Mobile  |  About us  |  Photos  |  Videos  |  Subscriptions  |  RSS Feeds  |  Today's Paper  |  Classifieds  |  Contact Us
The Daily Star
FRIDAY, 18 APR 2014
04:15 PM Beirut time
Weather    
Beirut
22 °C
Blom Index
BLOM
1,214.01down
Commentary
Follow this story Print RSS Feed ePaper share this
The secret of Harvard’s success is alumni oversight
A+ A-

No country dominates any industry as much as the United States dominates higher education. According to Shanghai Jiao-Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, for example, 17 of the world’s 20 best universities are American, with Harvard topping the list by a substantial margin.

The traditional explanation for this phenomenon – America’s wealth, large population, generous research funding, widespread private philanthropy and ability to attract scholars from around the world – is incomplete. Although the U.S. boasts the world’s largest economy, it comprises only one-quarter of global GDP, and possesses roughly one-twentieth of the world’s population. And its support for research is not unique.

Moreover, according to the accepted explanation, large countries such as France, Germany, Japan and even China and India should also be represented at the top of global university rankings. But they appear only sparsely anywhere in such rankings, if even at all.

In fact, these countries lack a crucial piece of the puzzle: America’s innovative governance model for higher education.

Harvard was established as a public institution in 1636 by the authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Its value to Massachusetts is exemplified in the Commonwealth’s post-independence state Constitution, ratified in 1780, which includes a section about the university’s function and boundaries.

When Harvard alumni dominated the Massachusetts legislature, the university was given support and consideration. But in the 1840s, mass immigration, fueled by the Irish potato famine, altered the state’s demographic balance, enabling populists to gain control of the legislature.

Almost immediately, Harvard came under attack for being too elitist, too exclusive and too expensive. Even its curriculum was challenged. Over the next two decades, the state increasingly impeded Harvard’s functioning by, for example, refusing to release funds and obstructing the appointment of professors. This behavior culminated in 1862, when the legislature blocked a university president’s appointment.

In response, Harvard requested that it be placed “out of the reach of ordinary political strife and change” and into the “hands of alumni who have the interests of education most at heart.” On April 29, 1865, this radical proposal scraped through the Massachusetts General Court (the state’s bicameral legislature), owing to intense lobbying and the goodwill generated by Harvard alumni’s distinguished service for the Union during the Civil War. Since then, Harvard’s Board of Overseers has been controlled exclusively by alumni.

Inspired by Harvard’s success, other universities – starting with Yale University and the College of William and Mary – took similar action. This “genuine American method,” as Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s longest-serving president, called it, became the norm not only for private universities, but also for public institutions, such as the University of Michigan and Purdue University, and even religious institutions such as the University of Notre Dame and Duke University.

Today, 19 of the top 20 American universities in U.S. News and World Report’s much-watched rankings are controlled by alumni (defined as 50 percent or more representation on the Board of Trustees). The only exception, the California Institute of Technology, has a board with 40 percent alumni representation. Of the top five, three (Harvard, Yale and Columbia) are managed entirely by alumni, and two (Princeton and Stanford) are under 90 percent alumni control.

In general, a higher percentage of alumni on the board is associated with a higher ranking, increased selectivity and a larger endowment. After all, no group cares more about a university’s prestige than its alumni, who gain or lose esteem as their alma mater’s ranking rises or falls.

Indeed, alumni have the most incentive to donate generously, and to manage the university effectively. Given their intimate knowledge of the university, alumni are also the most effective leaders. Through alumni networks, board members can acquire information quickly and act upon it without delay.

All great universities are nonprofit organizations, created to administer higher education, which benefits society as a whole. But U.S. universities found a way to integrate competition’s benefits into the European concept of nonprofit, or so-called eleemosynary, corporations. The lack of profit does not diminish an alumni-dominated board’s incentive to compete for prestige by, for example, hiring distinguished faculty, accepting meritorious students and striving for athletic or artistic achievement.

Using alumni to infuse the benefits of competition into nonprofit institutions exemplifies the genius of American adaptation. Countries that aspire to compete with U.S. universities should take note.

Shailendra Raj Mehta is a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and academic director of Duke Corporate Education, Duke University. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 28, 2012, on page 7.
Home Commentary
 
     
 
United States of America
Advertisement
Comments  

Your feedback is important to us!

We invite all our readers to share with us their views and comments about this article.

Disclaimer: Comments submitted by third parties on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual(s) whose content is submitted. The Daily Star accepts no responsibility for the content of comment(s), including, without limitation, any error, omission or inaccuracy therein. Please note that your email address will NOT appear on the site.

comments powered by Disqus
Advertisement


Baabda 2014
Advertisement
Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Linked In Follow us on Google+ Subscribe to our Live Feed
Multimedia
Images  
Pictures of the day
A selection of images from around the world- Friday April 18, 2014
View all view all
Advertisement
Rami G. Khouri
Rami G. Khouri
Silencing Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s hate talk
Michael Young
Michael Young
Why confuse gibberish with knowledge?
David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Putin will keep rolling, until Obama says no
View all view all
Advertisement
cartoon
 
Click to View Articles
 
 
News
Business
Opinion
Sports
Culture
Technology
Entertainment
Privacy Policy | Anti-Spamming Policy | Disclaimer | Copyright Notice
© 2014 The Daily Star - All Rights Reserved - Designed and Developed By IDS