UW’s Man Of The Future

As someone who was clueless when the newspaper world was being upended by the Internet world, I’ve taken a late-life reportorial interest in the epochal changes ripping through American institutions.

David Krakauer, who runs the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at UW-Madison, gets it. The guy understands how far reaching those changes are. I first heard him speak last February at a luncheon sponsored by the Wisconsin Innovation Network.

This Oxford-trained evolutionary theorist offered a sweeping take on the great trends rattling the UW. In particular: that the UW’s platform for undergraduate education was breaking apart. That the departmental model for intellectual inquiry was outmoded. That funding for research was in flux. And that rapid change was very much the order of the day. But as threatening as all this was, the opportunities — in teaching, in research, in bringing research to market to benefit the Wisconsin economy — were even greater.

This message, which I heard Krakauer give repeatedly with different emphases over the next 11 months, is a brash call for UW-Madison to reimagine its place in the world. Above all, it is to climb out of the silos of intellectual pursuit and embrace a more creative mash-up of disciplines — hard scientists working with poets working with social scientists working with entrepreneurs.

“David’s task of bringing people together across disciplines is an assignment in cultural change,” affirms Francois Ortalo-Magné, dean of the Wisconsin School of Business.

But given that great universities are almost medieval in their reverence for tradition, Krakauer, 45, faces a hellaciously complicated task. It’s “a bit of the immovable object against the unstoppable external forces,” admits Mike Knetter, president of the UW Foundation.

The fact that Krakauer is such an unbuttoned figure in the buttoned-down world of university administration may prove exactly the jolt that UW-Madison needs. Anyway, that’s the high-stakes bet UW execs made in selecting him to run a showcase experimental lab as part of the $210 million Discovery complex, which brings together researchers and entrepreneurs.

They got a guy who’s going to mess with people’s minds.

To read more. please see the Isthmus story.

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