Some Basic Facts about the Berkman Center

A new group of (utterly wonderful) interns has arrived at the Berkman Center, asking lots of questions about what the place is about.  I met with a big group of them, working on a few projects I’m involved with, this afternoon.  There’s also a reporter who has been working on a story about the Center, who has asked a lot of basic questions about what we do and how we fund our work.  I thought I’d set out some basic facts about the Berkman Center here in a blog post, in case anyone’s interested.

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society was founded in the 1997-1998 academic year at Harvard Law School by Prof. Charles Nesson and co-founder Prof. Jonathan Zittrain.  Their vision was complemented by, and supported by, a generous gift from the Berkman family.  This gift provided both funding for a chair at Harvard Law School for a professor (which has been held by Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, and presently by Yochai Benkler) and for the seed funding for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.  The Center had a few students back then, now-famous Internet scholar Wendy Seltzer and lawyer Alex Macgillivray.  Wendy refers often to the early days of the Berkman Center as “smart people in a hallway.”  It was not glamorous.  It was a hallway in Pound Hall at HLS where most of us students (I was one, in the late nineties as well) toiled at workstations on JZ’s and Charlie’s inventive projects.  In the early days, the Center’s budget was up to and occasionally a bit over $1 million per year.  It had a small professional staff and a deeply devoted, and growing, group of students engaged in it.  That was the era when I fell in love with the subject and the place.  It felt serious, important, and engaged in an exploding topic.

The Center has grown since then in many respects, but it retains much of its original flavor — much of its original start-up feel.  We are, twelve or thirteen years later, no longer in a hallway, but now in slightly larger digs, the second floor of a yellow, wood-frame house on the north edge of the HLS campus.  It’s about 2,300 square feet, with some offices housing four, five, or six people at a time.  During intern season, there are often a dozen or more students camped in the conference room and/or the kitchen.  We still feed the crew a lot of pizza and sandwiches: every Tuesday, for our lunch series, at a minimum, and often more frequently than that when we have other guests.  That’s part of the charm: students, staff, fellows, and faculty all come to the Center for the ideas, the camaraderie, the hard work, and occasionally the refreshments.  Myles Berkman, who has been our biggest supporter, described his vision for the Center as a “water-cooler” around which interested students and researchers might gather to work on the most important issues of our times.  We’ve taken that charge seriously.

The growth of the Center has changed a few things.  There are many more paid staff, which is terrific; our reach is increased as a result.  It was once a few staff; it is today more like 30.  The fellows program — in many respects the heart and soul of the institution — has grown from a few to as many as 50 in the newly-announced class for the coming year.  The faculty has grown.  Our clinic has grown in size and sophistication, and is led by Prof. Phil Malone and his extraordinary group of lawyers and teachers.  As many as 150 students grace us with their presence and involvement each year.  Our reach, today, is more international than ever, a charge led by our quite brilliant and wonderful executive director, Urs Gasser, who was formerly a law professor at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Our funding, too, has grown and diversified.  Initially, it was pretty much just the Berkman family.  Recently, the Center’s budget has grown to between $4 million and $5 million per year.  The funders come from a broad range, including individuals, foundations, governments, and corporations.  We disclose all donors on a web page which the staff keeps up-to-date.  We don’t take any sponsored research.  But if we allocate an unrestricted gift from a corporation to our work on a given project or event, then we disclose this gift as associated with a project (see the ISTTF page, or our Interop work, or our Digital Youth work, each of which have benefited from funds from various supporters).

Some things have not changed as the Center has grown, which is deeply important.  The Center is still a place where people who work there are deeply devoted to a common mission — a mission that has not changed since our inception, dreamed up by JZ and Charlie and just as compelling today as it was when the Center was founded.  It’s a place where understanding the truth is the primary object, whether through teaching, research, or exploration of cyberspace.  We work hard and enjoy one another’s company, challenging ideas, and devotion to our shared inquiries.  It is a serious, fun, compelling place to work, and I’m grateful every day that I’m associated with it.

Interns, I hope you have a great summer — and may you have as hard a time leaving it as I have.

2 thoughts on “Some Basic Facts about the Berkman Center

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