UW Loses Key Leader

I profiled David Krakauer, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, in January 2013 after periodically talking with him  and observing his campus talks in 2012. I wrote then in Isthmus:

Krakauer’s message “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 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.

My followup story caught Krakauer as he was leaving UW-Madison to lead the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. The story, which appeared in Isthmus, begins:

One of UW-Madison’s change agents, David Krakauer, is departing on June 30, proud of his work as head of the edgy and multi-disciplinary Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, but deeply frustrated by his dealings with the campus bureaucracy.

“They like to use the word ‘innovation’ a lot, but they don’t want to act on it,” he says. “I think this is a culture that is really intolerant of taking risks.”

He adds: “The UW is very large. Things move slowly. It’s very difficult to respond nimbly and build up roots quickly to address a particular problem.” Still, Krakauer is careful to note that the WID “had some dispensations. We had freedoms. We didn’t cleave exactly to the dominant culture. We did a lot of good stuff. It was very unorthodox.

To read more, please go here.

My take on Krakauer’s departure? It’s a huge loss for the university. Next to Jim Graaskamp, the late head of the UW-Madison real estate department, Krakauer is the most compelling and charismatic campus leader I’ve interviewed.

To be sure, there are lots of really bright people on campus, but often they can’t convey their work to an interested layperson in a convincing fashion. They lapse into impenetrable jargon, or they’re painfully shy, or they’re Midwest modest, or they can’t speak English well. Krakauer is very different. He has the rare public intellectual’s ability to explain  complex ideas. He can do a 360 review, describing all the facets to a lay audience and in the process convey their importance and his enthusiasm.

Madison will miss him. I describe Krakauer’s ideas for bringing UW-Madison into the new century in this online sidebar.

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