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The American Advantage

The American Advantage: How Diversity, Autonomy and Philanthropy Define the U.S. University Model

by Itamar Rabinovich and C Wright Mills, The American Interest 4. 5 (May/Jun 2009): 74-81.


Because the scope of competition has expanded much faster than have universities, it has become on balance more difficult to meet the quest for higher education in particularly lucrative fields in a way that harmonizes with national goals. [...] it is the autonomy, scope of private governance and widespread social devotion to both philanthropy and well-financed higher education in the United States that ensures the global superiority of its institutions of higher learning, and these are cultural characteristics that other countries will be hard-pressed to replicate.

In August 2008, Shulamit Volkov, professor of Modern European History at Tel Aviv University, wrote an op-ed in the influential Israeli paper Ha'aretz entitled "Research Can Also Be Harvested in the Humanities." The piece was essentially an apologia for the humanities against the backdrop of the Israeli Ministry of Finance's open criticism of "the wastefulness" inherent in the structure and governance of Israel's universities. She argues (with good reason) that the criteria used by the government's funding agency are predicated on rules of the game that tilt toward the exact and life sciences. She proceeds to ask, "How do the professional data miners measure the humanities' contribution to cultural life in Israel, to the critical public discourse or to the general educational level of the country's population?"

Having served for some years as president of Tel Aviv University, such exchanges tend to attract my attention for parochial reasons. Yet Volkov's column could have been written about many other countries, too. The debate on higher education-its character, funding, governance, accessibility and competitiveness, to name a few cardinal issues-is raging globally. The United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and Israel, among others, as well as the European Community, have formed public commissions to look at the state of higher education in their respective domains and to recommend new policies for dealing with one of the major public policy issues of our time. How did this increasingly widespread and acrimonious debate arise, and what does it mean?

Demanding to Know

The urgency of the higher education debate over the past decade or so stems in part from the now pervasive recognition that higher education is a wise and cost-effective investment for national economies. First-class higher education and research systems are understood to be crucial national assets in today's knowledgebased economy. On the individual level this is matched by the widely shared sense that higher education and a university or college degree are essential for one's career and upward social mobility. At the same time, it is clear that higher education has gone global. The movement of students, faculty and resources across national borders is greater than ever, changing the stakes of competition for educational, scientific and technological prowess in a globalized economy.

The ever-growing quest for higher education has created two types of pressure. One is for access to a university or college, and the other is for admission into a competitive department offering a lucrative degree, such as medicine, engineering or business administration. This global democratization of educational ambition-the demand to know as a basic right of citizenship-is as true of the "second" and "third worlds" as it is of the "first." In ascending countries like China and India, in formerly Communist countries and in what are still quaintly called "developing countries", multiple millions of young people are seeking upward mobility through higher education. This is quite a new and dramatic phenomenon by almost any standard. The sharp rise in literacy, high school graduation rates and college attendance that occurred in North America and much of Western Europe during the 20th century is now occurring worldwide. Some are willing to settle for a diploma as such, but others are specifically interested in a field of study perceived as a pathway to a lucrative career.

It has been relatively easy for most governments to respond to the first type of pressure by expanding the system of higher education. They have, as a rule, enlarged existing institutions, established new universities, or stratified the system of higher education through the development of colleges and junior colleges alongside the universities. Several countries, among them some oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates, have allowed foreign universities, mostly American and European ones, to build "extensions" on their soil. This offers not just access and in some cases quality education, but the "scent" of prestige conferred by a Western degree to their constituency. One consequence has been the transformation of what used to be more or less parochial national university systems into systems of higher education that extend de facto beyond national institutions and frontiers.

Because the scope of competition has expanded much faster than have universities, it has become on balance more difficult to meet the quest for higher education in particularly lucrative fields in a way that harmonizes with national goals. In many cases the sum of individual quests does match up with the national interest; in some cases it doesn't; in still others is it not obvious that making the match makes much difference. It is both desirable and difficult in several countries-the United States and Israel, for example-to get into a law school, but in few cases one would argue that having more lawyers is a pressing national need compared to having more doctors or engineers or scientists. But when it comes to engineering, computer science and bio-medical fields, personal ambition and national interest are usually mutually reinforcing, and it matters in the longer run which countries can match up budding human capital with educational opportunity and which cannot. Dealing with the need to expand and upgrade such areas of higher education has required significant investment and has posed complex policy choices.

As already noted, globalization has compounded the pressures on policymakers and university leaderships. Universities are both agents and subjects of globalization. As institutions they are, or should be, as the very term implies, internationalist in orientation. Faculty members in the modern university are members of an international community of peers; they compare themselves to those who inhabit that community and are judged by them. A large number of students spend part of their period of study in a foreign country and an increasing number obtain a degree from one. And, as mentioned, many universities are setting up branches in foreign countries.

But globalization has also exacerbated national competition on two levels: for scientists and scholars, and for prestige. Much of the competition is between the United States and other countries. The leading American universities, drawing on large endowments and high tuition fees, attract a vast number of faculty scientists and scholars from around the world, particularly in cutting-edge fields. Countries like Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Israel and India feel that this particular brand of "brain drain" sets them back in the competition in such areas as computer engineering and bio-medicine. National elites in many of these countries resent the primacy of U.S. universities and the loss of seniority once held by schools like Oxford and Cambridge, the Sorbonne and Heidelberg. (It remains to be seen how the current financial crisis and its manifest impact on the financial position of U.S. universities will affect this trend.)

The issue of prestige has been given a new twist in recent years by the publication of two surveys, one in London and the other in Shanghai, that rank and rate the world's leading five hundred universities. U.S. News and World Report has been rating U.S. universities for years, but the international rating is a new phenomenon. The rating matters to individual institutions as well as countries as a matter of national pride and prestige. From these ratings it is easy to see that the United States is clearly leading the global pack, with 14 out of the top 25, 28 of the top 75, and 37 of the top hundred. It is also easy to see that Europe's universities are lagging behind, and that Great Britain, Sweden and Switzerland are doing better than, say, France and Italy. In France, where national prestige is a particularly important issue, the government's decision to launch university reform can be directly linked to the impact of the surveys.1

Despite the high rankings U.S. universities get in the new international surveys, many in the United States are not happy with the state of the American university or with that of the huge, diverse and uneven system of higher education in the United States more generally. But success, like many other things, rests in the eye of the beholder. One reason the leading American universities are doing so well is that they are attracting large numbers of foreign academics by offering them higher salaries, superior research facilities and other resources. And that in turn is a major reason why, in the international discourse on higher education in the 1990s, there arose frequent reference to "the triumph of the American model."

Many Models

In reality, there is not a single U.S. education model. But there is a singular social environment in the United States that has nurtured U.S. successes. In addition to obvious advantages conferred by sheer size and wealth, the superiority of the American university system- particularly that of its upper crust-has to do with the system of governance of both private and state universities, which typically combines relative autonomy from governmental constraints with a centralized administration. That U.S. milieu also features a broadly competitive ethos and a level of both philanthropy and high tuition expectations that no other country can match.

The ensuing debates on higher education that have unfolded around the world over the past dozen or so years have focused, naturally enough, on whether and how some of the basic preconditions of American success could be replicated or approximated in other countries. As a rule, serious discussions have focused on three basic themes: system structure; finance; and the range of cultural issues revolving around governance and academic freedom. As a rule, too, most Americans-even professional university administrators and U.S. Department of Education professionals-have paid little attention to these debates taking place far from U.S. shores. That they might come to regret, because to the extent that others learn to compete better in the global university market, U.S. advantages may be eroded.

System structure. At the risk of some oversimplification, when policymakers sit down to discuss how to improve higher education, they tend to see four basic structural models.

First, of course, is the American model, the gold standard others are trying to emulate insofar as their circumstances allow. There are more than 2,500 universities and colleges in the United States, some private, some state-supported, many some of both. Some are universities with an array of graduate and professional programs, some are colleges furnishing only an undergraduate degree. Some offer first-rate liberal arts education and emphasize teaching and education over research; others focus more on the natural sciences or business and privilege "training" over teaching.

Despite these differences, the underlying structure of nearly all U.S. universities and colleges is similar in the sense that income derives from tuition, contributions and endowments, and, for state institutions, government allocation. Governance is centralized, with an empowered president at the head of the system and a rather small board of trustees. Beyond the research conducted in national research institutes, by private industry, in the national security establishment and in applied social science think tanks, much of the national U.S. research effort is conducted in the leading 50 or so research universities.

A particular characteristic of the U.S. system is that all these educational and research foci have been institutionally linked for many years, arguably since Abraham Lincoln founded the National Academy of Science, but certainly since the days of the Manhattan Project. That linkage enables ideas, personnel and resources to flow between universities and other sectors of society-think Harvard/MIT, Bell Labs, DARPA and RAND. Americans often take this institutionally distributed set-up for granted, and assume that things work in more or less the same way in other advanced countries. They don't.

Second is the Continental model, pioneered, of course, in Continental Europe. In this model almost all universities are state universities budgeted by the national (or federal) or provincial government. Most universities are headed by a rector. The Faculty Senate has much more of a say in university governance than do U.S. faculty Senates. The government sets the budget; there is very little fundraising and educationdirected philanthropy. And, in keeping with the ethos of the welfare state, there is little or no tuition.

Moreover, in many European universities the emphasis is not on competition but on egalitarianism and fairness, which has led to a policy of free admission, huge numbers of students in single institutions (more than 100,000 in Rome's La Sapienza; 70,000 in the University of Vienna) and a sharp lowering of standards. Quality research is undertaken largely through national research systems and institutes-CNRS in France, Max Planck in Germany, for example- which, while often fed from the university system, almost never feed back into it. Private universities have emerged, but they are still relatively few and marginal to the mainstream.

The third structural model is the French model, located within the Continental model. Alongside the system of public universities, the French state has since the 18th century built a parallel system of "great schools"-grandes écoles (sounds a lot better in French)-designed to train the French governmental and economic elite. This elite is supposedly a meritocracy, and admission to it is on a strictly competitive basis. But access to the system is not really equal, so it is hardly surprising that on the whole the elite is self-perpetuating. The grandes écoles are generously funded by the French state. Their quality, along with the availability of the CNRS and several first-class research institutes, have kept French scientific know-how and the French elite at a high level despite the decline of the public university system.

Fourth is the British model. British universities, unlike their U.S. and European counterparts, are neither exactly public nor private institutions. They are public entities supported or subsidized by the government, but not fully funded by it. Funding is done by the British Exchequer through a process that maintains a barrier between the universities and the government, and thus gives British universities more autonomy than that enjoyed by Continental universities.

But all is not well in the British university system. Previous governments, particularly that of Margaret Thatcher, cut university budgets and introduced massive changes in a traditional system that used to work quite well, at least for the social elite. An essentially populist policy championed by the Tories (who would have thought it?) led to the conversion of a large number of former polytechnics into universities. A broad swath of students were thus given access to university education and a university diploma, but the by-product of this development has been a decline in the standards and prestige of Britain's premier universities. It has also led to a stark discrepancy between a small number of first-class research universities and a much larger group of second-tier institutions, not entirely unlike the French arrangement. 2

Finance. As suggested by the foregoing sketch of structure, how universities are financed plays a major role in how they fare. Since a majority of countries finance higher education through the government, most attempts to serve the "demand to know" get translated into budget increases for higher education. But Ministries of Finance are reluctant to shift money to the education budget from other areas, particularly in hard economic times. One reason for this is that challenges offered by the slow decline of the university system seem less urgent to policymakers than, say, the collapse of an industry.

There are exceptions in enlightened countries. The British government committed itself in 2003 to increase spending on research in 2005-06 by 30 percent in order to make up for the massive cuts of previous decades. The governments of Singapore and Taiwan have stood out by making massive investments in higher education and advanced research. Other governments have made selective investments in what they see as strategic areas: the Swiss government for quite some time now in the ETH (the Swiss equivalent of MIT) in Zurich and the Indian government in the ten branches of the Indian Institute of Technology. In Europe a special effort is invested to stem the brain drain of first-class economists, and the Chinese government is determined to build a first-class upper tier university system in keeping with China's larger quest for global leadership.

A particularly controversial potential source of income is higher tuition requirements. The United States is unique in that saving for a college education or incurring a large debt in order to finance higher education for oneself (or one's children) is acceptable to a significant portion of the population. Not so in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe, where government attempts to impose or increase tuition have encountered stiff opposition by ideological proponents of the welfare state, or, as in France especially, by the students themselves.

Two exceptions are Australia, where a creative program was developed for easing the pain of tuition burdens, and Great Britain, where tuition was imposed and then increased with payment deferred until after graduation. British and Australian universities are also the beneficiaries of tuition collected from a large number of foreign students, many of whom are subsidized by their governments.

In Israel the debate over tuition has become a permanent fixture of academic and political life. Nowadays the Ministry of Finance is expressing a willingness to restore to the higher education budget the 20 percent or so cut earlier in the decade, but it insists on linking the restoration to a tuition increase and to further reforms in university governance and faculty remuneration.

Another way to increase university revenues is to commercialize intellectual property. For some universities this has been a major source of income, but it has also given rise to a number of interesting controversies: the respective share given to the institution and to the faculty member who created the intellectual property; the tendency to overemphasize applied over basic research in order to increase institutional and personal revenue; and questions of principle between pragmatists interested in additional resources and purists who think that the academic ethos should not be corrupted by financial considerations. The latter argue that the intellectual property should be "given back" to the society that supports the university.

A similar debate has arisen in the United States over the opening of branches of several major universities in the Persian Gulf. Academic purists protest against what they see as yet another manifestation of the "corporatization" of the university, while university administrators and other faculty members feel that this is an important dimension of the globalization of the university, as well as an important source of funding in the context of a receding economy.

Philanthropy as a major source of university funding is essentially a U.S. phenomenon. Great Britain is the one other country where donations and endowments play an important role (particularly at Oxford and Cambridge). Elsewhere, the convergence of wealth accumulation, tax benefits and a particular civic tradition of giving to universities is non-existent.

Governance and Academic Freedom. Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale and a former Dean of Yale College, analyzed the state of the American university in the September 2006 issue of Commentary. The essay was inspired by the resignation of Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, and offered a scathing criticism of undergraduate education at Harvard and of Harvard's faculty. But as the title ("As Goes Harvard?") suggests, Kagan believes Harvard's faculty represents much of what is wrong with the faculty of other U.S. universities: interested in its own research; uninterested in undergraduate education; powerful, complacent and resistant to change:

As things stand now, no president appears capable of taming the imperial faculty; almost none is willing to try; and no one else from inside the world of the universities or infected by its self-serving culture is likely to stand up and say 'enough' or to be followed by anyone if he does. Salvation, if it is to come at all, will have to come from without.

In light of Kagan's call for "salvation from without", it is interesting to look at the academic reaction to a report prepared during the same year by a commission headed by Margaret Spellings, President Bush's Secretary of Education. The Spellings Report, published in September 2006, was initiated in order "to consider how best to improve our system of higher education to ensure that our graduates are well prepared to meet our future workforce needs and are able to participate fully in the changing economy." In its wake a task force was put together in order to assess its impact. In its own report the Task Force noted that:

The intention of the commission may well have been to offer a reflective analysis of a national problem and a thoughtful and mobilizing call for collaborative action. But in spite of its laudatory comments and efforts to describe the problems as shared challenges, many-if not most-in the higher education community regarded the report as an attack on U.S. colleges and universities.

In other words, once the euphemisms and code words are set aside, faculty and academic administrators closed ranks against what they perceived as yet another attempt by conservative Republicans to suborn U.S. universities in such a way as to bring them closer to their own notion of higher education.

Underlying these debates are the interrelated issues of university governance and academic freedom. The faculty sees itself as the core and (in more romantic terms) as the soul of the university, and hence as rightfully having the ultimate say in academic matters. Academic freedom is a sacred principle designed to protect the faculty member's freedom to think and express himself or herself within the institution, immune from internal or external attempts to quash dissenting views.

Of course, most faculty members realize that the university does not exist in a vacuum and that the external funders have a legitimate say about the management of academic institutions. They likewise realize that even a community of scholars needs to be administered, and that the university as an economic entity needs to be managed in order to remain solvent. And yet there has been a ceaseless tug of war between faculties and university administrators and external authorities over the right balance between the faculty's quest for academic sovereignty, or at least autonomy, and demands for efficiency, relevance and change that many academics resent.

When Americans look at these debates, they see trouble. When foreigners look at them, they are as likely to see vibrancy and a healthy set of tensions. There is thus a gaping discrepancy between the often acrimonious and soul-searching debates that go on in the United States over the health of the American university and the sense prevailing outside the country that the United States has the best universities in the world, not least because of the American model of university governance. Well, not for the first time what you see is a function of where you sit.

It is possible, however, to sit too low and thus see too little. If one reads through the many reports produced during the past decade or so by several national commissions and consulting groups on the state of higher education systems-I don't recommend it for the sake of entertainment, by the way- one is struck by the similarity in their tone and contents.3 They all speak of the need to prepare the next generation for playing a role in cutting-edge fields designed to boost the national economy. They all seek to balance an elitist quest for excellence with social justice, and the cultivation of excellence with the massive quest for higher education. The approach is, on the whole, resolutely instrumentalist.

And that is what is wrong with it, and why nothing these commissions recommend to their respective governments will help them adopt elements of the American model. What seems to have been lost in all of this is the traditional idea of the university as an institution that, beyond the teaching, research and the transmission of knowledge, plays a unique role in generating fresh ideas, educating young people to think independently and critically, and preserving and extending the traditional body of cultural heritage-and so we return to what Professor Volkov was trying to impart in her column.

The university's relationship with its external environment is charged with tension. The university needs the support of state and society, and it is indeed a pillar of civil society. But it must also take a critical view of them from without. It is a home to public intellectuals whose relationship with state and society is at best ambivalent. Government budgeting agencies and sometimes even boards of trustees tend to think in terms of inputs and outputs. It is difficult for them to see why a university should have a department of classics with ten line positions and tiny classes when budgets are limited.

Of course, that kind of thinking explains why the faculty want to be the arbiters of what it is they should be doing. They want to cultivate the humanities and the basic sciences, the traditional core of the university, and they resent the emphasis on professional schools and applied science. This quest can be abused and can never be fully divorced from budgetary constraints. But it is important to remember that when seeking to improve the system of higher education, we must not lose the essence of what the university is in the process. We must not nourish the body at the expense of destroying the soul.

In the end it is the autonomy, scope of private governance and widespread social devotion to both philanthropy and well-financed higher education in the United States that ensures the global superiority of its institutions of higher learning, and these are cultural characteristics that other countries will be hard-pressed to replicate. As the United States enters into hard economic times, one can imagine temptations arising to repudiate what is, after all, an expensive system. That would be the mother of all mistakes.

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