What is a University Today?

Academics comprises only a fraction of these institutions’ functions.

June 17, 2019

In the public mind, Harvard University is synonymous with its undergraduate college, which serves 7,200 students. But two-thirds of Harvard’s residential students are graduate and professional students, and another 22,000 students take at least one course through Harvard Extension. In addition, some 542,000 students worldwide participated in Harvard’s MOOCs in 2015 (the last year for which I was able to obtain statistics).

Harvard has 2,400 professors, lecturers, and instructors who teach undergraduate and graduate students. But its Medical School employs nearly 9,500 faculty members on its campus and with its 15 clinical affiliates and research institutes.

Academics, however, represents only a fraction of Harvard’s functions. It also operates at least 17 museums, five theaters, 19 libraries, and more than a hundred research centers and institutes (including 46 in the Arts & Sciences). Then there are the institution’s 86 or more public service programs which serve 10,000 youths and adults in greater Boston.

In the range of services offered, Harvard is not unique. The University of Texas at Austin has 18 degree granting academic units, an astronomical observatory, 20 libraries, including the LBJ Presidential Library, four museums, 13 on-campus and 25 off-campus research centers, laboratories, and incubators, an online high school, and summer institutes, lifelong learning, continuing education, and at least eight continuing professional and executive education programs.

Nor are flagship campuses wholly different from urban universities and regional comprehensives. The University of Houston includes four independent universities, six multi-institutional regional campuses, a medical and a pharmacy school, eight university centers (in advanced manufacturing, health sciences, superconductivity, and hurricane resilience, among others), and 21 college level research centers (for example, in integrated bio and nano systems, neuro-engineering, neuromotor and biomechanics, nuclear receptors and cell signaling, and seismic research).

Many public flagship, land grant, urban, and regional universities today are the equivalent of small or mid-sized cities, each with its own police force, housing programs, food services, and healthcare system, transportation and parking infrastructure, and entertainment providers.  Most also have their own research parks, technology incubators, extension services, and research centers.

The breadth and reach of the modern university is a relatively recent development. I am struck by how radically universities have changed over the past quarter century. These institutions have become much more public facing and much more expansive in their purview. Supplementing their educational mission are a host of other responsibilities: regional economic development, community service, and health care provision, among other functions.

What might we take away from this discussion?

1.  Universities are much more complicated enterprises than corporations with similar amounts of revenue and expenditures.
Today’s universities have a far broader range of responsibilities than corporations, and are even more subject to government oversight and regulatory compliance. Universities therefore requirement very sophisticated management in a wide range of divisions

2.  Although faculty constitute a significant share of a university’s employees, non-teaching professionals now comprise a majority of their institution’s staff.
University staffing involves a very wide range of highly trained and skilled professionals.  Even those without medical schools include large numbers of information technology professionals, enrollment management, student services, and human resource specialists, procurement and compliance experts, legal counsels, and many other knowledgeable personnel. Institutions need to shift away from a highly hierarchical view of staffing and recognize the professional stature of the whole range of employees.

3.  Academics is no longer these institutions’ predominant purpose.
Many of us may lament the lack of attention devoted to undergraduate teaching at large universities, but this isn’t an accident, a product merely of misplaced priorities or distorted incentives. The fact is that these institutions have multiple goals and high quality teaching is only one of many – though that one function is of the highest interest to donors, foundations, legislators, and parents. (Here, one might note that when the pioneers of the modern research university, like G. Stanley Hall at Clark and Daniel Coit Gilman at Johns Hopkins, tried to create institutions devoted solely to graduate education, they quickly discovered that this path was financially unsustainable.)

4.  The disparities in universities’ resources are deepening.
Even as some urban universities climb in the college rankings and acquire Research 1 status, the gap between the most exclusive institutions, the leading flagships, and regional comprehensives is widening.  Over a quarter of all philanthropic donationswent to just 20 colleges and universities in 2017-18, and a very high proportion of government spending goes to the top 20 institutions.

5.  A new model of what a university is has emerged.
Just as the late 19th century saw the rise of the modern research university (and its inverse, the liberal arts college), the early 21st century has witnessed the advent of a much more comprehensive institution – along with its mirror image, the fully online institution.

Financing this new kind of institution is extraordinarily complex, involving tuition and fees, cross-subsidies, philanthropy, grants, contract research, self-funded, stand-alone initiatives, profit-making ancillaries, borrowing, and patient, client, user and government funding.

Higher education in the United States is unique in many ways. It is, for example, far decentralized and much more segmented, stratified, and competitive than in Australia, Canada, or Western Europe.

It is much more diverse on every imaginable dimension, consisting of institutions that are big and small, for-profit and non-profit, private and public, two-year and four-year, selective and unselective, national, regional, and local, liberal arts and comprehensive, pre-professional and vocational, and secular and religious.

It includes research and teaching-oriented institutions, technology and military institutes, and residential, commuter, and fully online universities.  And colleges and universities carry R&D responsibilities that, in other countries, tend to take place in free-standing institutes and centers.

But for good and ill, students are increasingly concentrated in large, public institutions that are expansive in their mission, uneasily juggling their educational, research, economic development, and public service responsibilities.

Given the expansive range of their functions, these institutions face intense financial strains, administrative challenges, and political pressures that are far greater than we tend to assume.  Still, it is this panoply of responsibilities that gives American higher education the support it needs to fulfill its many roles.  

Steven Mintz, who directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 through 2017, is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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