American research universities are confronting two paths of development. One will be for a smaller number of mostly private and public/near-private institutions to continue to pursue a broad research agenda.
The other path will be for the majority of American research universities, most of which are public, state-assisted institutions. Those institutions – many of which are historical land-grant universities -- may harbor global ambitions, but their research will have to be much more focused. The sorts of presidents who can best serve these two paths are, not surprisingly, different.
Best in the World ... for Now
The American research university came about as a result of a very self-conscious determination to emulate the German university of the late 19th century but nevertheless retain a sizable undergraduate population. These institutions reconciled the missions of undergraduate education and institutional emphasis on research and scholarship by ensuring that those students admitted were the “best and the brightest” and therefore able to understand and benefit from professors whose first love was research.
Timing for the emergence of the American research university was exquisite, coming as the industrial revolution was making a few men extraordinarily wealthy. These scions of business and industry – Rockefeller, Stanford, the Mellons, Carnegie, Vanderbilt – could and did bestow private philanthropy on what were, in some cases, vocational and technical schools, and afforded them the means to grow swiftly and substantively.
American research universities were able to respond to the increasing involvement of the U.S. in world affairs throughout the 20th century and take advantage of national policies that provided federal support for research, initially for national defense, then for international development and more recently for combating diseases and improving health.
Today, the Carnegie Foundation classifies 297 American institutions, or just over 5 percent of the 5,800 colleges and universities of all types in the U.S., as research universities. This is a small fraction and therefore all the more remarkable viewed in comparison with the rest of the world’s research universities.
- Seven U.S. research universities are among the Times Higher Education (THE) top institutions; one of the seven is a public university.
- Among the top 25 of THE rankings, 18 are American, of which five are public.
- THE’s top 50 includes 30 U.S. institutions, 13 of them public and four of those from the University of California. (The Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings are quite similar but show more American institutions among the top 10, 25 and 50.)
These rankings – their shortcomings and limitations duly noted – reinforce the estimation that American research universities are at present the gold standard for the rest of the world. And it is the American version of what a research university is that continues to provide the silhouette that presidential candidates will have to try to fill. But it will be a global research university that the next generation of presidents will lead, although institutional research agendas will differ from broad to focused.
The American Global Research University
Borrowing in part from Jamil Salmi of the World Bank,  we describe the American research university in terms of its essential components, the attributes that make an institution a global research university.
First, a global research university is home to a very large number of remarkably talented people – professors, students, staff, administrators -- who, in turn, attract successive waves of talented individuals literally from around the world and thereby replenish the store of talent needed to sustain such an organization.
Second, global research universities are wealthy, period. Even if nominally government-supported, most such institutions have amassed (sometimes in rather short order) large endowments, a rich portfolio of real estate holdings, and credit worthiness that assures them easy access to capital.
Third, many of the highest-ranked, most prestigious global research universities are already or will become in time de facto private institutions with substantial autonomy from government control. Indeed, for the elders of the group, their own internal bureaucracies and controls sometimes pose more challenges than any formal external regulators.
For some public research universities “privatization” is the more recent effect of states’ inability or unwillingness to subsidize those institutions as in the past and does constrain global aspirations. But their origins (often as land-grant institutions) and their governance structures can also inhibit their research ambitions and require careful rationalization of the ones pursued in order to satisfy public accountabilities.
Fourth, research universities are global in scope, recruiting talented persons with little regard for national borders and operating formally and informally in any number of countries around the world at any one time.
Fifth, the perceived superiority of the American research university remains intact, notwithstanding the recent surge of several countries, most notably China. This perception serves to draw interest and engagement from entities and organizations, including other universities, from around the world in much the same fashion that the critical mass of human talent attracts ever more talented people who wish to become part of the research university. At least one of the implications of this status is that “brand” – a term some members of a research university would find offensive as applied to their endeavors – is one of the most valuable assets. As a result, presidents of these institutions will need to be very vigilant in seeking out and accepting partnerships.
Sixth, global research universities are products of the time, so strength in the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics – otherwise known as STEM - is a prerequisite for membership in the group of research universities. Strength in medicine and health sciences is also critical as is an institution’s capacity to bring to bear multi- and inter-disciplinary approaches to the study of large-scale, complex subjects.
Last, global research universities are almost inherently porous and transparent enterprises, which -- ironically, given their high costs --, readily disseminate for free or nearly so the fruits of most research.
Survival of the Global
The course ahead for America’s research universities divides, we believe, and will summon forth somewhat different presidential attributes depending on which route presidents and boards decide to pursue.
The mostly private/independent universities that make up so much of American representation in any ranking enjoy advantages that will enable them to remain or become the top global research universities.
Their relative autonomy from state government legislation and regulation, the lack of an obligation to serve needs of specific jurisdictions and claimants, the sheer size of their wealth and increasing experience in working outside the United States – these factors alone will make the transition from a national to a global institution less complex, notwithstanding the broad scope of the university’s engagement.
By contrast, most of the other American research universities will find pursuing a broad global path of development a much more difficult undertaking. Because so many of these institutions are state-supported (however modestly), they already have many claimants for time, attention, energy and financial resources that could divert the allocation from a global path of development comparable to the broad scope of their private peer institutions. Instead, the majority of the nearly 300 American research institutions will find it necessary to sharpen and ultimately limit the range of activities and fields of inquiry directed internationally to those for which a compelling rationale can be made to their various stakeholders. Ultimately, what is likely to be required is a refinement of institutional mission and focus of resources and talent toward a selection of meaningful activities that -- foremost -- reflect a rich history and an obligation to serve the state.
The two groups – those mostly private and quasi-public universities capable in our opinion of scaling to global dimensions, and those primarily public institutions that will have to choose carefully how they operate globally – share the recognition that higher education involving a strong research mission is no longer a nation-centric enterprise but a global one. The trick is to calibrate one’s ambitions to the realities of resources available to pursue a global mission.
Our assessment is that some institutions – mainly those that are private and public with large endowments, perhaps fewer than 60-75 – will be able to maintain and even expand the scope of their research agenda. We doubt that all of the public research universities -- whether state flagship or land-grant institution or both -- can do the same.
The majority of U.S. research universities will need to reconfigure themselves and their research focuses more precisely and more explicitly and marshal their energies and resources in selected and less-ambitious research agendas. This internal transition will require governing boards and presidents together to embrace a different, more modest conception of a research institution and settle for something that may well be perceived by some within and outside the university to be less.
At the same time, it is worth noting that some of the characteristics of the times in which several American and now global research universities emerged at the end of the 19th and early in the 20th centuries are again present. As income inequality has grown, the numbers of individuals whose wealth exceeds several billion dollars have also grown, so there are persons today who have the wherewithal to endow a new research university and launch it. And if the long-term secular trends of most endowments were to materialize, a new university could be assured of a future.
Moreover, we live in a time in which the rate at which new knowledge is produced has accelerated dramatically, so a new research university able to contribute to discovery and innovation could attain global status relatively quickly and not have to have been in existence for several centuries.
Whether a research university remains in such high standings is at least partly a function of the quality of leadership they are provided by another generation of presidents who will enter office in what is surely a field of global competition.
American research universities will require two kinds of presidents and boards: one to accelerate their institutions as global enterprises, the other to sharpen research agenda and, in some cases ironically enough, rediscover their roots as states’ flagships and 21st-century land-grant institutions.
Presidents of globally competitive research institutions will need to dedicate considerable time recruiting the best talent available, and not only faculty and senior administrators. The technical and technological support required by researchers necessitates having very talented staff and those persons are no more plentiful than other specialized occupations, so they too will have to be recruited, regardless of where they reside.
Presidents will need to understand fully the business of research and find means to create environments in which scholars are, and feel themselves to be, free to create as well as respond to new areas of inquiry. This will require presidents to navigate a balancing act of working to ensure researchers the autonomy they need but assuring publics that the research aligns with broader social needs and opportunities.
As research universities engage in major global activities and ever increasingly operate outside the U.S., presidents will need to be vigilant and careful to ensure their institutions’ tax-exempt status in the U.S. is not jeopardized. Given the scrutiny devoted to endowments and foundation purposes in recent years by Congress and the IRS, universities can ill afford to lose those privileges no matter the size of their endowments. This will require that presidents never shy away from public inquiry about the role of the institution in advancing social and economic imperatives.
But as noted, we think the number of American research universities capable of achieving or sustaining global scope will be relatively small in comparison to the nearly 300 U.S. research institutions. The number will be small especially relative to what is likely to be a plethora of countries seeking to advance one or more of their existing or new universities globally. For the larger number of American research universities, we believe their presidents will need to engage their governing boards and faculties in finding ways for their institutions to achieve excellence -- even international excellence -- albeit, in fewer, more discrete and limited realms of inquiry where the utility of research extends beyond discovery to application.
We think that provosts and perhaps some deans from global research universities could be good prospects for presidencies of those institutions that aspire to excellence but lack the capability to achieve comprehensive global status. These leaders know what is required to advance a research university. As a new president, one of these veterans might be well situated to persuade the professoriate and the boards (and alumni, students, donors) that attaining global excellence in one, perhaps two fields is a far better thing to aim for than to muddle through modestly in four or five.
What’s more, many of the mostly public research universities we have concerns for as global aspirants have mandates and missions no less noble than their primarily private peers that harken back to their land grant and/or state flagship status. Focusing on the global dimension specific to state or regional needs and opportunities and then earning success is no mean achievement.
Consequential to both paths of development we envision for American research universities are the risks to institutional brand involved by a significant level of effort internationally. It is not uncommon for an academic president to sense that he or she “controls” precious little of that for which he or she is responsible. But when the institution’s activity extends beyond national borders, the president truly lacks anything approximating control. Accordingly, presidents are well-served by frequent reminders that the protection and preservation of institutional brand is a paramount responsibility, one that is all the more complex in different cultures and legal contexts.
Some American research universities have achieved and still others are seeking to achieve global status. Their success is critical to the nation’s future. The wise president will be one who appreciates those stakes but understands what is required to achieve such status. The wisest board will be the one whose members can sort out and recruit such a president from among what will likely be a chorus of candidates singing siren songs of globalization.
Emily R. Miller is a consultant to the firm of Harris/IIC Partners, executive recruiters for senior administrators and scholars/clinicians at research-intensive universities, academic health/medical centers, and university research parks. Richard A. Skinner is senior consultant to Harris/IIC Partners. He was president of Royal Roads University, in Canada, and of Clayton State University and an online learning unit of the University System of Georgia.