selection and appointment process that maximizes opportunities to identify and attract the best scholarly talent.  At the same time, the competitive realities of the marketplace for world-class scholars underscore the need to maintain appropriate levels of support for current Professors as well as for Professors Emeriti, who remain active and productive members of the Institute community.   

The study also focused on the Members, the approximately 200 scholars who come to the Institute each year from universities and research institutions around the world.  Surveys of current and former Members concerning both scholarly and practical aspects of their experiences at the Institute, conducted as part of the Decadal Review, indicated a generally high level of satisfaction overall.  These results underscored the importance of preserving the complete freedom for Members to pursue their research while at the Institute, to have sustained opportunity for stimulating interactions within a diverse group of colleagues, and to receive appropriate levels of support.

An external assessment of the Institute’s current governance practices concluded that the governance of the Institute is very strong: Trustees are appropriately involved in setting the organization’s direction, monitoring its achievements, solving problems, and seeking improvements; Board membership is well-balanced in terms of professional skills, financial capacity, and time commitment, as well as in the mix of new members and longer-term leadership.

Consultations with Staff indicated that the Institute’s small size and closely-knit working environment engendered high levels of collegiality, strong feelings of loyalty, and a widespread ability to understand, appreciate, and feel connected to the Institute’s achievements.  These qualities, in turn, contribute to an extraordinary level of efficient and effective service.   While lean and efficient, the administrative structure should also include appropriate backup capabilities and opportunities for collaboration between departments.

The examination process also included the facilities and services – libraries, computing, housing for Faculty and Members, space for meetings and discussion – that support the Institute’s academic work and enable it to function as an “academic village.”  The Institute’s use of information technology for both academic and administrative purposes over the last decade has grown substantially, including the steady shift toward digitally-based research and a greatly expanded presence on the Web as a vehicle for communication and making academic work of the Faculty and Members publicly accessible.  The trend toward greater use of these virtual tools has broad implications for future resource allocation, space planning, community outreach, and fundraising.

The Institute’s residential character is one of its defining features and an important part of its overall attraction to scholars.  There is a need, however, for additional accommodations to house Members and short-term Visitors, including those attending small conferences increasingly hosted at the Institute.   There is also need for additional meeting rooms and social spaces that are conveniently located and appropriately designed to facilitate personal interaction.  Action is recommended to address these issues,  specifically construction of a pending project that would provide nineteen apartment units and a commons building as soon as funding can be raised or made available, and more generally, assessing whether additional space needs can best be met, when resources permit, by the reconfiguration of existing spaces or the construction of new ones. 

To continue to attract the best scholars and scientists, the Institute must continue to provide excellent conditions, including complete academic freedom, and must maintain fiscal stability and independence over the long term.  An important factor in this context is the Institute’s reliance on its endowment, which provides 80% of the operating budget for its core activities.  An audit of the Institute’s development program concluded that, while it has been successful, raising more than $125M from July 2004 to June 2009, including a completed $100M campaign, the endowment needs to be increased substantially in order to preserve the Institute’s financial health, particularly in adverse or uncertain economic conditions.

The Report concluded that the Institute has over time achieved a balance of scholarly tradition and adherence to successful practices while also adapting in response to changes in areas where science and scholarship are advancing.  Much of the Institute’s strength and effectiveness derives from the fact that it has remained organizationally small and flexible.  The Report cautions against growth that could have adverse consequences, such as over-taxing central facilities, diminishing administrative responsiveness, and undermining the pervading sense of community that exists currently.  Achieving the goals of the Decadal Review will require continued vigilance and sustained effort, and should include mechanisms to monitor its implementation.

A copy of the Final Report may be obtained from the Director's Office.