Knight… the advantages of a private endowment are obvious

Challenges to the modern university

TODAY THE MODERN university is going through an especially heart-rending time of challenges.
While the university has always had to change in response to the times, to local circumstance and to specific local conditions, the challenges of today are tantamount not only to a change in degree but also a fundamental change in the nature of the institution. Administering the contemporary university is almost like riding an unbroken horse. Every aspect of the university is currently being seriously reviewed as both university and society examine their reciprocal roles and responsibilities in the changing modern state.

Contrary to much popular belief, the modern university did not pioneer higher education. Long before the first European university – the University of Bologna in northern Italy – received its legal academic charter in 1158, monks and nuns everywhere were training students in monastic schools in various specialised subjects. Some of these monastic schools go back as early as the sixth century and the teaching was individualistic, erratic and sometimes eccentric.

Latin was the common institutional language then and the new entities declared themselves to be a “universitas” or autonomous body similar to any recognised craft guild. That was the sentiment that propelled the organisation of scholars at some of the earliest European universities such as Oxford (organised around 1096, charter granted in 1248), Vicenza (1204), Cambridge (1209), Palencia (1212), Salamanca (1218), Padua (1222), Naples (1224), Toulouse (1229), Orléans 1235), Siena (1240), Valladolid (1241), Coimbra (1290), Alcalá (1293), and Florence (1321). Since literacy was uncommon, a small group of people speaking Latin among themselves did not provoke curiosity among the broader population. In this sense the university was a marginal institution to the society at large. Eventually that would change.

Early universities developed gradually from these monastic schools. By the later eleventh and during the twelfth centuries – at the same time that the art of distilling alcoholic spirits began to proliferate throughout Europe largely under the auspices of clergymen – scholars began to legitimise their guilds by seeking and obtaining collective self-regulating legal rights from towns, or monarchs, or important local princes. Sometimes, as in the case of Bologna, the initiative came from the students. Sometimes the initiative came from both teachers and their pupils such as the case of the University of Paris. Some universities in Spain and southern Italy tended to have royal sponsorship since they were designed to serve the specific needs of government and provide bureaucrats for the benefactor. Linking universities and government moved them from the periphery to the centre.

The distinguishing feature of the early modern university was an inherent intellectual curiosity. New areas of study were constantly being added to the curriculum, although different universities would focus on different subjects. By the early modern period most universities offered an increasingly broad range of courses in law, theology, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, mathematics, medicine, logic, grammar, rhetoric, astronomy and astrology. Theology, law and the humanistic studies tended to dominate, especially when the mastery of grammar and oratory gradually became a principal focus of all humanistic studies.

The invention of the printing press had a remarkable impact on university studies. It reduced the importance of the scribe in the manual production of texts and facilitated the propagation of all sorts of information beyond the formal fields of study. One consequence was the eventual abandonment of Latin as the principal language of communication within the university community and the adoption of various vernacular languages. Nevertheless most universities required knowledge of Latin among its entry requirements. Until the eighteenth century most university scholars still supported the idea that the acquisition of a general body of knowledge was the most distinguishable characteristic of a university education.

Then came the scientific revolutions concurrent with the Age of Enlightenment beginning toward the end of the seventeenth century, and with it a slow divergence between the fields of science and the fields of humanistic studies. Inevitably epistemological tensions developed between the two fields. By the middle of the nineteenth century, some German universities began to emphasise individual research, collective seminars, specialised research laboratories and specialised publications for their different fields of study. This was the model for the Johns Hopkins University in the United States of America, the only US university that began as a primarily research institution rather than grow out of a lesser, more modest collegial enterprise. Until 1973 the Johns Hopkins University enrolled more graduate students than undergraduate students among its corporate body but by the 1990s undergraduates would outnumber graduates by about 5:1.

The rise of the scientific revolution – which in many senses is still ongoing – was not the only challenge to the nature, structure and operation of the modern university. The industrial revolution and the expansion of capitalism globally also provided further incentives for broadening the composition of the university as well as its curricular offerings. The rise of the economic middle classes during the nineteenth century emphasised the expansion of literacy and higher education for the masses. Nowhere was this more obvious than with the establishment of the so-called “Land Grant” colleges across the United States by the Morrill Act of 1862. Endowed with generous land and cash grants from the federal government, the donations to the states encouraged “the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering”. The new universities were given the responsibility for training the teachers who helped the non-certified attain a level of literacy where they could become the enthusiastic consumers of books and newspapers. They could also educate themselves independently but that was a collateral development. The university would change in tandem with the times. The Morrill Act linked capitalism, marketing, commerce and citizenship.

By the middle of the twentieth century public universities relied heavily on governments for their financial support. In some cases in the United States more than eighty per cent of the operating expenses of public universities came from the federal government. Even privately endowed universities such as the prestigious eight Ivy League Universities – Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale – received significant financial support from the federal as well as state governments. That situation would change rapidly as well as dramatically within a very short period. By 2000 public support for public universities averaged less than 30 per cent of operating needs.

After the Second World War governments – at least in the West – began to envision a new role for the university in society. Increasingly higher education became included in the growing list of entitled human rights, popularised with the establishment of the United Nations in 1947. The changing public attitude was captured in the famous Robbins Report published by the British government in 1963.The report advocated that Great Britain should build at least 28 new universities and convert many of its existing technical schools into universities. It recommended that university admission “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment”. Furthermore, the Robbins Report declared that British universities should have four principal “objectives essential to any properly balanced system: instruction in skills; the promotion of the general powers of the mind so as to produce not more specialists but rather cultivated men and women; to maintain research in balance with teaching, since teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.

The broadening consensus regarding the attendance at a university as a form of entitlement had a number of unforeseen consequences, especially for publicly supported institutions. Public institutions slowly lost their valued institutional autonomy. It could not have been otherwise. After all, he who pays the piper eventually calls the tune. A combination of the population explosion in the middle decades of the twentieth century accompanied by the easing of entry requirements led to a rapid expansion of university students. In some places such as in the United States, university tuition was included in the generous benefits allocated to soldiers returning from the Great War. Universities and colleges expanded their physical facilities to accommodate the newly admitted students. Then after the 1960s came a successive series of economic recessions that significantly diminished public fiscal resources. The decline in public support could not be balanced by a connected reduction in the physical facilities or administrative costs of the expanded institutions designed to accommodate the new constituency of students. Something had to give.

One understandable response of universities to their new realities was to emphasise their marketability. Universities started to organise themselves along the lines of commercial enterprises. A new institutional language grew up to reflect the changing role of the university in society. Universities placed great importance on defining their “brand” and establishing their market niche. Acquiring fee-paying students became more and more important. Satisfying fee-paying students became an end in itself, especially among for-profit academic institutions. In some cases students were referred to as “clients” and teaching faculty as “managers”. Institutional administrators merited not only annual incentive salary increases but arbitrarily awarded production bonuses. Tuition fees were designated “revenue streams”. Comparative academic rankings were potential marketing tools. Dormitory and associated living conditions on campuses took precedence over classrooms and instructional tools. Even full-time faculty became dispensable. As certification took increasing importance over education, students naturally saw a correlation between rapidly increasing tuition charges and their entitlement to a terminal degree regardless of the qualification attained through learning and the acquisition of wisdom. The slope got even more slippery when students began to assume that entertainment in the classroom was more important than instruction, and to blur the differences between the two. Universities found it prudent, for the sake of the bottom line, to cater to the idiosyncratic demands of the students rather than the necessities of the state. It was probably enough to have Lord Robbins scratching his head.

Imposing tuition fees is not the only way that the modern university seeks to balance its books. Taking a leaf out of the history of private universities in the United States, a number of public universities have sought to establish endowment funds from the generosity of their more successful graduated students, from licensing any research results with market potential, and by cooperating with industrial enterprises in specific product research and development. Some universities have been very successful in developing these new revenue streams.

Privately managed endowments are essential to the modern university. In the United States where this sort of benevolence originated, building the endowment fund is of paramount importance to both public and private universities. The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, was established by a private gift of US$6 million – then an awful lot of money – in 1876. Today the ten universities in the US with the largest private endowments – Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Texas A&M, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and the University of Notre Dame – average more than US$8 billion, with the Harvard endowment well in excess of US$36 billion. The Harvard University endowment exceeds the gross domestic product of any Caribbean state. It is important to note that two public universities – the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Texas A&M are public universities.

The advantages of a private endowment are obvious. Indeed, no institution worthy of its name can afford to be without its own endowment. It permits using gifted money to grow more money. In fiscal year 2014 alone, the Harvard endowment grew by more than US$4 billion, more than the gross domestic product of many member states in the United Nations. The revenues from endowment investments are largely ploughed back into the investment pool. The percentage that is drawn down is deployed to enhance the overall quality of the institution: buildings and ground maintenance; controlling tuition rates, improving faculty and staff salaries; introducing classroom technology, boosting research needs, and creating international outreach. In other words, a good endowment fund allows any institution to weather more successfully the challenges to the modern university.

The history of the modern university is that it has always been forced to respond to time, place and circumstances. When it has failed to do so it has perished. That history also graphically illustrates how resilient and creative academic institutions have been through the ages.
Pull quote
‘A good endowment fund allows any institution to weather more successfully the challenges to the modern university’