How to start a university

KLU's founding president on meeting challenges, taking chances and archieving change

On September 27, 2010, KLU opened its doors. This was the start of a successful development – but was it really the beginning of the story? As with many successes, there is a “story behind the story:” the effort of many dedicated people who worked hard to make the beginning possible. For these men and women, the official start of KLU – receiving the approval of the state authorities and the arrival of the first students –marked the end of a job that had already begun many months earlier.

What do you need to start a university? Excellent professors, talented students, an innovative program, dedicated staff to recruit students and provide them with services, an attractive location, partners in the academic and business worlds –and last but not least, money to finance its future development. Thanks to the generous donation of KLU’s founder, Klaus-Michael Kühne, the new institution was well financed. This was a key factor in convincing the future professors, students and the state authorities to support the founder’s intention to create a place of excellence in teaching and research.

Marcus Baumanns, an experienced consultant who had helped to establish private universities before, was appointed the managing director and I was asked to become the founding president. We were both fascinated by the challenge of laying the foundation for a new business-oriented university with a focus on logistics.

Good professors attract good students and good students appeal to good professors. Was it the chicken or the egg: where do you start when you are a “no-name” in the world of academics? Our answer was to create a Program Faculty consisting of internationally well-known professors of logistics, business and economics who were willing to support our start-up with their names, their expertise and their networks. Academics like Martin Christopher (Cranfield), Douglas Lambert (Ohio State), John Langley (Georgia Tech), René de Koster (Erasmus Rotterdam), Stephan Wagner (ETH Zürich), and Wilhelm Pfähler (University of Hamburg) contributed immensely to the KLU’s development. We were allowed to showcase their endorsements on our website – an important step towards establishing credibility. They all met in Hamburg to discuss our flagship-program, the MSc in Global Logistics, and they served as teachers in our first classes.

We recruited our first students through professional marketing. Our public campaign found its way into the media – Financial Times Deutschland published a widely read article entitled “Kühnes kühner Plan” (Kühne’s Bold Plan), in which the founder’s intentions were explained to the public.

But how do you recruit professors? Wilhelm Pfähler of our Program Faculty recommended that we talk to Sönke Albers, a distinguished professor at the University of Kiel with an international reputation and one of the top research professors in Germany. He had already helped to get one of today’s leading private universities started early in his career. He knew how international business schools function – and he was up for a new challenge. He became our first full professor and Dean of Research as well. Furthermore, we were able to acquire Matthew Petering from the University of Milwaukee, our first non-German academic, as an associate professor in operations research, logistics, and supply chain management. Two professors – that was the minimum the state authorities required us to have at the beginning – and we could start delivering our first program to our first students.

We carefully designed the organizational structure of our university to reflect this. In line with other international business schools, the KLU faculty is organized into departments. We implemented a tenure track procedure that sets the framework for promotion and tenure decisions based on rigid, transparent criteria. A lean organization and process orientation were at the core of the administration’s setup and recruiting; student services and program management served the student life cycle in an efficient manner.

To develop our executive education program portfolio, we included a subsidiary in the organizational structure: KLU Executive Education. It quickly ramped up with new programs for professionals and executives. Fabian Berger, the university’s recently appointed head of administration, was KLU Executive Education’s first managing director.
During the summer of 2010, we had fruitful discussions with the state authorities about the bylaws and the university’s long-term development. The challenge was and still is to bridge two worlds: We wanted to create an internationally recognized university that offered internationally known career tracks for professors and PhD candidates, but at the same time, had to follow the German laws for universities as well. Ultimately, the state authorities, which also saw a great opportunity for Hamburg, supported us.

At the end of summer 2010, we had finally met all of the formal requirements for launching the first program at KLU. However, founding a new, private and international university is more than just paperwork and some suggested postponing our official start. But we took a leap of faith, decided to go ahead and launch KLU on September 27, 2010.
The rest is history.

By Dr. Wolfgang Peiner