The permanent population of Davos, Switzerland stands at just over a modest 11,000. Dating back to the early 1200s, the city has little more to offer beyond glistening ski slopes, an acclaimed hockey team and a few hotels.
Yet, it is there where the world’s most influential businessmen, politicians, educators and moneymakers converge this week to talk shop at the annual World Economic Forum. While the forum has been criticized since its inception in 1971 for being a gathering place for the world’s elite, it also provides an opportunity for Yale and its peer institutions to flex some muscles of their own.
This year’s forum will be University President Peter Salovey’s second since he took office in October of 2013, continuing the tradition of former University President Richard Levin, who was a frequent attendee. Splitting his three days at the forum mainly between meetings with large donors, prominent alumni and “potential friends of the University,” Salovey will also fill seats at panels and larger discussions for the Global University Leaders Forum. GULF, a subset of the WEF, of which 25 universities from Yale to the University of Cape Town are members, is currently focusing on the future of higher education and the role of science in society.
“Many gifts to the University have been closed at Davos meetings,” Salovey said in an interview last week. “It’s such a convenient way of meeting with a large number of people who have a relationship with the University.”
Perhaps equally important as Salovey’s attendance are the professors chosen to represent Yale alongside him. This year, economics professor and 2013 Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller, applied physics and physics professor Robert Schoelkopf and economics professor Aleh Tsyvinski will moderate panels, give lectures and attend other WEF social events.
Schoelkopf, for example, will be a panelist in two sessions and will give a short lecture on the quantum computer he is working on at Yale. Though Schoelkopf said a commercially viably quantum computer — which uses quantum bits as opposed to binary bits to compute — may still be 10-15 years away, the past decade of research has resulted in significant progress.
“We’re starting to think about the things we learned in the lab to build up potential for the next generation of computing,” Schoelkopf said. “[WEF] is a time when we’re trying to reach outside the scientific specialists and outside of this field into a broader audience.”
Larry Elliott, an economics editor for The Guardian who has covered the WEF in the past, said that the academic voice at Davos plays an important role. Elliott said university representation is much more significant than it was 10 years ago, with the London School of Economics and Oxford among Yale’s fellow attendees. Some of the Forum’s better sessions are those where academics come to present their latest research, he added.
But, Salovey added, the majority of the conference attended by university leaders “seems a bit far removed from the celebrity side of Davos you often see in the media.” Shiller echoed the sentiment, saying the forum is not simply a networking opportunity, as some suggest.
While it can be said that serious business has been accomplished at Davos — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is rumored to have bonded with Sheryl Sandberg at the WEF in 2008 before hiring her as the site’s chief operating officer — a large chunk of the forum’s coverage focuses on the lavishness of the week. One New York Times article from last year’s forum links to a video called “How to Find the Best Davos Parties,” while another calls the forum “a glorified four-day-long cocktail party.”
Elliott said while the forum can set the tone for subsequent discussions elsewhere, its purported purpose may be somewhat empty.
“Davos does not really alleviate poverty,” Elliott said. “Its mission statement says it is committed to improving the state of the world. One view is that the mission statement should be ‘committed to improving the state of the world but committed to ensuring that little in the world really changes.’”
In addition to wealth disparities and income inequality, a major issue at WEF in the past has been sustainability and environmental preservation. Yet, Davos critics also point to the apparent irony in staging a conference addressing the environment in a town carved out of the Swiss Alps.
Ben Cashore, professor of environmental governance and political science at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said the question of whether international conferences are worth the environmental toll is one environmentalists continue to grapple with.
“We all want to go to these meetings, we all want to travel, but doing so is not good for our long term interest,” Cashore said. “But the question is, are those impacts justified because we’re trying to bring solutions? I hope to God the answer is yes.”
Prior to his arrival in Davos, Salovey spent a few days with alumni in London.