Posted tagged ‘Harvard University’

Charles W. Eliot, and the nobility of ideas

November 10, 2015

There are certain books, I would argue, that everyone who has an interest in higher education should read at some point. One of these without doubt is a collection of essays by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University for an amazing 40 years until 1909 and a cousin of the celebrated poet T.S. Eliot, published in 1898 under the title Educational Reform. It was Eliot who turned Harvard into the world leading university it is today, and along the way he contributed to some really interesting public debate about the nature and purpose of higher education.

The book is full of fascinating reflections on a variety of subjects connected with education, but it is best for the reader to start with the first essay, which is in fact Eliot’s inaugural address, delivered at the beginning of his presidency when he was only 35 years old. This essay not only sets out Eliot’s views on education, but also illustrates, by describing the system he had taken on, how much he managed to change it during his presidency. But it also contains insights that are still important today, including this:

‘The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities and public schools, from primary to professional. The worthy fruit of academic culture is an open mind, trained to careful thinking, instructed in the methods of philosophic investigation, acquainted in a general way with the accumulated thought of past generations, and penetrated with humility.’

In the same essay Eliot suggested that the task of the university is to make people (well, he said ‘men’, but they were different times) ‘be loyal to noble ideas as in other times they had been to kings’. Today one would say that different universities can and should have different missions, but the integrity of intellectual thought – ‘noble ideas’ – needs to be common to all institutions still. Eliot’s ideas are worth reading.

University assets

January 28, 2014

Here’s an interesting news item from Bloomberg. American university endowments are faring well again as investments are once more producing much better returns. That’s not what I am drawing attention to, however. The article also tells us that the 835 institutions surveyed between them hold $448.6 billion of assets. This means that the average US university has reserves of some $537 million. Wrapped up in that is Harvard’s mouth-watering  $32.7 billion, a sum that would allow it to bail out Greece if it wished.

We should not however sit around in amazement, those of us in other countries need to do something to build up viable reserves. University endowments are not about creating luxury in higher education, they are about creating an ability to invest in real excellence, and also to provide proper supports for students who not so well off. US graduates have long accepted that supporting their university is one of the things that you do, and this acceptance allowed American universities to become truly world-beating. We need to develop the same habits. We need to create the kind of reserves that allow universities to secure their future and to avoid that constant knife-edge budgeting that afflicts most universities across the world. We need our universities to be really excellent and to invest in the future of all parts of society.

Money matters

October 13, 2011

Here’s an interesting statistic: Harvard University, with an enormous endowment of over $30 billion, hands out more annually in student scholarships than my university gets in income from all sources. Its overall annual income is over 20 times that of Robert Gordon University. In fact, its endowment could pay the full running costs of the entire British higher education sector for a full year; and its annual income is nearly twice that of the entire Irish university sector.

This tells us a number of things. First, however fast other university systems are developing, they won’t catch up with the US any time soon. Secondly, Harvard’s wealth is largely a product of the generosity of its graduates, and on this side of the Atlantic universities must also engage much more closely with the alumni community. Thirdly, financial support for those from a disadvantaged background is a vital part of a successful university system, and I suspect we’ll find that Harvard is paying out more for this than is made available in all of Britain and Ireland put together.

Of course Harvard is not typical in every respect of the US university sector. But even if it were a complete outlier (which it is not) its financial strength should give us pause for thought. There is a real risk that the relatively modestly resourced universities in Europe will lose out to the powerful US ones and the emerging institutions in Asia.

The funding of higher education is, at some level, a social contract. It is an expression of how society wants its universities to develop, and what role it wants them to play. It is unlikely that many universities over here will rival Harvard for money any time soon, but we must start to plan for the longer game. Set against the fees-and-funding chaos in England and the great funding uncertainties in Ireland, Scotland is having a much more stable experience as the government keeps to its promise to close the funding gap between England and Scotland. But at some time here too there will need to be a larger debate about the future: about what we expect of universities, how they will be paid for it, and what contribution they can make to society beyond education.

Diversity of mission?

July 20, 2011

During a strategic planning exercise in Dublin City University a couple of years ago, I did a presentation in which I set out a number of mission statements from a variety of universities. Some of the universities were old – ancient, indeed – some were new, some were teaching-intensive, some research intensive, some were in major cities, some served sparsely population regions. I produced the mission statements, and in a separate order, the names of the universities; I then asked those present to see whether they could correctly link the universities to their missions. And of course they couldn’t – these statements were entirely interchangeable. They all said they wanted their institution to be as good as you could imagine in teaching, research, community engagement and innovation; or some such stuff. Some were able to say this quite snappily, some needed several paragraphs and long words. But really they all said the same thing.

What does this suggest? It could suggest, as one person argued at my presentation, that nobody should bother with such stuff anyway; mission statements are put together without much imagination, and probably as an after-thought to strategic planning, rather than as a foundation for it. Or it could suggest that, despite all claims to the contrary, in the end all universities have a very similar mission, and the differentiating factor is not what they do, but how good they are at doing it. That would be bad news for my present institution, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But what do we mean when we say that? How different are any of us, really?

Until now the key differentiator between universities, when all is said and done, has been money. When you have more resources, you can do different things. I suspect that many of us believe that if we had Harvard University’s reserves we’d be doing what Harvard does. But then again, some of us also increasingly think that, in today’s society, we need much greater diversity in higher education, not born out of necessity but based on genuine strategic intent. This probably sounds obvious enough to many, but in reality it isn’t. Diversity of mission to date hasn’t necessarily been based on strategic choice but on the recognition of inevitability. Those universities that stress their local role and teaching credentials are, I suspect, often doing so because they don’t have the resources to claim anything else with credibility. There’s nothing altogether wrong with that, because strategy is often in part about recognising what is achievable and then making that work for you. But there is an underlying hint that focusing on a local population and a teaching agenda is for the less well endowed and more modest institutions, and that therefore this agenda is in some ways not as good.

However, higher education now needs to find excellence in different contexts. We need to get away from the idea that, taking the UK as an example, Russell Group universities represent a ‘better’ and more excellent model of higher education. We need to have universities that aim to be world leaders, which includes leadership in research, but based on different strategic models. Some of this may be found in subject specialisation – the prioritisation of a smaller number of key areas – or in forms of teaching and learning innovation, or in support for economic development in a region (including perhaps a mission to address disadvantage), or in particular kinds of partnerships. But universities should not really be satisfied with a strategic model that is based on inferiority: we won’t have the resources to develop a global reputation, so we’ll concentrate on something more modest.

I have just tried to have a more up-to-date look at university mission statements, and interestingly many of those I looked at last time no longer publish one. But if they did, I hope that we might see the signs of a genuine commitment to diversity that is based on something more positive than being resigned to what is realistic, something that suggests that universities want to be excellent in their own way and have the confidence to believe in what they are doing, so that they would still do it even if they became very rich. In our fantasies, we shouldn’t all want to be Harvard.

Have examinations failed?

July 20, 2010

Earlier this year I wrote a post for this blog in which I wondered whether continuous assessment as the principal form of evaluating student performance could be sustained, given budgetary constraints and the problems of plagiarism. But even as I was thinking such thoughts, elsewhere the opposite trend was being mooted: in Harvard University (according to Harvard Magazine) the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has adopted a motion that provides that unless the lecturer declares otherwise well in advance, courses will no longer have end-of-term exams. The current position in Harvard is that only 258 out of 1,137 courses still have any final exams, and it is likely that this number will now drop much further.

So what are we to conclude?  Probably that the whole framework of assessing academic programmes needs to be re-considered. On the one hand, current pedagogical thinking suggests that continuous assessment may be the most appropriate way of evaluating students; on the other hand, continuous assessment is so labour intensive that in the current funding environment it may no longer be affordable. The problem right now is that the strategic reviews of higher education are focusing on organisational structure, but are largely neglecting vital pedagogical issues such as this.

We are no longer sure what exactly it is that we need to assess, and how we should assess it. Answering that question is much more important than wondering about whether our universities and colleges should merge. But nobody is really addressing it.

Small is ugly?

February 19, 2010

The announcement of the strategic partnership between NUI Galways and the University of Limerick was made in the presence of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen TD, and senior government ministers. The following in the report by the Irish Times caught my eye:

‘He [the Taoiseach] said universities working alone were limited by their relatively small size in comparison with competitor institutions. “However, by working together they can begin to have a much bigger impact.”‘

I certainly don’t wish to detract in any way from the significance of this new partnership, but I do wish that politicians would stop talking about size as an important element in the success of a university. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that size on its own is an advantage. Harvard University, which is recognised in the league tables as the number 1 university in the world, has roughly 11,000 students, which makes it smaller than either Limerick or NUI Galway. Princeton University (also in the global top 10) has 7,500 students. And California Institute of Technology (usually know as Caltech, also in the global top 10) has 2,100 students.

On the other end of the spectrum, not one of the 100 biggest universities in the world (by any form of measurement) features in the global top 500.

The significance of this is that we must identify correctly what allows a university to score highly in global comparisons, and it isn’t size. In fact, what allows universities to lead in the rankings is very simple: resources and autonomy. The more money that universities can invest in faculty, in facilities and services, in equipment and in materials, the more likely it is that they will be key global players. And the more they can develop key strategies independently of bureaucratic control, the more effective is their use of those investments. Of course the extent to which they can strategically use their resources to maximum effect, for example by finding partners who can complement their strengths, will also make a difference, and given the extraordinary lack of resources for Irish universities even in the good times we have done very well indeed.

There are strong arguments for supporting the Galway-Limerick alliance, and I believe that their launch statement has some very exciting and entirely workable objectives. Both institutions are also committed to developing and securing collaboration with other institutions also. They have also made a strong case for the benefits they will be able to achieve from linking some of their key teams. But what will not determine their success is the combined numerical strength of their institutions.

Unless politicians understand what allows universities to be successful, they will not be able to support us in securing that aim. And if they do not understand the significance of viable resourcing in an autonomous setting, they do not understand higher education. There is still much ground to cover.