RESEARCH TALK ▼

FUNDAMENTALLY, YOU HAVE TO DO WHAT YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL DIERMEIER | by Katrin Bernsdorff

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SHORT PROFILE

Name: Daniel Diermeier
Field: Political Science
Country: United States of America
Occupation: Provost of the University of Chicago
Research Interests: Formal Political Theory, Political Institutions, Interaction of Business and Politics, Text Analytics, Public Perception, Crisis and Reputation Management.

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    Let's start with your career: What drew you to your current field of political science? You started out in philosophy. When did the switch occur?


  
D.D. I was originally interested in philosophy, in high school already, before I began my studies in Munich at the LMU. I studied philosophy and logic; political science was my minor. I was mostly interested in political philosophy. After 2 ½ years I received a fellowship to study abroad and joined the philosophy PhD program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I very much enjoyed my time there but during this time but I also realized that philosophy was not my long-term career. While I was in Los Angeles - I had begun this course in Munich – but mostly in LA, I took a class at CalTech, the California Institute of Technology, which was one of the leading centers at the time in using mathematical models to study politics, game theory, social choice theory…In particular in the field of social choice theory, I saw a lot of similarity with the work that I had previously done in philosophical logic.

I liked the idea of making things that are usually pretty vague precise and I think this desire to make things that are vague and ambiguous precise has been a driver throughout my career.  I graduated with a Masters degree from Southern Cal, went back to Germany and got a Masters in Political Science with minors in philosophy and logic. I then applied to Graduate School and went to the University of Rochester in New York. Rochester, along with CalTech, was one of the hubs for rational choice theory in political science. After three years, I got a Pre-Doctoral fellowship at Northwestern at the Managerial, Economic and Decision Sciences Department, graduated a year later with my PhD from Rochester. My first job was at Stanford, in the Business School, which had a very strong political economy, rational choice group. That was my specialization so that's why I went there. I really loved that research orientation. However, I then also got interested in some management issues over time and went to Northwestern. Here I got engrossed in business and politics as well as crisis and reputation management which then became a major interest, especially on the teaching side. In this framework I conducted executive education.

Then, two years ago, I became Dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. I've been doing this for almost two years but was recently appointed Provost of the University, which I will start Friday, July 1st.

 

   Congratulations. What are your tasks as Provost?


   D.D. A provost is the chief academic officer and chief budget officer of the University. US universities have a president and then a provost. In this particular role, I have the responsibility over all academic affairs, the budget and allocation of other resources such as space. So it's a broad area of responsibilities.

 

   When you head into a new position, do you start this venture with a mission or a vision?


   D.D. Yes. I think you have to have a very clear idea of what you want to do. It sometimes takes some time to figure that out and you don't want to jump to conclusions. You need to spend some time understanding what the issues are. When I came in as Dean of the Harris School, I first spent 2 to 3 months talking to people, looking at the various materials, looking at the budget, looking at other background materials and it quickly became clear what had to be done and then we implemented that. I think this process is going to be very similar at the University. I'm not remotely at a point where this path is completely clear or could be clearly articulated but I'm confident it will be.

 

   What do you want to achieve in this position?

 

   D.D. The real challenge in a great research-oriented university in the American model, a private university that is its own entity - which is obviously completely different from German or European universities that are funded by the government – is that it's basically run like a giant organization. The University of Chicago, if you put everything in, including the management of the national laboratories, the medical center, etc. is roughly a 5.4 billion dollars a year entity. It's really like you're running a very large non-profit. The revenues have to work; the expenses have to work. There are very significant managerial challenges to succeeding. What this means for great universities is that you're running a mission-driven organization: It's mission is to create great research, great teaching and have great direct impact. Everything else, the whole administrative structure, has to be set up and designed to support that core mission. Some issues need to be addressed, some aspects need to be improved and others just need organizing but that is what we are going to do. Many great universities still operate with an administrative and financial model that is a bit outdated and is not quite as efficient and effective as it should be. So I will look at my responsibility there as being in maintaining the values and cultures of the University as well as its high standards of quality while at the same time trying to improve the underlying management and administrative structure to be commensurate with the academic mission and to be able to support that mission in an integrated and sustainable way.

 

   With this venture, as well as projects or experiences you had before, how do you manage to get people on board for your ideas?

 

   D.D. Great question, I think what you have to do to be an effective leader, certainly in a university context – it's also true in a corporate setting, but it's particular to the university setting – is that you have to set a particular vision and strategic direction. That's number one. Number two: You have to find the right people, put them in the right positions and motivate them and the third part is that you have to be able to execute. This means getting things done, putting the processes in place that help things move forward. Not everyone can be equally strong on all three but I think to be effective you always have to be successful along these three dimension to the best of your ability. And I should say: You can't motivate people if you're not connecting with what they are passionate about and what they want to do but there also has to be a direction so there is a way to coordinate the various activities. This way you can reach a higher level of excellence than before.

   "You can’t motivate people if
   you're not connecting with
   what they are passionate about ..."

 

   Did you make calculated career decisions or what guided you in your career path?

 

   D.D. I always, from a very early age, wanted to be a professor. That was clear, that was my goal. My original plan was that I would be a philosophy professor but when it became clear that being a philosophy professor just wasn't the right path for me, I still loved the academic environment. That never changed. So the next question just was: What will I do? I took a year, or rather half a year, to figure this out while I went back to Germany. I thought about economics and took a couple of economics classes; I thought about law … but finally the original interest that I had had in political science was the strongest. It was really the question of how governmental institutions should be organized that stuck with me. As soon as I discovered that there was a way to think about this topic that was connected to my interest in formal modelling and economic reasoning, my interests were clear.

So I guess there is an overall direction but when opportunities emerge you have to see how they fit into the path and integrate them. Sometimes you also have to be ready for something new. My decision to become Dean, for example, really took a while. I first had to really be clear about the task and see whether that was the next step in my life. But then once the decision is made, you have to go for it and try to find the best opportunity. One that is a good fit between what you want to do and what can be done.

 

   You wear many hats. You are a professor, a teacher, a consultant, a leader… How do you manage, with all these hats, to stay true to yourself? Do you have an ethical framework for yourself?

 

   D.D. Yes, I think there are many dimensions to this. In my personal case: I have a variety of personal interests, that was clear to me from very early on so having the ability to wear many hats and be engaged in different ways is a pleasure for me, not a problem.

An ethical framework is, however, a very important one. First of all, there are some very fundamental aspects such as disclosure, conflict of interest and you have to be completely able to differentiate. You have to know: When am I wearing this hat, when am I wearing the other one? And whether there potential problems when switching from one to the other. You can't completely avoid them but you have to manage them as well as you can. However, the fundamental, the most important, aspect, I think, is: What do you want your impact to be, how do you want to have an impact on the world? And for me personally, it became clear that this is mostly done through a variety of different channels, not just one. When I work with a company I have to believe that what I'm doing has a positive social impact and that it is done right; that it's done based on careful thinking and the best available research. On the other hand, when I'm doing my research, I want it to be directed towards having a positive social impact as well. I was never really attracted to research for research's sake. It's great that people do that and I love that but for me personally, the decision of quitting philosophy was really driven by that. I wanted to do something that had more of a practical impact. I had worked on a very abstract area and it didn't suit my temperament particularly well but for other people that's a different conversation. I think these are very personal choices about focus, diversity of interest, about which path you use to live a productive life and for me that always involved multiple things as far as I can think back. That hasn't really stopped fundamentally - just how I'm doing it, the mix, how I'm engaging in these different paths has changed over time but the multiplicity of the paths has stayed constant.

 

   Concerning your advisory activities for large companies: How important is it for you to mix academia and the corporate world?

 

   D.D. Well, I was a business school professor for 20 years so the whole point of being in a business school is to bridge that tension between academic rigor and practical relevance. If you don't want that, if you're not interested in that tension then you should perhaps be in an economics department for example. That was the whole point. Basically: How do you think about the type of work I was doing [consulting] in the context of business and politics? That is fundamentally what I did there in a variety of different ways. It sums up the very essence of being at a business school in that particular capacity.

 

   How do you inspire your students as a business professor to become one of the world's 50 best business professors?

 

   D.D. I think you always have to understand: Who is your audience? What are their interests? What are they thinking about? And if you're teaching PhD students that's completely different than teaching undergraduate students or professional students, such as business students. In Germany, again, this is quite different because the distinction is not so clear. In the US, PhD students want to be academics. So for them, you are role models and measuring sticks which means they will see: How do I compare with this? How do I fit in? What are my strengths and weaknesses and how do I measure up? For a professional school student, for instance an MBA student, you're not a role model. They don't want to be an academic. They want to run a company or they want to run a non-profit or whatever it is they are interested in. That means that what you provide them with has to be useful for their dreams, not for my dreams. And I was always very conscious of that and I had a lot of respect for that. I had a lot of respect for my students. I think what they were doing was difficult, challenging and important. I came to the classroom with a questions like: How is what I do important for what they want to do? And my whole teaching was structured around that. I used a lot of examples, I really tried to challenge them, right off the bat. My goal was always that they would walk out of the class and see the world with a different pair of eyes. Everything I did was based around that, fundamentally. In that sense, I don't think it was one specific approach or teaching technique but rather that my teaching was driven by this overall perspective.

 

   How do you manage all your diverse activities? In preparation of this interview, someone asked me: "The day only has 24 hours, he has so many activities and he also reads so much, how is that even possible?" So how is it possible?

 

   D.D. The day only has 24 hours, that is true. Most importantly, you have to constantly rebalance and ask yourself what your priorities are. And these priorities will shift over time. When I was writing a book, a book for practitioners, this was my only goal, everything else was pushed aside. That doesn't mean you have to stop doing everything else, that's impossible. It's an 80/20 kind of thing where you're focusing 80% of your activity on your goal and that's what you're really pushing forward. The other tasks are just in maintenance mode. You don't want the plants to die but you're not going to put a lot of time and effort into them right now. And I constantly go back and forth with that. Right now, the administrative activities are obviously absolutely crucial. Other things are just scaled down - I do much less consulting, much less speeches, much less teaching, much less research and that's the right thing to do at the moment because there is a crucial moment, particularly when you start a new position, where you have a lot of opportunity to have an impact and you really really need to take advantage of it. And then things start to balance out more somewhere down the line. That's number one: to be clear about what your priorities are at that time and then rigorously stick to them. There can't be five priorities, it has to be 2 or 3. The second thing is that it's useful if your activities support each other. It would not be so useful for me to do one activity that has nothing to do with the others. If I'm doing something in one capacity which helps me in another one, it becomes like a synergistic whole. That's important too. And then, fundamentally, you have to do what you are passionate about. I'm passionate about this, I don't play golf or have very time consuming hobbies. I have interests that go beyond what I am doing but they can be adjusted and added to my current activities. At the end of the day, you only have so much hours in a day, as you said, so you have to really put the work in, there's no way around it. You have to be very rigorous about priorities, about time management and about how you work with people. I have a lot of people that are part of my team and if your team isn't effective, you can't be effective. There's a lot of little things that have to go right but, fundamentally, the awareness that what you are doing is crucial, the prioritization and the connection between the different areas seems to be most important.

 

   What inspires you? Where do you get new ideas from?

 

   D.D. What inspires me? Oh I get new ideas every day. What inspires me … I'm trying to be as open as I can be on a daily basis. I try to learn as much as I can by talking to people. I have this wonderful experience right now because as provost you interact with every part of the university and I just love that. You meet archaeologists, you meet Chinese historians, you meet astrophysicists. Every time I am in a conversation, I try to learn something, be open and just really store it all. And if there is a problem or I can't figure something out that I've been working on for a long time, or even if a new opportunity comes up, I can go back and say: Oh what I learned in this conversation was very useful and make the connection. Very often it is also useful to connect with the people. Then I have somebody that is an expert in this field that I know very little about and I can reach out and say: How does this work exactly? Can you explain it to me? So it's all about connections of the ideas and of different schools of thought but it’s also about the connection with people that really helps and allows you to continue the academic conversation on an ongoing basis.

 

   Our doctoral students sometimes have three supervisors when writing their dissertations, all the while trying to find an independent voice in their research. It is sometimes a fragile situation for them. Do you have any advice, as an experienced negotiator, how to negotiate in critical situations to help them find their own voice?

 

   D.D. I had three members of my dissertation committee as well. I had one main supervisor and two minor ones. In a dissertation context it is very important that you have a very open and candid relationship with your supervisor. It is absolutely crucial that if you're not making enough progress, your supervisor will tell you. If your idea is stupid, your supervisor will tell you. If your supervisor believes that what you are doing is not going anywhere but you should rather try something else, he/she must tell you. And then the point is you have to be able to to take the advice even if it hurts. That's the most important thing. To take the advice, evaluate it and use it to get better.

 

   Any last advice?

 

   D.D. The most important thing is that you choose a topic you are really, really interested in and can spend the next twenty to thirty years of your life researching.

If you don't have that, it shouldn't be your dissertation. The dissertation really drives your research agenda, not for your whole life, but definitely for the start of your career. That's number one. You have to be passionate about it. The second thing is that it has to be an important enough question. You can be passionate about something that no one else cares about. That's not a good choice. Not for a dissertation. And the third thing is, is that you have to be honest to yourself whether you can get this done. If it involves massive data collection that takes 15 years or if you simply don't have the tools to address this question, that's a warning sign. It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it but if it's too big or it's not a good fit for what your capabilities are, you should really think about it. So those are the three things: Are you really interested? Is it an important question? And can you do it? 

 



// Interview: Katrin Bernsdorff / Editing: Theresa Schmitz

 

 

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