9/22/2012

An interesting History of Government involvement in the Running of Harvard: The early years

I don't see how alumni control is responsible for American universities doing so well, though I can definitely believe that it is the lack of direct government control that is important.
. . . 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. 
CommentsWhen Harvard alumni dominated the Massachusetts legislature, the university was given support and consideration. But, in the 1840’s, mass immigration, fueled by the Irish potato famine, altered the state’s demographic balance, enabling populists to gain control of the legislature. 
CommentsAlmost 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. 
CommentsIn 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 bi-cameral legislature), owing to intense lobbying and the goodwill generated by Harvard alumni’s distinguished service for the Union during the Civil War. Since then, Harvard’s Board of Overseers, has been controlled exclusively by alumni. . . .
Here is an interesting fact, though again there is no evidence that it is alumni control versus independence from the government that is responsible.
Today, 19 of the top 20 American universities in US News and World Report’s much-watched rankings are controlled by alumni (defined as 50% or more representation on the Board of Trustees). The only exception, the California Institute of Technology, has a board with 40% alumni representation. Of the top five, three (Harvard, Yale, and Columbia) are managed entirely by alumni, and two (Princeton and Stanford) are under 90% alumni control. Alumni run the show even at public institutions such as Purdue (90%) and Michigan (63%). On average, alumni make up 63% of the boards of the top 100 US universities, both public and private. . . . 

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