Does Strong Alumni Participation Make US Universities Stronger?
| Peter Klein |
What explains the dominance of the US in elite higher education? Shailendra Mehta offers a novel explanation: the role of alumni. Graduates of US colleges and universities tend to identify strongly with their institutions and care deeply about their school’s reputation and ranking. Only in the US do alumni play such a strong role, not only in financial support (often connected with athletics), but governance.
[N]o 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 US 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.
I asked Scott Masten, O&M’s resident higher-education expert, for a reaction:
Interesting, but incomplete. Although boards have formal authority in most universities, in practice they exercise very little, as the recent brouhaha at the University of Virginia serves to illustrate. In fact, the “American model” traces only to the post-Civil War era, when research universities came into being, and effective authority devolved to varying degrees to an administrative bureaucracy and faculty. It was only following that period that U.S. institutions began their dominance. On that alone, one could argue just as convincingly that it was faculty governance that accounted for the success of American higher education. It seems to me there’s a paper on that out there somewhere.