No country dominates any industry as much as the US 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 in the US, with Harvard topping the list by a substantial margin.
The traditional explanation for this phenomenon — the US’ wealth, large population, generous research funding, widespread private philanthropy and ability to attract academics from around the world — is incomplete. Although the US boasts the world’s largest economy, it comprises only one-quarter of global GDP, and possesses roughly one-20th 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: the US’ 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. However, 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 alumnis’ 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 like the University of Notre Dame and Duke University.
Today, 19 of the top 20 US universities in US 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. Alumni run the show even at public institutions such as Purdue (90 percent) and Michigan (63 percent). On average, alumni make up 63 percent of the boards of the top 100 US universities, both public and private.