Just forget the world: study and research in the calm of Cambridge University

10 Downing Street and the door

It is the silence that is probably the most enchanting. On a mid-Friday morning in the centre of Downing College not a sound is to be heard. And yet just a few more from the same spots, double decker buses, taxis, and whole variety of cars, fight gently with pedestrians and cyclists to get along the busy Regent Street. This is Cambridge where one of the world’s oldest universities meets the world of technical innovation.

Cambridge University doesn’t consider itself to be a university in the traditional sense. Rather it is a collection 34 colleges. The running of each of these is quite autonomous with the central university structure overseeing some elements of strategic policy.

Cambridge University from the air

The university complex lies alongside the busy Regent Street.

Built in 1800 Downing College is often regarded as being the oldest of the new colleges and the youngest of the old colleges. It was financed by George Downing and the college specialises in economics and political science. Indeed, if the name Downing and politics seem to ring a familiar bell, you may recall that the British Prime Minister lives at 10 Downing Street. The street was named after the very same family. In fact, the college even has the original version of the famous door. In a world of terrorism, the real one is now made of steel rather than wood.

Camb Un. 1

It might be tricky nowadays to find the main entrance to the Downing College.

Such is the discretion of the place that it is quite easy to miss the entrance. With the most discrete sign possible and stuck between a Charity Shop and a pub, it is quite simple to walk by without seeing it at all. Indeed, it is the enormous Pizza Hut that seems to attract more attention. It would be a shame to miss such a sight as the garden is wonderful.

My host who has been there for all his working life seemed less impressed. He apologized for the state of the lawn. (How British!) complaining that it was nowhere near up to the standard of the lawns of other colleges.

“Quiet a disgrace!” he told me with indignation.

big hall

Cambridge or Hogwarts? The Master graces the food in Latin before dinner is served.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the high table for dinner. If you have seen Harry Potter you will get a very distinct idea of what this looks like. Of course, the students are older and there were no ghosts flying through the air, but the rest was remarkably similar.  This is where undergraduate students were given the option of coming in standard student attire to these meals. It was them that refused this offer stating that it was part of the tradition and one of the reasons that they wanted to come to Cambridge in the first place. No danger of a student led revolution here!

This is of course a highly privileged work. But Cambridge is not just some stuffy university living in the past. If they boast of something today, it is not the prestigious alumni that they have had over the last 8 centuries. Rather, it is the Silicon Fen (doesn’t every country seem to want a piece of the Californian version?) that it most wants to talk about.

Based on the outskirts of the city, this cluster of high-tech businesses focuses on areas such as software, electronics and biotechnology. The research area began with Acorn Computers in the 1980s and now houses some 1000 companies. A large proportion of these are linked to Cambridge University. The hope of this is that many of the graduates will then stay in the region to develop it even further and provide the necessary skills for high tech companies. It has had some interesting successes. The next time you are skyping you might want to remember that the webcam you are using was originally conceived in Cambridge.

2013-02-15 17.27.27Indeed, there is something to be said for putting in a world where they are cut off from the distractions of modern technology. Many schools are now banning technology from the classroom because it is deemed to be more of a distraction than an aid. There is certainly a need to stop sometimes to think about the overall picture.

In “Teaching Executives and Teaching MBAs: Reflections on the Case Study Method” (2007), David Garvin claims that most executives he sees are interested in what professors have to say precisely because they have been writing on a particular subject for years but are NOT part of the firm. In other words they have a detached and objective view.

This is reiterated by Michael Cusumano in his excellent book entitled “Staying Power”:

“Managers seem at their best when examining what is right before them, not necessarily what is behind them or far in front. This is where academics can play an enormously significant role in helping everyone learn more about what we know and do not know.”

What this advantaged setting gives is precisely this opportunity to cut yourself off from the endless amount of background noise that fills all of our lives. The overall peacefulness of the setting is just wonderful. It gives you time to think and for professors to develop:

“the counterintuitive perspectives that challenge received wisdom & conventional practice.”

(Leich and Chia, 2007)

This say the authors is what gives business schools and universities their competitive advantage.

No wonder then that their researchers are some of the most prodigious in the business. It is the perfect place to just forget the world while you’re putting the world to rights!

See also:

Virtuous, Vicious Circle of Education

Moment Matters: “You’ll have the biggest chance of becoming successful and rich when studying at a prestigious university. It’s not that becoming rich or successful itself makes us happy, but when we can choose between roughly poverty and wealth; and who chooses poverty? Wealth doesn’t offer any certainty, but why not? We take what we think is the easiest way to happiness. But how did that prestigious university become so? Why is Cambridge Cambridge and the university which will never be anyone’s first choice, never the first choice?”


Filed under Business Schools, Cambridge, Economics, Management, Research, Technology

7 responses to “Just forget the world: study and research in the calm of Cambridge University

  1. I always picture Cambridge in my mind the way that photo looks. It was identical weather the first time I visited, and even though the second time it was sunny, it still looked like that to me!

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you for your comment, Jenn. Good old, grey British weather, eh?! It is nice to know that someone likes it. In fact, after a very long, cold, snowy winter in Grenoble I was quite pleased to be in a dampish but slightly warmer British day; it made quite a change. Thanks for reading.

  2. I love visiting Cambridge with my prents when we wre there on Holiday! We are true Anglofiles, us 3 Belgians!

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you, Sophie for your comment. Cambridge is a beautiful place indeed and worth visting many times. It is god to see that Belgium has some Anglophiles!

  3. Pingback: The Harvard Business School and the Case Study Method; like a horse and carriage? | GlobalEd

  4. Mark Thomas

    Reblogged this on GlobalEd.

  5. Pingback: New Grenoble EM programme at the University of Cambridge (Downing College) | GlobalEd

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