The role of the institutes for advanced studies in the contemporary university according to Peter Goddard

Peter Goddard, former director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study

The original motivations for the creation of institutes for advanced studies can be identified from the late 19th century, when discussions on the role of universities started questioning whether they should be primarily devoted to research andknowledge advancement or mainly to the spread of knowledge through education and the development of technological applications.

The first proposal in support of a distinguished research institution, similar to what would become the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton Univesity (IAS), was brought up exactly a hundred years ago in the book The Higher Learning in America, by sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), according to Peter Goddard, former director of the IAS. He gave the conference The Development of Institutes for Advanced Study and their Role in the Contemporary University on March 11 during the second phase of the Intercontinental Academia's first edition, in Nagoya.

The subtitle of Veblen's book is The Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, a reference to the replacement of clerics by businessmen in the governance of American universities during the 19th century. According to Goddard, Veblen believed that this change led to the introduction of standardization systems, accountability and payment for production, meaning the replacement of the academic ideal of a "mediocrity perfunctory routine."

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The first institute for advanced studies

Educator Abraham Flexner (1866-1959), one of those responsible for the reform in the teaching of medicine and higher education in general in the United States has been the proponent of the creation of the first institute for advanced studies.

According to Goddard, Flexner was approached by Louis and Caroline Bamberger at the end of 1929. The couple had made a fortune with department stores and were searching for guidance to create a medical school. In a few months they were convinced by Flexner to sponsor the creation of the Princeton IAS, of which he became the founding director.

Goddard said that the essay The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge was written by Flexner to argue that advancements in the most practical value of knowledge do not come from research guided by goals, but from those motivated by intellectual curiosity. The best example of this attitude could not be another than the first hired person by Flexner in 1932: Albert Einstein.

In 1958 the then director of the IAS, Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), attributed the emergence of new institutes for advanced studies to the impacts of the increasing complexity of research and the expansion of higher education, since these two restricted the opportunities for scholars to devote themselves to intense intellectual issues, Goddard reported.

Present time

For Goddard, the institutes can offer a lot in relation to the challenges faced by universities in spite of consisting a relatively small part of academia.

Besides the impacts mentioned by Oppenheimer there are also the contemporary culture of auditing, managerialism, and institutional evaluation and analysis systems. This framework has increased the need for research environments where the short-term production of tangible results must not interfere with the fundamental research activity, Goddard said.

Within this context, institutes for advanced studies have been created by universities "as sanctuaries for eminent scholars to give them respite from the demands of the evaluation exercises, and as international standard frameworks", serving for the aspirations of universities to obtain such visibility.

Another important aspect highlighted by Goddard is that the institutes promote the intersection of research topics, allowing them to "establish scenarios to overcome the boundaries between disciplines, institutionalized within the administrative structures of universities since the 19th century and now often seen as inhibitors of scientific progress."

Goddard pointed out four main reasons for the emergence of institutes for advanced studies today:

  • opportunities for academics to conduct research led by curiosity and distant from the intense pressures of the modern university;
  • international environments within the increasingly international academia;
  • success in terms of research output and impact on long-term development of the researchers who work in them;
  • they are a benchmark of the universities' institutional and status aspirations.


According to Goddard, the typical characteristics of an institute for advanced studies are to focus on research rather than education, to work at the intersections of disciplines and to offer programs for visiting researchers. However, they differ in several ways, especially when it comes to:

  • number of addressed subjects;
  • level of constitutional independence (governance);
  • level of financial independence;
  • permanent researchers (or not);
  • specific thematics and programs (or not).

Photo: IAR/Nagoya University