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This letter-note was in response to a request by my friend, the late Israeli educationist and philosopher and Auschwitz survivor, Prof Yehuda Elkana (1934-2012), a leading figure in Western intellectual circles and for a long time associated with the German Institute of Advanced Study, Wissenschaftskolleg- Berlin, popularly known as the ‘Kolleg.’ He had asked for my thoughts on an Institute of advanced study in a country like India.

At the time of writing (2007), Yehuda was President and Rector of the Central European University Budapest founded on a large donation from the financier George Soros. Professor Yehuda Elkana went on to head the University, popularly known as CEU for 10 years (1999-2009) and transformed it into one of Europe’s leading institutions of higher learning with faculty and students from around 100 countries. I was a Visiting Fellow at CEU in 2007 and then for a year in 2010-11.  

I am happy to share this mail to Yehuda, which I think could be useful in looking at the role of scholars, administrators and policy makers and the ordinary citizens of a country in whose name, but very often without their consent, a lot of big decisions are taken.

Dr. Uday Balakrishnan


6th March 2019


Dear Yehuda,

I read your paper, the Future of Wissenschaftskolleg. Thank you for sharing. As a discussion paper, it certainly made me think1. 

I find the principles on which the Wissenschaftskolleg was founded, and on which it has endured, wonderful. My reason for reacting in this way is the question of how relevant can such an institution be in a country like India2.

In a cynical world, it is not easy to sustain an institution like the Kolleg, where, apparently, nothing is done but a lot really is achieved by giving those selected the freedom to think ideas through – in effect, cogitate3. I also understand from your paper that the Wissenschaftskolleg could do with a makeover in terms of new issues concerning the world and the areas from which fresh intellectual challenges are emerging.

It is also perhaps not possible to go on replicating the Kolleg. As you state, “In my opinion, it is sheer delusion to hope that establishment of Centers of Excellence or of institutes of Advanced Study will solve the problem of universities, the fact remains that there will be soon in Europe tens of Institutes of Advanced Study, all competing for funds and recognition.”

So where does the idea of the Kolleg go from here? Should it have branches or are similar institutions suggested outside the European universe? In either case, I think there is a need to redefine or even, as you had advocated in the case of the Enlightenment, ‘rethink’ the Kolleg4. I will add the other important dimension you bring out in your paper – reinvent the Kolleg by creating “an academic atmosphere … in which the value-free scholar is replaced by the concerned scholar.”

I do not know the content of the discussion that followed your paper in 2006 – a happy state indeed, for it enables me to give you an ‘unconditioned’ take on what I think the Kolleg could do in future.

It is unexceptionable to state that everyone needs to have a broad understanding of the world around him. This is increasingly necessary in a world of specializations where academics retreat into the narrow cubby holes of their own interests and stay there. To that extent, the Wissenschaftskolleg is a good model to replicate. It sure does bring people, sometimes even non-academics, from various backgrounds out of their familiar surroundings in order to think ideas through in an enabling environment.

However, we could perhaps tweak the Kolleg model rather than clone it. I put forward some suggestion and observations in this regard, centered on the theme “how the three groups of communities in society – those of Scholarship, Need and Knowledge – can be brought together and made to collaborate and learn from one another effectively.” This, I feel is best done within the framework of the existing Wissenschaftskolleg.

The Three Communities

Academia must connect to the larger humanity outside its boundaries and contribute more directly to the common good. You make this point in your paper too5.

For this to happen, a revamped Wissenschaftskolleg, or for that matter any institute of advanced study, should be a place where scholars from different disciplines (I will call them Communities of Scholarship) meet and exchange ideas and think through initiatives with those who can benefit from them (I will call these Communities Of Need6 i.e. those who need knowledge for practical applications). In this, I envisage the involvement of a third group of players, the ones with hands on experience working with the other two groups. I would call these Communities of Support – they could be NGOs, public servants, business people, even consultants and advisors whose view, opinions and decisions affect the everyday lives of people7.

In a world that is under increasing threat from global warming, earthquakes, tsunamis and human conflicts of various kinds, such an institution should connect people across divides and hasten the pace and flow of awareness and understandings, leading to quicker action on ground and the implementation of workable solutions. View this in much the same way we would the more effective administration of medicine – oral, intravenous or any other.

The responsibility that such an institution has will also prove to be a challenge to its everyday existence – the continuous need to ensure that the Communities of Scholarship and Knowledge do not overwhelm or talk down to the Communities of Need. The mechanisms required for this do not exist. The challenge is to develop and apply them to ensure:

  • A level playing field
  • That the players are aware of the terms of engagement
  • That there are processes8 that enable those from the Communities of Need to hold their own and put across their concerns without being overwhelmed or intimidated by the Scholarship and Support groups9 and learn from them. This is necessary in the new Wissenschaftskolleg because two Communities (that of Scholarship and Support) have a long history of intimidating and excluding the other, and perhaps most vital, group  of the Communities of Need by patronizingly suggesting:

“We know all about you and we will get to know what we don’t. We are concerned about you and know you well enough to speak for you. You do not have it in you to project yourself well enough on issues that concern you. We can do the job better.”

In reality, the work anyone does has ordinary people at the end of it, and they are the primary stakeholders in any issue be it cloning, GM foods, the establishment of a steel plant or space research. Thus, it is important to think beyond the existing definitions of what constitutes of being “intellectual” and bring in those lying outside the current understanding of that term – unorganized labour, the agriculturist, the tribes, the fisher folk, the street hawkers and big and small business persons, to name a few.

Peter Hill talks of the responsibility academia and the theatrical professions have for keeping theatre alive for society10. I suggest that the Communities of Scholarship and Communities of Support need to be conscious of their responsibility to build and sustain an informed society. Merely talking amongst themselves, and even with each other, is not only an insult to the millions who sustain them but also constitutes an inexcusable hubris of an extreme and possibly violent kind.

With warm regards






By Dr. Uday Balakrishnan

Dr. Balakrishnan retired as Member Postal Services Board & Chairman Postal Life Insurance Fund. In his career, he has been in charge of child labour elimination and women and unorganised labour and served as Registrar IISc – Bengaluru. Uday’s affiliations include IISc & NIAS (Bengaluru) as well as the Central European University – Budapest. He is a prolific columnist and reviewer of books for India’s leading newspapers and until recently taught Public Policy and Contemporary History at IISc. 



While I could not find Professor Arjun Appadorai’s paper, I did manage to get the line of his thinking and I will make do with that and carry on.

India has not one but several institutes of advanced study amongst them the one in Simla, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study and another located in the IISc – Bangalore campus, the National Institute of Advanced Study – all of them  could do with a considerable rethink!

3  At least in my case you have managed this legerdemain outside the Kolleg structure and within a university situation!

4 Whether as an idea to replicate or for the original institution to evolve into something more – in your words ‘establish itself as an institution where new ideas are continuously being invented and pursued’.

Universities are not geared to respond to the problems of the age… ignorance of practical burning problems of the world’.

While every human being is a member of one or the other Community of Need , I am referring to especially  disadvantaged groups whose voices have been muted – marginalized farmers, unorganized agricultural labour etc. however there are also very aware people in this group particularly planters’ communities who grow tea, rubber, spices coffee, sugar cane. These are groups backed by strong lobbies, have tremendous political influence, and need no special help to hold their own. However, those in the Communities of Need who are less well off, fragmented and without lobbies should figure in exchanges and interaction in a new Wissenschaftskolleg.

It is not as if such an exchange is not going on – only that it remains inefficient and mostly to the disadvantage of those belonging to the Community of Needs.

These processes and protocols need to be developed. They should be clearly spelt out and accepted by all as unalterable terms for interactions of   the three groups.

Unfortunately, this is the case most of the time.

10 Peter Hill – Exposed by the Mask – Form and Language in Drama (Thank you for introducing me to this)