PWIAS: Conversations in Crisis

August 16, 2021

How Institutes for Advanced Studies provide the framework for scholarly collaboration that address the big questions of the day.

This story was originally published in August 2021

When the 2020 cohort of Wall Scholars with the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) came together last year, the world was facing multiple crises. A global pandemic was entering its second wave. Protests had erupted around the world in response to police brutality after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other unarmed Black people. In California, the largest wildfire season in recorded history raged on—evidence, many have argued, of the continuing planet-wide climate emergency.

Against this tumultuous background, ten scholars in fields as disparate as English literature, electrical engineering and constitutional law began a series of conversations on the apt theme of Crises. Though no one could predict the outcome of these conversations, it was clear that a deeper understanding of the extraordinary events of the year would take time, something not normally afforded within the “publish or perish” world of academia.

Indeed, the year-long fellowship with the Wall Scholars Program offers a unique framework for scholars to leave behind their disciplinary silos and work in sustained cooperation with colleagues across the university. According to Dr. Kalina Christoff, interim director of PWIAS (2019-21), who was herself a Wall Scholar in 2017, this period of conversation and collaboration allows for participants’ “thinking to be challenged in ways that it would never be if we were only speaking to others within a field or discipline that shares assumptions that we are already making, consciously or unconsciously.”

The 2020 Wall Scholars on a group outing at the start of their residency

This, Dr. Christoff says, is exactly what makes the Institute’s model so powerful: it provides “a space that does not otherwise exist for scholars, artists, and other intellectually-minded members of the academic community to come together and explore freely novel ideas, possibilities, and ways of thinking about questions that are important to society.”

The idea of a free space within a university to ask big questions and pursue wide-ranging knowledge began when the Institute for Advanced Studies opened at Princeton in 1930. Today there are almost 50 such institutes around the world, all offering scholars a unique opportunity to link diverse fields of inquiry to tackle the big questions.

PWIAS came into being in 1991 when property developer Peter Wall donated $15 million worth of shares in his corporation to UBC, for the purpose of establishing an Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia. According to Dr. Christoff, this funding is central to the Institute’s continued independence from the pressures of the contemporary university. “It presents an opportunity to run an institute and extend it safely into the future,” she explains. Institutes without such resources must struggle to find funding, which can take away valuable focus from their advanced studies goals.

Dr. Michelle Stack, a 2020 Wall Scholar and author of Global University Ranking and the Politics of Knowledge, takes this idea a step further. She has seen the way universities within capitalism can become competitive both with each other and between disciplines. “Because of the pressures of university rankings, where everything becomes focused on metrics, the real mission of an advanced institute—seeding innovation that might not be quickly measured—gets lost,” she says.

Knowledge is about interconnection. It’s not about me working alone in my office. It’s about being in communication with other people that have different perspectives.

Michelle Stack, 2020 Wall Scholar

By freeing scholars from that competition, PWIAS lays the groundwork for unconventional interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration. “Knowledge is about interconnection,” she explains. “It’s not about me working alone in my office. It’s about being in communication with other people that have different perspectives. That’s what [the Institute] exemplifies for me.”

Prof. Hoi Kong, a constitutional law scholar who was in the same cohort as Dr. Stack, describes this free exchange of ideas as a kind of generosity, both in scholars’ willingness to share their knowledge and in the humility required to put aside disciplinary conventions and to learn from each other. He sees this exchange as directly benefitting his own scholarship. “It’s important for people who do constitutional law to be aware of other disciplines and understand how, for instance, political theorists, scientists or economists view the kinds of questions that we address,” he says.

That generosity in communication, says Dr. Stack, can extend beyond the university as well. PWIAS offers “an opportunity we desperately need as academics to think about who we are and what our responsibilities are to diverse publics,” she explains.

Indeed, these wide-ranging conversations between scholars that begin at PWIAS can continue to reverberate for years in both research and teaching practices. Dr. Renisa Mawani recalls how the first event she took part in as a Wall Scholar in 2015 coincided with the release of the shocking images of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea when a raft full of refugees capsized. “I was paired up with my colleague from journalism, Peter Klein,” she remembers. “We had this amazing conversation as we were walking through the woods, and I asked him if there were any ethics around these kinds of photographs that are so difficult and painful to see.”

2017 Wall Scholars come together over lunch on the Institute patio.

Dr. Mawani, whose work touches on race, colonialism and legal histories, often brings this conversation into her classes when talking about research ethics and how they differ across disciplines. “Those sorts of moments that are difficult to quantify in terms of collaborations have still been really formative,” she says.

In the short term, those early meetings between members of the 2020 cohort have led to a collaboration on a book project, aptly titled Chromatic: Ten Meditations on Crisis in Art & Letters. In it, each scholar works with an artist to explore an idea that is urgent within their field. Dr. Stack credits the structure provided by PWIAS as creating fertile ground for this unusual project. “There’s a lot of work that goes into developing the space for a cohort to come to understand each other, and to have the trust to share their work and publish a book together,” she says. The book will be released in the fall with an accompanying public event, assuming COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.

In the long term, Dr. Stack believes, ideas scholars explore during their time with an institute for advanced studies like PWIAS will be valuable not only for universities but for the planet: “I don’t know of anywhere else that supports the time to do the sort of scholarship that is needed right now to deal with the complex multi-system problems that we’re facing.”