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Governance Models and Disruption in Higher Education

+ Kari Kohn

According to Shailendra R. Mehta, the United States owes its current dominance in higher education to an innovation in governance that put alumni in control of universities:

According to Shanghai Jiao-Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, for example, 17 of the world’s 20 best universities are American…Today, 19 of the top 20 American universities in US News and World Report’s much-watched rankings are controlled by alumni…Of the top five, three (Harvard, Yale, and Columbia) are managed entirely by alumni…On average, alumni make up 63% of the boards of the top 100 US universities, both public and private.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.

The model dates back to 1865 when the Massachusetts General Court placed Harvard University in the hands of alumni rather than the state—it had been a public institution since 1636.  Other universities took note of the new governance model and began to copy the structure.

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…

It will be interesting to see how alumni-run universities hold up in the rankings as the accessibility of higher education expands through online course offerings and the many start-ups beginning to compete in this space.  In The Washington Monthly‘s recent article, The Seige of Academe, Kevin Carey writes:

Minerva [a higher ed start-up] sprang from Nelson’s observation that higher education was increasingly a realm of mismatched supply and demand…There are a lot more people with the desire and ability to pay for higher education than there used to be. Elite American schools are the unchallenged market leaders, which is why applications to Harvard have increased by double digits annually for years, with growing demand from China and other fast-developing economies.In response to this surge in demand for its product, Harvard has done the following: absolutely nothing. It hasn’t expanded the size of its freshman class by a single student in the last twenty years. With a few exceptions, this is true for all elite American schools. They don’t have to get bigger, they don’t want to get bigger, and, anchored as they are to immovable physical places, they can’t get bigger in any meaningful or not absurdly expensive way.
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