The Presidential University?

Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

A TPM Reader passed on to us this post from David Pozen writing at Balkinization on the recent events at Columbia University. But Pozen sets aside the specific controversy — Gaza, antisemitism, the use of the NYPD — to look at what is shows about university governance more generally. As he writes, “For all the talk of how the modern university has been corporatized, neoliberalized, and so on, there hasn’t been as much attention paid to the ways in which it has been presidentialized.” I don’t know enough about the history of the internal governance of universities over the last century to have a good feel for how much has changed on this front. My general sense is that boards of trustees, acting through university presidents, have always called the shots, at least in the final analysis. But there’s where ultimate power lies and there’s how government actually functions — how much university administration seeks to create consensus among major stakeholders versus acting in a more unilateral way. I’m still digesting what I think of the post but I wanted to flag it to your attention.

Pozen gets into the related question of university endowments and whether and why they don’t give universities more independence from major donors or economic vicissitudes. That’s another interesting discussion. I will add that I’m reminded of a number of messages I got from Princeton University at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, a major crisis for university budgets. Many alums were saying, we’ve got the biggest per capita endowment in the country. Isn’t this the kind of crisis you have an endowment for? If I remember the response it was essentially, well, it’s all committed. In other words, Yes we’re sitting on billions and billions of dollars but, planned out years into future, we have budget commitments that are based on the earnings from the endowment. So we’re really not in a position to dip into if there’s a major shortfall because we have to shut down the campus. I don’t know if I’m remembering that perfectly. Perhaps it doesn’t apply everywhere equally. But the answer seemed to be, no. The endowment doesn’t buffer the role of donors and political allies as much as one might think. In any case, another interesting topic to consider.

Latest Editors' Blog
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: