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Caltech: secrets of the world’s number one university

How does a tiny institution create such outsized impact?

Cannon being fired at Caltech

I always refer to Caltech’s small size as being very similar to the size effect that exists in materials - there are special properties that exist when you are extremely small

If one were to reduce the story of the California Institute of Technology to numbers, it would be difficult to know where to start.

It is 123 years old, boasts 57 recipients of the US National Medal of Science and 32 Nobel laureates among its faculty and alumni (including five on the current staff).

It is the world’s number one university – and has been for the past three years of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – and has just 300 professorial staff.

In short, it is tiny, and it is exceptionally good at what it does.

Ares Rosakis, chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, describes Caltech as “a unique species among universities…a very interesting phenomenon”. “Very interesting” may be something of an understatement.

Caltech’s neat and unassuming campus sits in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Pasadena, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Although it is only 15 miles away from Hollywood, the Tinseltown razzmatazz seems a world away.

But Caltech can lay claim to its own galaxy of stars. Among a long and illustrious list of former faculty is Charles Richter, inventor of the scale that quantifies the magnitude of earthquakes (handy in Southern California) and Theodore von Kármán, the first head of what is now Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He nurtured the pioneering “rocket boys” who risked ridicule in the 1930s as they brought space rockets from the pages of science fiction comics into the real world. The heavy hitters on the current staff include Mike Brown, the man who “killed Pluto” (when his work led to its being downgraded to a dwarf planet), and John Schwarz, who in December 2013 was named a joint winner of the $3 million (£1.8 million) 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

It is clear that Caltech is a special place, but how has it achieved this success? Rosakis’ first answer focuses on its size.

“I always refer to this small size as being very similar to the size effect that exists in materials – there are special properties that exist when you are extremely small,” he explains in his airy office, the winter sun streaming through a bank of windows on to a chalkboard filled with mathematical formulae.

Working alongside the 300 professorial faculty are about 600 research scholars and, at the last count, 1,204 graduate students and just 977 undergraduates. The private not-for-profit university’s freshman “class of 2017” consists of a mere 249 students.

While diminutive scale may be a disadvantage for some institutions, for Caltech, it is at the heart of its being, and perhaps the single most important aspect of its extraordinary global success.

Crucially, it means that Caltech is obliged to be interdisciplinary in its “mode of operation – whether we like it or not”, observes Rosakis.

“I have 77 faculty in engineering and applied science. MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] has 490. How can I compete with an excellent place like MIT? We have to have engineers interact with all of the sciences and vice versa – it is a matter of survival. We don’t have the breadth to do things in a big way unless they interact.”

If Caltech’s size demands that its faculty work across traditional disciplinary boundaries to survive, it also makes such interaction exceptionally easy and natural.

While it may sound like a cliché, at Caltech exciting interdisciplinary ideas really are generated over a cup of coffee in the campus cafe, according to faculty.

Fiona Harrison, Benjamin M. Rosen professor of physics and astronomy, has worked with colleagues in aeronautical engineering, applied physics and many other disciplines.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • The secret of success is actually fairly simple - do the opposite of what a typical UK university does, in an environment that is the opposite of what's been currently fostered by UK research councils. -JD

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  • Elena Getalo

    All secrets are obvious and, as a rule, are natural, logical phenomenon.
    Undoubtedly, the main roots of the university success is management. When a leader has vision, able to determine the ways of development, to put the correct aims, to see the ways of their achieving, to attract loyal and professional team in management who are able to help to put ideas into practice, the organization is expected to be in success.
    If even more, apart from, the leader is able to take seriously every management team member’s opinion as important and then take his own surely right decision or admit to take decisions collectively, calculating properly all the pros and cons, then there is nothing leave to do for the organization as to be a number one.
    What is important for me from the Caltech’s experience, it is aspiration for the management to look beyond and look for smth new!
    What to say, just it is a pity that some leaders do not afford for themselves to look beyond and be talented because they know they have to change a lot inside themselves.

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  • Peter Pearson

    Caltech is a clear example of where small is not only beautiful, but also efficient, and competes with and beats the huge institutions. I am a visiting professor from the Netherlands at the Sate University of Sao Paulo (USP) in Brazil where enormous size is the credo, and quality has got lost somewhere down the line, or may be never existed. The telling differences in statistics are: Caltech 300 professors, 977 undergraduates. 1204 graduates - USP ~5000 professors, 55000 undergraduates, 27000 post graduates. This gives a staff to student ratio of 1:3 and 1:4 for undergraduates and post graduates respectively at Caltech and 1:10 and 1:5.5 at USP. Although USP has consistently been the best university in Latin America (varying between 150th and 240th place in the world university rankings for the last 10 years) there is absolutely no way that USP could rise into the top 100 given its inertia and inability to respond in a timely fashion to new teaching and research challenges as they arise. It is not lack of money, but inefficient administration that is the main Achilles heel at USP. Also, the article comment that one has to be small enough to regularly meet potential collaborators at the coffee shop sums up another part of the problems at USP perfectly.

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  • When I was at Caltech in 1962 there were only 400 professors and 400 graduate students , just one to one .
    Every graduate students had an Office right across the advisors' Office .
    I did very serious research and graduate study .
    I was paid very well too . $ 210 per week for 60 hours of research work on the field . 50 % overtime. They paid for 70 hours . Coffee was just 10 cents per cup .
    Great school. I studied 22 hours a week only 2-3 hours sleep .
    But it was worthed .
    Thanks billion Caltech .

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